A sad, sordid, and humorous story of an educated young man who was raised in a brothel, and grew to a life of patriotic heroism and perpetual suffering.
If you feel that the American Revolution was a mean-spirited effort by an upper class of oppressors and their sadistic lackeys, then your opinion will be confirmed by the torments and delights depicted in Johnny One-Eye. Jerome Charyn’s brilliance is found in his voluptuous verbiage and his descriptions of highly improbable situations. It is not, however, revealed in any sort of slavish adherence to historical realism. The British fleet in New York harbor is, “...a series of little islands made of wood and cloth, islands flush with drums and fifes and scarlet coats that could have been the Devil’s own works.” This seems to imply large vessels, much music, and bright red coats. In reality, the shallowness of the harbor meant the largest ship was the HMS Eagle with a hull measuring 44 feet by 160 feet. Drums and fifes would have been in storage and, while modern synthetic dyes might be a brilliant red, the madder root dye used for the coats of the revolutionary rank and file would have started out blood red and quickly faded with exposure to sun and rain. But maybe this lack of realism should not matter. It’s still a lovely sentence.
“Divilish” humor from in Johnny’s first person narration shows no preference for either side of the conflict. In his description of combatants on Long Island in August of ‘76 he says,
“The enemy was a musical clock with bayonets and musket balls. And the rebels could only tap out the pathetic little tunes of individual men.”
The narrator’s humor is less kind, with Johnny suffering beatings and other humiliations almost every ten pages. Connoisseurs of cruelty will regale in the poetry of pain:
“I ... stabbed him in the lower region of his belly, twisted the blade until he rose up in the chair in confusion and pain and complete surprise... His mouth opened like a whale with little yellow teeth. His own fat body pushed down on the sword and his trembling was close to suicide.”
In scenes that must have been inspired by fantasy literature, the philandering Founding Fathers are morphed into giants, dwarves, and mythic beasts. George Washington is repeatedly described as a “giant,” when in reality he was only somewhat taller than most men. Estimates of an average man’s height at this time vary from 5 feet, to 5 feet 9 inches. Washington was reported to be between 6 foot 1 inch and 6 foot 3 inches, and was said to be either slightly taller than Jefferson, or slightly shorter than Lafayette. Peter Francisco, a soldier in the 10th Virginia Regiment, was famed for being 6 foot 8 inches. Charyn characterizes the Commander-in-Chief as a cantankerous gambling addict who liked to threaten people. When he recruits Johnny as a spy, Washington says:
“...should you betray us...you’ll be kept alive, but not your loved ones.”
Sexual innuendo oozes from every page, including those that mention only Johnny with Washington or Lafayette. Lust is less obscured when Benedict Arnold takes Johnny home:
“The general scooped me up into his arms, deposited me first into a closet off the kitchen, where he ripped off my tatterdemalion blouse and chopped at my beard with a scalping knife, then bathed me with his own hand in a pungence of lye. And how could I strangle this traitor, lads, after such kindness?”
If this passage has you breathing heavily then Jerome Charyn will not leave you ungratified.
No disturbing content.
Sexual content. P.C.
Jerome Charyn's webpage. (click here)