The Red Coats Are Coming

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Reviewed by Wendy Smith
Sunday, March 23, 2008


A Tale of the American Revolution

By Jerome Charyn

Norton. 479 pp. $25.95

Don't waste time trying to sort out the convoluted plot particulars of Jerome Charyn's exuberantly picaresque new novel -- it'll only give you a headache. As George Washington is forced to abandon New York to General William Howe's redcoats, a huge array of characters pursue their wildly conflicting agendas across the baroque landscape of 18th-century Manhattan, "a town of innuendo and division . . . of mayhem and civil strife, where the poor suffered in canvas houses, while some commissioner might have several mansions and a birdcage for his mistress."

Contrasts and ambiguities also abound in the history of Charyn's narrator, John Stocking, who attended King's College on a scholarship from George III and lost an eye fighting with Benedict Arnold's rebel army in Canada. Where do Johnny One-Eye's loyalties lie? He's not always sure himself. When we first meet Johnny in April 1776, he's 17 -- actually, we learn later that he's two years older -- and has just tried to poison Washington. Actually, the poison was "a mix of magnesia and castor oil [that] couldn't have killed a flea"; it was a ruse to introduce him to Washington so Johnny could confess that he's a secret agent who has infiltrated Washington's intelligence network. That's a lie, too, but Johnny and his Loyalist mentor plotted this encounter so that Major Malcolm Treat would invite him to join Washington's secret service. Alas, the major develops an instant hatred for Johnny that has lasting consequences. The lad is saved from hanging only by the intervention of his mother, Gertrude Jennings, who will intervene on his behalf many more times as this overstuffed narrative traverses seven tumultuous years.

Redheaded proprietress of Manhattan's finest brothel, called a "nunnery" by her sardonic son, Gertrude is an equal-opportunity purveyor whose establishment is the favored retreat of both Washington and Howe. Her allegiances are as much of a mystery to her son as his paternity. At first, he thinks his father was a forger who once lived at the nunnery. Later, he hears that when Gertrude was a tavern maid in Virginia, Washington fell in love with her; rather than ruin his chances for an advantageous marriage, she fled to New York. She quickly prospered in the red-light district known as Holy Ground and "had her own nunnery before the little boy was born."

Is George Washington Johnny One-Eye's father? Johnny would love to think so, and Washington appears to believe it. But in Charyn's hall of mirrors, truth is as hard to discern as the true feelings of Clara, an octoroon from the West Indies who is the star attraction at Gertrude's nunnery and the love of Johnny's life. Five years earlier, when they were children, he told stories "about snowmen and orphans and African kings" to soothe the girl Gertrude had found "living on the docks like a wild animal." Now Clara sleeps with any officer in either army to protect the nunnery and (maybe) to help Gertrude feed intelligence to Washington.

Clara and Gertrude are only the most prominent in a gallery of female portraits that exemplify the moral ecumenism of Charyn's novel, which displays scant interest in the justice of either the colonists' revolt or the British attempt to repress it. William Howe's mistress smuggles food and clothes to the starving rebels at Valley Forge; Benedict Arnold's new wife persuades him to commit treason at the behest of her lover, the demonic British spy John Andre; a farmer's wife saved by Johnny from marauding soldiers turns whore and spy on the British prison ship where he lies in chains -- so she can succor Johnny? to get away from her husband? No one's motives are clear or pure; personal loyalty outweighs commitment to a cause.

Washington towers over the other characters, not as a great patriot and general, but as a charismatic enigma who "could stroll into British Manhattan, redcoats all around, play vingt-et-un with Sir William Howe and win," or reduce a roomful of mutinous unpaid officers to tears simply by fumbling for a pair of spectacles and saying, "Gentlemen, you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now feel myself growing blind."

As he has done in such previous novels as The Franklin Scare and Captain Kidd, and in his heavily fictionalized memoirs, The Black Swan and Bronx Boy, Charyn uses American history as a setting for fable and mythic figures. It's not that Johnny One-Eye is factually inaccurate; indeed, it spotlights such neglected aspects of Revolutionary history as the painful dilemma of New York's African Americans, abused and used by redcoats and rebels alike. But the author is not trying to give us a coherent, blow-by-blow chronicle of New York City, 1776 to 1783. Instead, he captures the lunacy and grandeur of an epic period when everything was in flux and up for grabs in sentences that hum with the blunt yet soaring cadences of 18th-century prose. Readers may feel slightly detached from the travails of Charyn's characters, who are vividly rather than deeply imagined, but anyone who relishes adventurous fiction will enjoy watching this risk-taking author strut along the high wire. *

Wendy Smith reviews books for the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune.

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