There’s a fine line between fiction and nonfiction, I’ve always said, and I believe I snorted it in 1976. Yet it may well be fiction that deals more honestly in the casino of truth. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Huckleberry Finn, and Catch-22, for instance, though peopled with characters who never lived, loved, or died in flesh and blood, have never failed to provide the gentle (gentile, non-gentile) reader with a more accurate glimpse of mankind than he might ever attain by gazing into the carnival mirror.
Jerome Charyn’s latest novel, Under the Eye of God, is a pluperfect example of an obviously fictional work that conveys the essence of the world. As a possible counterpoint to the violent architecture of the book, Charyn provides the readers with layers of religious and/or spiritual thought to be explored by the discerning detective sometimes referred to as “the still, small voice within.” Charyn’s hero is a former cop-turned-mayor of New York—turned vice-president-elect of the United States. His name is Isaac Sidel, and he is bigger than God; his charm is that he is totally, blithely unaware of this small matter. Isaac is sad, funny, smart, tough, and considerably less ruthless than the bad guys who swarm around him, most of whom are bigger than the devil. Isaac bears a similarity to Sherlock Holmes in that he is almost never happy. It is refreshing to see a hero who is not all that fond of himself. In a kingdom called the Sixties there was a nonfiction politician almost as popular as Isaac Sidel. He became known to the world as JFK, but he felt uncannily like Isaac when it came to politics, self-esteem, and destiny. “If I had it to do over again,” JFK once confided to a friend, “I’d choose a different father, a different wife, and a different religion.” In the words of the current president, Isaac, unlike JFK, would no doubt “cling to his religion.” Isaac’s M.O., not dissimilar to that of many Jews, is to be quite happy being unhappy.
In terms of his moral, yet colorful code of conduct, Isaac Sidel perhaps might best be described as James Bond if 007 were a practicing Jew. Some could say that he might need to practice more. Yet Under the Eye of God is not merely one of those ordinary, neurotic novels that is written by a Jew, published by Jews, and read almost exclusively by Jews. (Not to mention reviewed by a Jew.) Though the dark, rich threads of the Jewish ethos run deep into the weather-beaten fabric of the novel, Charyn has nevertheless created a work that will certainly have wide appeal to those who still buy retail.
Hell, you don’t have to be a Red Sea pedestrian to enjoy the violence, blood, and gore dripping off virtually every page of this mystery. Hollywood likes to call this stuff “action,” but it is what it is and everybody seems to love it—including this reviewer, who only has two areas of immediate current interest: Libya and Charlie Sheen. Charyn’s virtual obsession with assassination attempts—some are not so successful, some result in warning shots between the eyes—is also a crowd-pleaser. Being obsessed with assassinating everybody is not as far-fetched as it may appear. JFK and his brother Bobby were apparently mesmerized with the frisson of this unusual pastime. In the nonfiction world they discussed it secretly and incessantly and actually succeeded in at least two attempts: Saigon and the Dominican. Though they tried repeatedly to assassinate Castro, they failed, leaving him free to run around arresting librarians for the next 50 years. JFK and RFK were, of course, themselves assassinated, a twist that would hardly be credible in the world of fiction.
Isaac Sidel must survive! Everyone he loves may die, but the Big Guy’s got to make it. One of the many mysteries of this mystery is how deftly Charyn is able to transform this outlandish, bigger-than-life character—who carries a Glock and a lifetime of tragedy with him wherever he goes—into a man, almost as magically as the carpenter Geppetto’s son was turned into a real live boy.
After spending the past year smoking Cuban cigars and reading books about Churchill—did you realize virtually every modern British intellectual seems to love to heap criticism upon the man who saved their country?—it is refreshing to read a work of fiction written by a truth-teller invested with a spiritual integrity seemingly absent from most books these days. Charyn even gets Texas dialect right. Texans pronounce the word “Jewish” with only one syllable: “He’s Juuush.” The word “Jew,” of course, is always pronounced with multiple syllables: “She married a Jeeeeewwww.”
The fact that Charyn can take outlandish, Kurt Vonnegutian, over-the-top characters and by the end of the book make them feel real to the reader is remarkable. The fact that, in addition to capturing his beloved New York in his 47 previous novels or however many he wrote, he also captures Texas is simply a bonus. As Isaac Sidel discovers, bad guys in Texas and bad guys in New York are pretty much alike; the only difference between the two is the difference between horseshit and pigeonshit.
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