Quick Review: Johnny One-Eye by Jerome Charyn

April 4, 2008 | No Comments

For those of you currently watching HBO’s dramatization, John Adams, based on David McCulloch’s biography, you may want to supplement your American Revolutionary interest with a complementary, humorous, fictional eye-witness account. An irresistible adventure story à la Robert Louis Stevenson, Jerome Charyn’s Johnny One-Eye has a hero who spends much of its 480 pages being kicked, beaten, tarred, and feathered, after which “the yobs practiced being fireman and pissed on the pieces of flame. I was nearly grateful.” Johnny’s invincibility combined with Charyn’s limber language and comic timing sustains the book’s featherweight tone, despite its bloody subject matter.
Seventeen-year-old Johnny is drafted by his British mentor, Sir Harold Morse, to spy against the American revolutionaries. His loyalty is compromised, however, because he was raised by the seductive Mrs. Gertrude Jennings, who may or may not be his mother, in a whore-house on Manhattan’s lower East-Side frequented by the gambling George Washington, who may, or may not, be his father. Johnny lost his eye fighting with Benedict Arnold, and lost his head not long after to Gertrude’s most valuable asset, the delectable octoroon, Clara, “a prophetic black and blond witch with a complection that was half-coffee, half-cream.” When physically broken, or merely broken-hearted – ‘tis a rare day when our hero be not both – he retreats to his favorite place: “Only one tonic could lift a lad out of his own dark water. Clara’s shoe closet…” He’s never alone, however, Clara’s besotted clients pay “a handsome price to sniff Clara’s shoes.”
Johnny’s dream-daddy, the lanky farmer-soldier George Washington, is the most sympathetic character in Charyn’s yarn – from the massacre of American prisoners on board the British prison ship Jersey, to the defection of Benedict Arnold, to the surrender at Yorktown, to his loyalty to Martha, and his addictions to Gertrude and vingt-et-un. However, at no point do the generals on either side pause to consider that the land they’re fighting over has prior claimants, and one imagines the Native Americans watching these squabbling foreigners from afar with an “aw shit” expression on their faces.