Friends and enemies

Jane Smiley is the author of many novels and works of nonfiction.

WHEN you stop to think about it, how many novels about the American Revolution are there, other than Esther Forbes' "Johnny Tremain"? According to the Wikipedia entry "American Revolutionary War Novels," there are five, and I bet you haven't read them. I certainly haven't, and as I was reading "Johnny One-Eye," I began to wonder why there are so few. We know all the names -- Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Cornwallis, Betsy Ross. Wouldn't it be fun and enlightening to be able to put the faces, and the neuroses, to them? To stitch together that narrative line leading from Concord to Yorktown, from British subjects to American citizens? Clearly, Jerome Charyn, whose last novel, "The Green Lantern," was set in Stalinist Russia, thought so too, and the result is bursting with good ideas. Too bad they are not all equally well realized.

"Johnny One-Eye" is John Stocking, 17 when the novel opens. He lives in a whorehouse on a street in Manhattan that the locals call "Holy Ground." He doesn't know who his parents are, but he has been educated at the best local school (King's College) and for that reason has already served in the Continental Army, as Benedict Arnold's amanuensis. It is in this service that he has lost his eye. It is 1776. Johnny's style is flowery and assertive, and he uses a lot of archaic English words and expressions, such as " 't was," "jackanapes," "coxcomb" and "ye gods!" Ye gods! Did any real person ever use the phrase "ye gods"?

Fortunately, Holy Ground (peopled by "nuns") is the crossroads of Manhattan, and one of the first people Johnny meets is George Washington, whose soup he is accused of poisoning in his role as a spy for the British. Washington interrogates him and, upon finding where he lives, inexplicably frees him. Much of what Johnny then unravels about his own mysterious history develops from this incident. He is impressed by Washington's size, mercy and air of melancholy. He also comes to believe that there is a long-standing relationship between the madam of the brothel and the commander in chief, which is the reason for Washington's interest in him. His love for Washington motivates him to become a double agent and then a sincere American patriot. As a double agent, of course, he has ready access to the British high command as well as the American high command, and, as a postmodernist bonus, he never knows what is really going on around him. His loyalties are perennially suspect, and he is perennially suspicious.

For the reader who might be less than current on the month-by-month history of the American Revolution, Johnny's complex loyalties make for considerable confusion. Another problem is that like (it is implied) everyone else in the 18th century, he rarely calls people by their real names but, rather, by some popular nickname. British Gen. Sir William Howe and his brother Adm. Lord Richard Howe are referred to as "Sir Billy" and "Black Dick," while Alexander Hamilton is sometimes "little Hamilton" and other times "Ham." This habit reinforces the idea that the Revolutionary War was fought among people who knew one another about as well as students in a very large high school, who may not be intimate but are completely up-to-date on all the gossip.

Johnny's beloved is one of the nuns -- Clara, a young woman from Dominica whom Johnny has known since she was found on the Manhattan docks, suffering from an unidentifiable illness. She is tall and beautiful (Johnny is short and disfigured). She disdains Johnny's attentions most of the time, but in that postmodernist way, she is arbitrary about it. Her connections to the brothel madam (a redhead named Gert), to Washington and to the American cause are mysterious.

Johnny has enemies. Sometimes he knows who they are, but their enmity is not always defined by their attempts to kill him or hurt him -- his friends do that too. In the course of the novel, Johnny is beaten, tortured, imprisoned, exiled, but also embraced, welcomed, praised, loved and wept over, often by the same people. All we can say about this is that the Revolutionary period was a chaotic one.

One quality Johnny has that is not shared by his contemporaries is his appreciation of the bravery and humanity of his fellow citizens who are black. One of his entrees into this community is Clara, whom Johnny calls an "octoroon." Another is Prince Paul, who runs the Manhattan community of free blacks and ex-slaves that the British make use of and the Americans disdain (and sometimes punish). Johnny is fully aware (and who's to say that his awareness is anachronistic?) that if it weren't for the black community, the Revolutionary War might not have been won.

The difficulty is that Charyn really wants his narrative to encompass the whole thing -- from 1775 to 1781, from Ft. Ticonderoga to the departure of the British, from the personal to the political -- and so the narrative has to move quickly. Few characters are developed, even to a degree typical of the 18th century novels Charyn is imitating. Washington is always noble and melancholy, Gert is always torn, a man named Malcolm Treat is always malign, Clara is always unpredictable. An even bigger problem is that Charyn's timeline doesn't give him the space to linger over any particular scenes or build suspense. Yes, of course, we do know how it ended, but the fact that the burning of Manhattan takes eight pages and the Battle of Yorktown eight pages means that the reader is rarely situated in the action or, indeed, engaged by the characters, who hop from event to event but remain unchanged.

The task for anyone writing a historical novel is the leap backward -- past such 19th century novelists as Austen and Flaubert, who expanded the capacity of the novel to understand and depict the inner life. Can modern readers be beguiled by characters as flat as Tom Jones and Sophia Western? The first historical novelist who addressed this issue -- Sir Walter Scott -- tried the method of using a style conventional in his own time, thereby achieving depth but implying that inner lives stay the same over the centuries. Modern novelists, such as John Barth, have tried the other tack -- reproducing the language of an earlier time but making it subtly more revealing (full disclosure: I've tried that myself).

What is difficult is depicting the history without getting pedantic and losing the characters. Or maybe the principal difficulty is giving life to the characters without muddying the events. Whichever it is, it makes the historical novel an always tempting but often thankless challenge. Charyn emphasizes language over all else, an honorable choice. Unfortunately, almost 500 pages is too long for the stylistic experiment but not long enough to do justice to the action. *

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