By Jerome Charyn
Norton, 480 pp., $25.95
Gore Vidal once said that any reader who gets his history from historical fiction gets the history he deserves. But smart readers don't read historical fiction for history. They read it for the experience of history. They read it to live the past through the struggles of characters who are thrust - often against their will - onto the stage of history, characters like the eponymous hero of Jerome Charyn's new novel, "Johnny One-Eye."
Charyn sets out to tell the story of the American Revolution through Johnny's eyes, or eye, with a cast that includes most of the historical giants and scalawags who visited New York during seven years of war. And for the most part, he succeeds. If the book feels a bit too long, if it strains after too many plot twists to keep Johnny One-Eye center stage, well, Charyn can be forgiven, because it was a big war, and it takes a writer with big ambition to tackle it.
The story opens in late spring 1776. George Washington and his flea-bitten Continentals have arrived in New York after driving the British from Boston. Soon will come the fight for the island at the mouth of the Hudson River. So the Americans have begun fortifying it. The Loyalists have retreated to their ships. The secret agents are sneaking about. And the prostitutes are plying their trade.
John Stocking is the son of one of the prostitutes. He has grown up on the infamous Holy Ground, "a street of brothels so named because of its proximity to St. Paul's chapel; hence, its whores were known as nuns." He appears to be the sort of callow young man who studies a bit at King's College, spends a bit more time speculating on the identity of his father, and spends a lot more perusing the satin shoes in a prostitute's closet. So, callow and a bit kinky, too.
But is he also one of those secret agents? And on whose side? He lost his eye in Benedict Arnold's attack on Quebec, so he's demonstrated his American loyalties. But he's in big trouble because he's been caught trying to poison George Washington's soup.
This brings Johnny eye-to-eyes with the general himself and begins Charyn's parade of historical figures - Washington, Hamilton, the Howe brothers, Benedict Arnold, Elizabeth Loring, John Andre - all of whom Johnny gets to know, sometimes quite intimately. And to Charyn's credit, all of them emerge as fully dimensional fictional characters.
Of course, fictional is the operative term here, especially with Washington.
In an afterword, Charyn calls Washington "an alarmingly moral man." He doesn't clarify what's so alarming, but in his book, he attempts to make Washington less the plaster saint and more the flesh-and-blood human being. He's not the first to try, but he comes up with some "humanizing" that you won't find in any history book.
Start with a small thing: History tells us Washington never wore a wig. But here, Washington's wig is often askew, as if to indicate his state of mind. History suggests that he was sterile. But here he may have fathered a child or two.
Of course, Johnny One-Eye tells this tale, so we can blame a lot of the inaccuracies (like the wig) and speculations (like Washington's sexual productivity) on that age-old staple of fiction, the unreliable narrator. But Washington never would have endangered his reputation or the Revolution by sneaking back to New York after his victory at Princeton to visit his love and play a game of blackjack with British General Howe - in a Holy Ground whorehouse, no less.
If you think that Charyn owes historical figures their truth, even in fiction, you might want to stay away. If you believe that he owes less to history than to the fiction he fashions from it, read on.
Johnny's quests - for a father figure, for love, for simple survival - give the book a good dramatic heart. His narration - textured, detailed, ironic (though hardly as "comic" as the flap copy suggests) - keeps you in the 18th century, inhaling the perfumes of the whorehouse and the stench of the prison ships, too. By the end, his obsession with the owner of those satin shoes, a beautiful mulatto prostitute (and American spy), becomes as frustrating for the reader as it is for Johnny. But the book, and Johnny, gain gravity as the Americans struggle, crawl, and endure their way toward victory.
Johnny One-Eye isn't history. It isn't supposed to be. It's the story of a fictional character living history, and it's the fictional story of the "one great incaution in the life of a very cautious man." That man would be Washington.
Jerome Charyn balances himself deftly between the facts of an era and the dramatic needs of a story. His task requires a delicate sense of just how far to push his historical figures to fit the fictional mold. And while he pushes too hard in a few places, he has subtitled his book "A Tale of the American Revolution." Take it as fair warning and heed Gore Vidal. What you are about to read may or may not be true, but it's all in the service of a larger truth, and in this case, it's certainly worth experiencing.
William Martin is the author of "Citizen Washington" (1999) and, most recently, "The Lost Constitution" (2007).