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Jerome Charyn, Marilyn the Wild (London: Bloomsbury, 2003, £6.99, 188 pages, ISBN 0-7475-6360-8)—Frédéric Dumas, Université Stendhal - Grenoble 3


Marilyn the Wild (1976) is the second installment of Jerome Charyn's renowned Isaac Quartet, devoted to New York Deputy Chief inspector Isaac Sidel. Right from the onset, what gives the novel a peculiar charm is the resurrection of Manfred "Blue Eyes" Coen, Isaac's favorite lieutenant. Coen had been shot dead during a ping pong match in Blue Eyes (1974), as Isaac was flying to his rescue. The action of Marilyn the Wild takes place before Coen's demise, which endows the character with a tragic flavor, as we know that this handsome, chivalric tough guy is a condemned man.

Of course Marilyn the Wild is fraught with gangsters and devious characters living in shady places (sometimes literally: one of them is a black albino who hardly ever leaves his gloomy forty-second street cinema). Yet most of the killing and maiming is not done by the hardened criminals. The latter are being led to react to the seemingly nonsensical misdeeds of "the lollipops," a threesome going on a rampage among local businesses, regardless of police or gang protection. Such crimes baffle Isaac, who has just deftly recovered Honey, the daughter of Mordecai, an old friend of his, from her Manhattan pimp. The irony is that Isaac is having trouble with his own unruly daughter, who at twenty-five has already had three husbands, has been divorced twice and has now fallen for Coen.

Unlike in a conventional hardboiled story, we are allowed to become familiar with the protagonist's private life. Family affairs actually turn out to provide the main springs and the key to the whole narrative, which is mostly concerned with strained—to put it mildly—parent-child relationships. Isaac is the father figure par excellence; not only to his daughter, but also to Coen (whose parents committed suicide), to his whole troop of "angels" (highly experienced cops entirely devoted to him), to the people he protects with an iron hand in a velvet glove and, broadly speaking, to the entire Lower East Side. For many, Isaac—AKA "Isaac the Great," "Isaac the Just," "Isaac the Pure" and "Isaac the Jew"—has acquired saint-like status and Marilyn must go shopping in Little Italy to "get some relief from Isaac's worshippers" [111], away from the "Jewish patriarch" [132].

This mystical clout is actually what seems to have prompted Rupert, the fifteen-year-old genius son of one of Isaac's friends, to form the lollipop gang with Esther, a runaway from a Yeshiva (an Orthodox Jewish school), and with Stanley, a Chinese kung fu adept. Rupert aims at ruining Isaac's life, and his manic obsession contaminates Esther, who obviously identifies Isaac with the oppressive father-husband figure imposed by her Yeshiva schooling:

Isaac was the Moses of Clinton and Delancey. Hadn't the idiot priests at her school shoved stories in her face about the sanctity of patriarchs? The Jews had more fathers than Esther could bear. An army of fathers with a single word under their tongues: Obey. [86]

Marilyn the Wild offers a glimpse of sexist Orthodox Jewish customs, notably in the collusion of the social and the religious, as exemplified in marriage: "When she married, said the priests, wouldn't her husband be like a father to her? […] A wife was no better than any beast in the field" [86]. Esther's revolt, then, takes on feminist proportions; she rebels against arranged marriages when Anita, the Chief of Detectives' daughter, obediently accepts the repelling husband her father has chosen for her, and when Marilyn runs away, picking and choosing lovers without letting her father know about it.

The lollipops' rebellion partakes of the pervasive sexual mood that gives the novel much of its flavor and intensity. Esther eventually proves instrumental in the plotting of Isaac's death, but her plans are inextricably intertwined with raw oedipal fantasies:

There would be nothing between Esther and Isaac other than pride, venom, and a goatish itch. Bride and groom would ravage one another on their wedding night, fornicating with the energy of absolute hate. She'd tear off Isaac's nose with an early orgasm. [T]he butchery would continue in the morning […]. [87]

Esther ends up pretending she is Marilyn and becomes a virtual wife for Isaac, concocting for him the makeshift bomb she calls a "soup" and which will actually tear her to pieces. The death she plans for Isaac is oddly akin to love making and the sight of her dismembered naked body obsesses the middle-aged cop. Hubris, necrophilia and incest loom large as Isaac sees himself as "the holy warrior who […] gutted Esther Rose, who sleeps in the vulva of his daughter" [166]. After only a few pages, New York has become the stage of a hardboiled Oedipus, where blood blends with real or fantasized semen and where power figures are at once virtual preys and concupiscent predators.

Marilyn the Wild is neatly divided into four parts, each subdivided into numbered chapters. The tight formal structure contributes to the general impression of a highly controlled narrative. The psychological complexities of the characters are brought home by an unobtrusive omniscient narrator, mostly in compact sentences characteristic of the genre and whose swift progression aptly conveys the inescapability of a fast unfolding tragic pattern. Part Two is the very core of the novel. Its conspicuous brevity (ten pages) provides a sharp contrast with the preceding section; it emphasizes the paramount importance of the information disclosed and suggests that the novel is to undergo a radical change. Part Two introduces Rupert and Esther against the background which fed their vindictive enterprise.

This universe is tough and fast anchored in realism. Charyn has a gift for depicting the peculiarities of various New York neighborhoods, where gangs and ethnic groups constantly vie for supremacy. Esther's "impregnable" Yeshiva, for instance, is "stuck in a neighborhood of Puerto Ricans, blacks and Polish Jews" [78]; the seedy places of Little Italy and of Chinatown come alive with idiosyncrasies originating both from the prevalent cultural patterns and individual quirks. At times the sex scenes are vivid to the point of the sordid; the intricate processes at work within the various law enforcement agencies seem true to life, not only in the police procedures, but also in the petty resentment and jealousies that inevitably occur at all levels in any hierarchized institution. For Isaac is very much aware that the lollipops and the criminals he constantly rubs shoulders with are probably not his most dangerous enemies; Barney "Cowboy" Rosenblatt, Chief of Detectives, among others, bears a lethal grudge which can only be guessed at his constant mix of civility and professional backstabbing tactics.

For all its verisimilitude, Charyn's New York is also a poetic construct. The blizzard that blows throughout Part Four transforms the City into a nightmarish setting and endows Marilyn the Wild with a surrealistic quality. Sensual adult Marilyn is then at one with the little girl she used to be, for she is staying cozily with Coen, the charming lover who appeared from the storm as a dream "snowman." Meanwhile Rupert is on the run in the snow-banked streets, a pariah to the police and the gangsters alike. A vegetarian, he happens to notice a live poultry market in the midst of a cannibalistic fantasy in which he contemplates tasting Isaac's flesh. The humor of the situation is then enhanced by a sudden shift of focalization; we discover the ensuing events through the eyes of Brian, a confused superstitious police officer:

The wind imposed hallucinations on him. Rabbits were crossing Grand Street. It had to be the devil's work, or a mirage caused by the particular slant of falling snow. […] rubbing a piece of cold metal couldn't scare the rabbits away. [164]

As if by magic, the harsh reality of contemporary Manhattan streets has been replaced by a cartoon-like phantasmagoria which transforms a common animal into a grotesque, half animal and half human creature ("The rooster had wattles and a red hat" [164]); likewise, Brian sees the man he catches trying to save rabbits as a "a rabbit thief," that is, both a man and a rabbit. Brian himself is no longer a violent man hunter, but an incompetent predator "unable to keep up with a chicken" [164], and even unable to distinguish between a police officer and a criminal. For the slapstick situation reaches a climax when Brian mistakes one of his colleagues for Rupert and fires at him.

Charyn's snowstorm is more than a picturesque backdrop; notwithstanding the humor and the dramatic tension it gives rise to, such confusion grants Rupert the aura of a perverse mythic hero. His homicidal quest for an adequate father figure brings him close to death; he awakes to an uncertain future and the final image reveals him in a hospital bed, mute and "mummified" [188]—neither dead nor living—in bandage. The crisis is far from over, since his hatred for Isaac remains intact (as well as, characteristically, his capacity for erection). We cannot even be sure at that crucial moment that the visit of his father, accompanied by Mordecai, is a symbolic victory or merely a dream, another delusion.

The whiteout that covers up Charyn's New York is strongly reminiscent of Paul Auster's obliterating snowfall at the very end of City of Glass (1985), the opening detective novel of The New York Trilogy (1990). It is also worth noting that Auster's anonymous homodiegetic narrator in The Locked Room (1986) goes to Paris in search of his ever eluding alter ego, and that Isaac goes to Paris to meet his father, who abandoned the family forty-odd years earlier. The New York Times blurb on the front page of Marilyn the Wild calls it "First rate entertainment," thereby pigeonholing it as pulp literature; such intertextual references, however, point to the impact of Charyn's work on what is usually considered as "highbrow" literature.

Charyn notably manages to keep the complexities of his characters congruent with the action oriented requirements of a detective novel. Rupert and Esther's indestructible hatred towards Isaac makes sense thematically, for it weaves together the sexual and the incestuous trends that link all the main characters. Charyn, however, never makes it clear why such adolescent hatred should be able to transform Rupert, an intellectual fifteen-year-old, into a ruthless killer, able to thwart the cunning police as well as the most vicious mobsters. As for Esther's murderous obsession with Isaac, it is not totally realistic. Yet such a mystery obviously contributes to making her an enthralling femme fatale.

The limitations of this spellbinding novel, then, simply arise from the limitations of the genre, whose main purpose is not the plumbing of psychological depths, but mostly of their freakish implications.


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