Reviewed by Ruth Latta
Ravage & Son
by Jerome Charyn
Bellevue Literary Press
Paperback, 288 pages, Aug 2023, ISBN: 978-1095-276-20-8
In Ravage & Son, award winning author Jerome Charyn blends the historical and noir genres in a novel which brings to life the teeming, dog-eat-dog life of New York’s Lower East Side in the early 20th century. The author of over fifty books, Charyn has written not only detective stories, but also works on subjects ranging from table tennis to Emily Dickinson.
America is a nation of immigrants, and in Ravage & Son, Charyn focuses on the Jewish newcomers who fled pogroms in the Russian Empire to seek a haven in New York. There, they were blamed for crime on the Lower East Side. German Jews who had come to the U.S.A. in a previous wave of immigration had become established in business and had moved uptown. Concerned that their impoverished co-religionists would give the Jewish community a bad name, they sought to “police and control” the Ghetto, and to do so, formed an organization called the Kehilla (“community”) which urged leaders in the Lower East Side to join them in watching out for “Jewish recreants” and hired detectives to patrol the area.
Newpaper editor Abraham Cahan, an historical figure who comes alive in this novel, was convinced that the Kehilla and its detectives wanted to turn the Ghetto into “one vast prison farm.” As editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, Cahan became the conscience of the Lower East Side. As a young socialist, he was involved in attempts to overthrow the czar of Russia. He escaped to America where he taught himself English in record time and became a writer, “breathing a taste of socialism into everything he wrote.” Cahan is aware that the Tammany Hall political machine, which runs New York, has the police force under its control. Tammany bribes the cops to overlook the gambling and prostitution operations that its members own, and in his editorials, Cahan attacks this corrupt system.
The novel opens when Cahan leaves his office one midnight to walk around the docks. When a sickly-looking hooker accosts him, he declines her services but offers her money so she can quit working for the night. When her “cadet” (pimp) and his henchmen arrive and threaten Cahan with firemen’s hatchets, an old man appears out of the darkness wielding a silver wolf’s head cane, and drives the thugs away. Cahan recognizes Lionel Ravage, a wealthy philanthropist, ruthless slumlord, and worse.
Members of the public often go to Cahan with their concerns, and when a father and mother seek his aid in finding their missing daughter, he thinks of a young detective employed by the Kehilla and asks him to find the young woman. This young detective, Ben, is the unacknowledged son of a powerful Ghetto businessman. Cahan met the boy when at the Jewish reform school looking for printers and other young men to hire as apprentices in the newspaper business. He became Ben’s benefactor, sending him to school and then to Harvard, but on graduating, instead of establishing a legal career, Ben became a detective for Kehilla.
In this capacity, Ben tries to clean up the Ghetto, destroying and padlocking gambling dens before the corrupt city cops get to the scene. At night court, he offers representation to poor people in trouble, and upsets the proceedings. He pities young uneducated women who take to the streets to escape their patriarchal families, and while he can’t provide for them, he secures rough justice for them from clients who have injured or cheated them.
Ben is protected by a bodyguard/enforcer/golem, Monk Eastman, an historical figure and ex-con from Sing Sing, who owns a pet shop and goes around with canaries perched on his hat. When one of the prostitutes tells Ben that a Ripper is preying on girls in the Ghetto, he and Monk set out to find him.
The grim urban setting of Ravage & Son, its violence, cast of criminals from all classes, and atmosphere of pessimism and disillusionment are characteristics of the noir genre. In Charyn’s story, we see a promising youth who was given the chance to make something of himself in the world’s terms, yet chooses a different course for several reasons and eventually is defeated by the milieu he sought to clean up. In Cahan, we see a tireless worker for social justice and freedom who sees few tangible results because of the corrupt institutions of government. James Ellroy, who co-edited The Best American Noir of the Century (2010) says that noir’s social importance lies in its serious themes, like race, class, gender and systemic corruption. The “thrill” of noir, Ellroy notes, is the “amorality” and “titillation.” Charyn’s novel has all of the above.
Another staple of the noir genre is a duplicitous female. Babette, daughter of a real estate mogul, plays this role in Ravage & Son. She is ineligible to marry a scion of the elite because she had an affair with a woman at Smith College. Her father wants to marry her off to Ben. When Ben meets her, she sends him in quest of her missing lover and lands him in deep mire.
In contrast, the actress Clara Karp, who stars as Hamlet at the Thalia Theatre, rescues one of the leading characters in Charyn’s novel. Clara may be based on a real-life actress, Sophie Karp, who came to America in 1882 at the start of the great wave of immigration, and was the first professional actress in Yiddish theatre. The idea of a woman playing Hamlet is not far-fetched, for a play titled Queen Lear was actually staged in the Lower East Side during this period. A reference to Hamlet is well chosen, given that one of the main characters in Ravage & Son kills a father-figure who has done him wrong.
“Clara bent Hamlet’s life and death to her own desire and will” writes Charyn in his evocative style. “She didn’t usurp Shakespeare, she limbed his lines… attacked time and time again with her rapier, like some colossal assassin… She needed a primitive audience, people who would cry and laugh and hurl back her lines…They caught her sadness in every whisper, her sense of loneliness in America, as if Lady Hamlet relived their own travails on Ellis Island…”
Regarding his setting, Charyn writes: “There was a dark poetry in the landscape and this is the poetry I tried to capture with Ravage & Son.” He has definitely succeeded.
About the reviewer: Ruth Latta’s latest historical novel, about a Canadian woman trade unionist, is called, A Striking Woman, (Ottawa, Baico 2023, info@ baico.ca)