Thursday, February 20, 2014

REVIEW: "I Am Abraham" by Jerome Charyn (Tribute Book Reviews)

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 Narrated in Lincoln’s own voice, the tragicomic I Am Abraham promises to be the masterwork of Jerome Charyn’s remarkable career.

Since publishing his first novel in 1964, Jerome Charyn has established himself as one of the most inventive and prolific literary chroniclers of the American landscape. Here in I Am Abraham, Charyn returns with an unforgettable portrait of Lincoln and the Civil War. Narrated boldly in the first person, I Am Abraham effortlessly mixes humor with Shakespearean-like tragedy, in the process creating an achingly human portrait of our sixteenth President.

Tracing the historic arc of Lincoln's life from his picaresque days as a gangly young lawyer in Sangamon County, Illinois, through his improbable marriage to Kentucky belle Mary Todd, to his 1865 visit to war-shattered Richmond only days before his assassination, I Am Abraham hews closely to the familiar Lincoln saga. Charyn seamlessly braids historical figures such as Mrs. Keckley—the former slave, who became the First Lady's dressmaker and confidante—and the swaggering and almost treasonous General McClellan with a parade of fictional extras: wise-cracking knaves, conniving hangers-on, speculators, scheming Senators, and even patriotic whores.

We encounter the renegade Rebel soldiers who flanked the District in tattered uniforms and cardboard shoes, living in a no-man's-land between North and South; as well as the Northern deserters, young men all, with sunken, hollowed faces, sitting in the punishing sun, waiting for their rendezvous with the firing squad; and the black recruits, whom Lincoln’s own generals wanted to discard, but who play a pivotal role in winning the Civil War. At the center of this grand pageant is always Lincoln himself, clad in a green shawl, pacing the White House halls in the darkest hours of America’s bloodiest war.

Using biblically cadenced prose, cornpone nineteenth-century humor, and Lincoln’s own letters and speeches, Charyn concocts a profoundly moral but troubled commander in chief, whose relationship with his Ophelia-like wife and sons—Robert, Willie, and Tad—is explored with penetrating psychological insight and the utmost compassion. Seized by melancholy and imbued with an unfaltering sense of human worth, Charyn’s President Lincoln comes to vibrant, three-dimensional life in a haunting portrait we have rarely seen in historical fiction.


Pages: 464
Publisher: Liveright
Release: February 3, 2014 

Jerome Charyn is an award-winning American author. With nearly 50 published works, Charyn has earned a long-standing reputation as an inventive and prolific chronicler of real and imagined American life. Michael Chabon calls him "one of the most important writers in American literature." New York Newsday hailed Charyn as "a contemporary American Balzac,"and the Los Angeles Times described him as "absolutely unique among American writers." Since the 1964 release of Charyn's first novel, Once Upon a Droshky, he has published 30 novels, three memoirs, eight graphic novels, two books about film, short stories, plays and works of non-fiction. Two of his memoirs were named New York Times Book of the Year. Charyn has been a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. He received the Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and has been named Commander of Arts and Letters by the French Minister of Culture. Charyn was Distinguished Professor of Film Studies at the American University of Paris until he left teaching in 2009. In addition to his writing and teaching, Charyn is a tournament table tennis player, once ranked in the top 10 percent of players in France. Noted novelist Don DeLillo called Charyn's book on table tennis, Sizzling Chops & Devilish Spins, "The Sun Also Rises of ping-pong." Charyn lives in Paris and New York City.


(I was given a copy of this book in exchange for a fair and honest review.)

Oftentimes we lose the man to the legend.  We build up so much story around a historical/political/whatever-al figure that we forget who the real person was....or that So-and-So was a real person.  Nowadays figures in the public eye can - and have - fire back, defending their personality and true self.  When that figure is someone who perhaps had one of the biggest stamps on the history of the nation, but has been dead for over a hundred years, his or her ability to fight off critics is lessened (well, duh!).  How much can we really learn about someone purely from what he left in written form and other historical documentation?  Quite a lot, actually.

     If those who had written my history textbooks had been as interesting, much boredom would have been averted.  Charyn has here created a startlingly intimate, personal depiction of Abraham Lincoln told from the point of view of none other than the 16th President himself.  An audacious task, but one that Charyn pulled off so well that it felt as though this were an autobiography, not historical fiction.  It gripped me from the beginning as a melancholy man predisposed to the "blue unholies" (aka depression) was thrust from one difficult situation into another.  Events that I remember reading about in school came to life on the page in a way only possible when looking through another person's eyes, not through a dank retelling of the mere facts from a history book's perspective.  This Abraham has real, raw emotions.  He is just a man, after all...not some god.  He is Abraham.  

On a ascending scale of 1 to 5, this book receives a sound 5!

The Good
This is historical fiction.  This is historical fiction done extremely well.  This is historical fiction done so well that if I had more spare time, I would do some more digging and learning about the world that surrounded Mr. Abraham Lincoln.  It is a good thing when fiction can get me interested in history, which is a topic that I've historically (ha ha ha) avoided for fear of falling into a somnambulant text.  

Charyn here undertook an audacious task: craft a historical fiction piece about Abraham Lincoln told by Abraham Lincoln.  Frankly, I'd be too scared to do this.  What if I got something wrong?  What if I mistold something?  What if I riled historians everywhere by screwing something major up?  Heck, what if I messed up the lingo???  I don't know if these questions plagued Charyn, but if they did I don't think he should have worried. 

First, it seemed as though Mr. Lincoln himself was speaking dir-ect-ly from these here pages.  The lingo was historically accurate and consistently so (despite the fact that said lingo contains vernacular now deemed unacceptable).  A real man's personality lept from the pages.  Lincoln is deified in some places - he freed the slaves, after all - and held on a high pedestal.  Charyn's interpretation of Lincoln is of a man who would be down right mortified to see himself in the iconic position he has attained in our current world.  He's just a man, after all.  A man plagued by the "blue unholies".  A  man with a tempestuous wife and a son who is just as wild as he once was.  A man practically swimming in the blood of men and women who died for the cause that he is championing.  

Second, it is obvious that Charyn wrote this novel with a lot of time and care.  Now, that might seem like a silly thing to say, but I've read historical fiction stories where it was obvious that the author was so interested in constructing their story as they wanted it to go that history be danged.  Not so here.  I'm not a well-schooled historian by any means (you'd have to ask my husband about historical things, that's his area), but from what I do remember about events and such that are mentioned here, Charyn took pains to make sure that the history was accurate.  Of course I'm sure license was taken in some places, simply because that is the nature of writing fiction, but I've no doubt that major details are completely accurate.

Third, this novel makes it clear that the Civil War was not Lincoln's entire life.  True, he was the presiding President during the War and one of the major reasons that it started and progressed as it did.  It is also true that before this he was a lawyer, a son, a lover, and a man.  The Civil War was a grand total of 4ish years (1861-1865) of Lincoln's total 56 years of life.  A whole 52 years transpired where Lincoln walked the Earth before the North and South split.  While Charyn does not cover the totality of those 52 years, he does go over a sizeable chunk.  I also appreciate that it makes clear that slavery was not the only issue on Lincoln's mind during the Civil War - he was just as concerned about unification of the states.

Now, keep this in mind - Charyn does not claim this book to be an authoritative biography of Lincoln.  He makes it clear that this "is a family chronicle, where the fury of war and politics rumble in the background, while Lincoln does a macabre dance with his generals, feuds with his eldest boy, and tries to contain the furies of his wife.  The novel is told entirely in Lincoln's voice, that strange mix of the vernacular and the formal tones of a man who only had a few months of learning at a 'blab school' and essentially had to teach himself."  It is a picture, a representation, and a da** good one at that. 

All of the above is written in a super engaging manner.  Poignant phrases pepper (say that 3 times fast) this work, lines that make you stop and go "huh".  Battle scenes (both on the field and in the home) come to life in a super vibrant way.  Heck, Lincoln's walk upon the Earth comes to life in a super vibrant way.  I think this book needs to be required reading in every class that covers anything to do with Lincoln.  It is an amazing book that is incredibly well written, engaging, and downright nifty.  

The Bugly (bad/ugly)
The only real problem I have with this work is that it is as long as it is good.  450+ pages, phew!  It takes a lot of reading stamina to make it through this work.  Not the fastest read ever, but not the slowest either.  It is just loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong.

Honestly, this is a superb book - there is a reason that Charyn is an award-winning author.

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  1. Nora, there are so many quotable lines in your review, I had a hard time choosing just one! But I'm with you, I think that Jerome's portrayal of Lincoln clearly demonstrates that he would be taken aback by the god like status that history has bestowed on him. What a fascinating insight! Thanks for the review :)

  2. All the reviews have been wonderful about I Am Abraham and I'm so excited to read it. Thanks for participating in the tour.
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com