Monday, 10 February 2014

Book Review: I Am Abraham by Jerome Charyn

Once again The Overnight Bestseller is pleased to host a Tribute Books blog tour. We welcome back Jerome Charyn with his novel I Am Abraham.

I Am Abraham Book Summary:                                                                    

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.

Prices/Formats: $12.99-$14.99 ebook, $26.95 hardcover
Pages: 464
Publisher: Liveright
Release: February 3, 2014

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Jerome Charyn's Biography

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.

Our Review of I Am Abraham

In I Am Abraham, Jerome Charyn undertakes the formidable task of presenting the life of Abraham Lincoln, as seen through his letters, speeches, and other historical sources. As Charyn indicates in his Author's Note, the novel is not a biography, but a work of historical fiction: the author has reconstructed major events and players in Lincoln's life, with the poetic licence to add fictional characters when needed. The book as a whole has the feel of a picaresque novel with its expansive cast of characters as it explores Lincoln's journey through life to its inexorably tragic end. Charyn succeeds in creating a first-person narrative that feels honest and intimate.

Charyn does a masterful job in presenting the complexities of Lincoln's character. He is a dark horse candidate for the Republican nomination who wins the convention and attains the presidency. Lincoln becomes president at a time when several southern states have formed the Confederacy, and in the ensuing civil war he must come to terms with the fact that he is sending young men by the thousands to die. He must also cope with his melancholia, the 'blue unholies” that plague him throughout his life, at times incapacitating him, as well as the increasingly erratic behavior of his wife after the death of their son Willie. He is the president of a nation divided by war, but he is also a compassionate family man, often seen carrying his young son Tad on his shoulders, and a husband who must face the prospect of placing his wife in an insane asylum. (Mary in fact spent four months in an asylum following the assassination of her husband before being consigned to the care of her sister Elizabeth.)

Historians, for the most part, have not been kind to Mary Todd Lincoln, but Charyn recognizes the complexity of her character. She is ridiculed by the press for her plainness, but excoriated when she spends money to improve her wardrobe and to refurbish the White House, which has essentially gone to ruin under Buchanan. She recognizes that her husband is regarded as incompetent by many of the men who surround him, including General McLellan, who commands the loyalty of the Union troops, but her support for her husband remains steadfast. She is surrounded by flatterers and charlatans, and often succumbs to their influence. And because she has no real role in politics, she smothers her oldest son Robert, forcing him into a profession in which he has no interest. She is a woman born in the wrong century: better educated and more intelligent than many of the men who surround her (as Charyn comments in his Author's Note), but relegated to the background because she is female. She is also representative of the deep divisions and contradictions of the times: Mary Todd is from a wealthy family of slave-owners in Kentucky, yet her closest confidante is a former slave. Mrs. Keckley becomes her constant companion, as well as her dressmaker. Mary must also deal with the fact that many of her relatives in Kentucky have joined the Confederate army.

It is important to note that the subtitle of I Am Abraham is “A Novel of Lincoln and the Civil War”. More than 600,000 soldiers were killed in the American Civil War, and these deaths represented ten percent of northern males aged 20-45 and thirty percent of southern males aged 18-40. The symbolism of the novel readily underlines the horrors of the war: the ditches filled with amputated limbs (one in thirteen veterans suffered amputations); the sounds of the Friday firing squads killing Union deserters (many of whom Lincoln would have preferred to pardon); the starved Confederate soldiers outfitted with cardboard shoes in winter; and the carnage of the battlefields littered by bodies and dead horses. As Lincoln and Tad tour the ruins of Richmond, which has been burned almost to the ground by fires set by the retreating Confederate army, Lincoln recognizes that there are no real winners in this battle. He looks ahead to the Reconstruction that he hopes will mend the country's wounds, but sadly it will be a Reconstruction he will not live to undertake.

I Am Abraham will appeal to lovers of historical fiction and of the oral storytelling tradition at which Lincoln himself excelled.

It is an exuberant novel that speaks equally of life and death, hope and sorrow.

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  1. Michael, I'm glad that Jerome nailed the first person narration for you giving new life to Lincoln's voice. Thanks for the fantastic review :)

    1. It's always a pleasure to read one of Jerome's books. Thanks for the chance to participate in his blog tour, Nicole!

  2. Michael, I enjoyed your review of I Am Abraham, and was proud to show it to Jerome, who was just as appreciative. So happy you took the time to read this long novel - I know how busy you are - and write such a smart review.

    I have started The Rainy Day Killer, and love it - you will soon see my posted review. As an attorney and former producer of Court TV, crime fiction is a favorite genre, and your novel gripped me immediately. I hope to read more of the series once all this pesky book tour stuff is behind me.

    I hope we meet face-to-face one of these days. JC is at 192 Books tomorrow night (2/25) if you are in NYC.

    Again, so thankful that Tribute Books brought us together.

    -- Lenore Riegel

    1. Thanks very much, Lenore. I'm so glad that you and Jerome liked the review. It was a terrific read in a subject area that's been a long-standing interest of mine.

      I can appreciate how very busy you are, and I'm pleased you've taken the time to look at The Rainy Day Killer. I look forward to your feedback, and hope that we can get together in person some time soon. Will definitely look forward to it! Mike