“He loved to ruin whatever he could. Endings always enticed him. Let others learn to live with his scars, find their heads on fire.”
Meet Lionel Ravage, the monster at the center of Jerome Charyn’s Ravage & Son, an epic work of historical fiction set in New York City’s Lower East Side in the early years of the 20th century. Ravage is an especially wicked version of Mr. Hyde, so bloodcurdling evil that he seemingly feasts on others’ pain.
Wielding a walking stick topped with a silver wolf’s head, Ravage alternatively brandishes it as a weapon or instrument of torture, depending on his prey. The wolf’s “bite” could “fend off robbers” or leave him blacked out in a brothel “covered in blood after all his rampaging.”
Prostitutes are Ravage’s primary treat. They fill Allen Street, the most crime-ridden and destitute neighborhood in America. In re-creating this era of depravity and crime-filled streets, Charyn casts an unflinching eye on the poor Jewish young women among the millions who lived in the neighborhood – their choices were reduced to prostitution (sometimes by their own sisters) or being married off as teenagers, thereby forced into a different form of squalor, but lives of deprivation nonetheless.
Although we are knee-deep in the slime and muck of the Lower East Side, a hero rises up from the streets – Ben Ravage, Lionel’s illegitimate (and unacknowledged) son. As a youngster, the boy is rescued from an orphan’s trade school by Abraham Cahan, the real-life editor of the Jewish newspaper The Forward, who helps get him into Harvard, the fulfillment of the “American Dream” decades before the phrase was coined. Mixing historical facts with invented additions based on deep research, Charyn creates Cahan anew – a tortured soul who hopes to save the ghetto’s inhabitants from the moneyed powers.
An intellectual (and former anarchist/failed bomb maker), Cahan is a revolutionary with a heart amid the capitalist power structure. He pours his heart (and hope) into Ben’s success, even after he returns to the ghetto as a member of a special police force called the Kehilla. This corrupt outfit enforces the edicts of the wealthy merchants who escaped the destitution. As elder statesmen, the “uptown Jews” want to end petty crime but are willing to use terror tactics against the poor to achieve their ends.
As a Kehilla officer, Ben takes his role seriously, patrolling the streets to assist the destitute with an ex-Five Points gang leader named Monk Eastman. Like many other characters in Ravage & Son, the enforcer is mystical and a pawn in a game with few rules and fewer rulers. A trait of Charyn’s work is that some characters seem invincible or possess superhero traits. For example, Eastman, exonerated by the governor of New York to fight in World War I, “was a one man army who would wander across no-mans’-land to retrieve a wounded comrade or materialize behind German lines to obliterate a machine-gun nest.” At home, roaming the Lower East Side with impunity, he has a small squadron of canaries constantly orbiting his head. They signal that Monk is near, and one glimpse sends enemies scampering.
The primary storyline, however, remains Lionel and Ben – good and evil battling in a handful of blocks that seem beyond hope. Charyn fills Ravage & Son with a cinematic cast of heroes, misfits, thugs, and villains. There are guest roles from real-life celebrities, like novelist Henry James and five-and-dime baron Frank Woolworth. Ultimately, the novel is part Jekyll and Hyde, part crime noir, part mystery novel, and ultimately an instant classic – a cinematic kaleidoscope that captures humanity’s intense beauty and utter debauchery in this bygone era.
It’s a Rigged System
Choice is a central theme of Ravage & Son, though perhaps it would be more accurate to say lack of choice. The world Charyn creates is one in which the system – run by a tiny group of elites – is the final judge and jury. Individual choice exists for that small handful. The masses are left to grovel, not even well-off enough to really serve as pawns.
The powerful extract what they desire. For Lionel, it’s the pain and blood of prostitutes he cannot pleasure sexually – a mad attempt at relieving his own pain by inflicting it on the near-helpless. He likes it when they fight back or act immune to his thrashings. In contrast, Ned “Silver Dollars” Silver, the local political operative and bail bondsman who controls the court system, views the poor as a means of finance. He would steal every last penny from them, not because he needed it, but to ensure that some destitute, filth-ridden peddler had nothing left.
An underlying tenet of Ravage & Son is that the system must prevail. When Ben appears as an attorney defending the poor in Silver’s corrupt courtroom, he leaves with a bounty on his head. “Ned had already made up his mind to have Ben killed,” Charyn writes. “The Lower East Side was one great checkerboard to the fat man, with every single square covered in case of an emergency.” When Cahan questions the open secret of Lionel’s maniac beatings that are covered up by the authorities, he is told, “We’re a closed colony, and Lionel is one of ours. We’ve had to cover up his blemishes. But we cannot rend the fabric, or we’ll never survive.”
Where Is the Redemption?
Charyn is unapologetic and direct when asked about his hope for Ravage & Son: “I want you to cry. If you don’t cry after reading the book, I’m not going to be happy.” How does the author – who has written more than 50 works across novels, historical fiction, graphic novels, nonfiction, biography, and essays – achieve his goal? What I have written thus far certainly focuses on the darkness at the novel’s heart. Where is the redemption?
The answer is twofold: first, there is utter magic in how Charyn breathes life into Ben’s heroic struggle, although the author does not flinch from his character’s full nature. The younger Ravage has grand intentions, but he also battles internal demons brought about by his mother’s demise and his absent father’s role in her downfall. Ben is filled with rage and daydreams about murdering his father with his own hands, yet he knows that Lionel is the sole person who can explain his mother’s life to him.
The brutality of the Lower East Side is also given a redemptive quality via Charyn’s writing style – a cascade of beauty and sentence-by-sentence distillation of the deep sorrow and hopeful optimism of the nation itself as portrayed among its most down and out. For proof, let us turn back to the villainous Lionel Ravage. Without giving away the plot, we can say that the character is a heartbroken powerbroker hell-bent on making the world pay for the loss of his soul mates – Ben’s mother, Manya, and his beloved feline, Chloe.
Lionel’s story can bring a tear, even as Charyn also renders the character utterly perverse. The lost-love angle is one that readers will recognize, and it elicits sympathy. His broken heart has driven him insane: “Lionel felt as if his skull would crack. He’d never talked about Manya with another soul. She’d dwelled in that long stretch of silence his existence had become, a shriek without an echo.”
Fire and destruction are at every turn. The younger Ravage fights to protect in the streets and courtroom, while his father yearns to burn it all to the ground. They share a deep wound and savage love that chains them together but is too agonizing to relive.
Lionel has risen from the ashes like a burned-up J.P. Morgan when the fire he sets at one of his tenements catches too quickly. Charyn writes, “The flames licked around him and the tin on the walls crackled. He didn’t move.” Physically, he is rescued, but the doctors cannot save his soul. He loses the ability to make love, so he intensifies his “blood sport” as a form of sexual satisfaction.
Charyn’s brilliance is in capturing the violence festering behind closed doors and in the streets as forces large and small work in unity to suck the marrow out of the Jewish neighborhood and its inhabitants. The author’s style, which he calls “music”, is marked by an intensity and sensitivity that makes the dark tale more human and humane.
It is as if Charyn is at war with the past, fully committed to its darkness but delivering a source of light through his unmatched voice. He demonstrates in Ravage & Son that heroes have demons, and demons can – in some ways – be heroic. However, it’s like wading into a game without rules, just brutality. Some of that violence is physical, the crushing bone under a fist, while even more is at the hands of our own memories – what our parents have done (and not done) to us mixed with deep, conflicted humanity.
Ravage & Son is more than a piece of historical fiction that tells a story without deeper implications. Through touches of magical realism and an aura of mysticism, Charyn turns the Lower East Side into a portal for looking at that era and our own – maybe all of American history existing in the last hundred or so years in that relatively small space filled with millions of people searching for new lives. Ravage & Son delivers on the author’s aim for readers’ tears, presenting humankind in its fully formed depravity but also capturing life’s essential majesty.
Jerome Charyn on the Complex Demons in Ravage & Son
Tell us more about Ravage & Son‘s back story.
This novel went through many versions it took me ten years to write. And the prologue was what I wrote last! I think you need the prologue because you have a villain, but you want to see why the villain became a villain. What twisted him…what turned him into the monster that he became? So, once I wrote the prologue, I could shift the novel around. There were many, many drafts.
The prologue explains where he came from…The woman he loves coming back again was added later. The wonderful cat Chlöe is sort of the phantom of my own cat, who rules us completely, overpowers us, and is much more clever than we are. So we ended up being servants of the cat, but I wanted to have this romance between Lionel and the cat, and the loss of the cat and the loss of his love turned him into a monster.
Your novels and voice are distinct in contemporary fiction. The works of historical fiction, in particular, are noted by commentators and critics for your ability to blend real-life events and people with the material you have created. What was your goal with Ravage & Son?
I’m a comic writer, so I am interested in humor, but the real resonance I want us to break is reading his heart. I want you to cry. If you don’t cry after reading the book, I’m not going to be happy.
A novel is like a fabric, whereas a screenplay is an outline, and you do it in the least possible words. But in the novel, you must recreate the scene. You must take a spin like a film when you see the opening scene of what happens in in New York City in the 19th century, or whatever there is.
Sometimes, when you go to the movies and see a scene, just the landscape, it’s overpowering. It’s magical. It’s bewildering. I try to do the same with words – recreate what something looked and seemed like. The sound of the words creates the kind of music in you trying to do all this at once. And you can’t leave out any of the elements.
If you don’t know the history of a story, you can make up whatever you want. But to make it up, you must know what really happened. There has to be some substance behind what you’re doing. Readers don’t believe what you wrote if there’s no substance there. I’ll often start a novel and read the first sentence, and it’s a joke.
[My worldview is like Pip at the beginning of Great Expectations] It’s the boy tipped upside down looking at the world in a way you’ve never seen before.
Tell us more about Ben as a character and how you mixed real people and events into Ravage & Son, like the quasi-police force, the Kehilla.
You have to remember that a novel can be anything so long as it succeeds. If [Ravage & Son] were simply a comic novel, it wouldn’t have the resonance, the depth. Remember, it’s about the Lower East Side, perhaps the saddest place in the whole of the United States at the beginning of the 20th century. It was the most crowded place in the world. There was extreme poverty and extreme crime, and the origin of this story was a Jewish police force called the Kehilla.
What happened is that the German Jews uptown were really disturbed by all the crime in the Lower East Side, so they created their own police force. The Kehilla cooperated with the ordinary police force to catch Jewish criminals. But of course, you know that that can take you so far in the end. It’s very linear.
You don’t have the whole symphony there, so my hero is an agent of the Kehilla. But the Kehilla is just as corrupt as the cops themselves. So his task is to fight for the poor on the Lower East Side, which was always my task and what I believed in as a child. My superhero, I mean, didn’t kill villains; he fought to save the poor.
As a child, I visited the Lower East Side every Sunday. I visited my grandparents, and to be truthful, I didn’t enjoy being around them. So I would walk around the streets. There was magic in those markets. Those shopping streets and cafes have their own life, and, of course, my grandparents lived right behind The Forward Building, so I always saw that on East Broadway.
Clearly, there are deep ties to the portrayal of the Lower East Side and America today. What do you see as the connections between then and now?
Gentrification. It would cast out so many of the poor Jews. It always troubles me. Where do the poor go? Where are they going to live? How are they going to survive? If we don’t solve that problem, we don’t solve the problem of the country. So even though Ravage & Son isn’t a philosophical or political tract, it really with the essential problems of what’s happening in this country…[It’s about] progress and money. Behind the progress, always look for the dollar!
There’s a kind of cannibalism that occurs when people are overcrowded. You can see that with mice. If you overcrowd mice, they begin to eat each other. It’s very simple. It’s very clear. I mean, I’m a scientist [laughs].
Your writing career has been distinguished and heralded across the decades by critics and other writers, including Joyce Carol Oates, Michael Chabon, and Don DeLillo, to name a few. From your perspective, what is the essence of writing, and how does that work on the page?
I think each sentence has to have a kind of rhythm. Remember, I started out not writing poetry but reading poetry. I was very attuned to the rhymes within the sentence itself.
I would be very extreme by saying that the meaning of a sentence comes from the music. And that is from the emotion of the music. You wouldn’t think about that when you listen to a symphony by Beethoven or a sonata by Mozart. There is almost a narrative in the sounds that you hear.
For me, there is the music of the sentence. Each sentence is essential. Each sentence has its own story. And, if you’re working right, the space between the sentences themselves will also tell the story. The thing is, everything is always about failure. You never succeed in doing what you want to do. Even in that failure, you try to do as best you can. So, the real story is in the spaces between the sentences in what the reader can imagine is really happening.
I think – strangely – you’re fully mature as a writer by the age of five. I can remember being a child of five, and I remember the imagination. I didn’t think of writing novels, but I was already a novelist. I think by the time Joyce Carol Oates was ten, in her own mind, she had written 15 novels. So this strange thing is, either you have the music, or you don’t. It’s not an easy thing to find. But I do feel that you’re [imagination is] fully formed by the age of five.
Why Ravage & Son Matters
For Charyn, words are the final arbiter. Have they pulled out the reader’s deepest emotions? Have you laughed…have you cried? Ravage & Son shows Charyn at his strongest, a kind of literary alchemist who crafts and blends a potion that mixes darkness and light, pain and beauty, and heroism within the confines of villainy. His portrayal of the Lower East Side in the early years of the 20th century is unflinching and violent, like the world he experienced as a youth in the early 1940s when he walked those same streets.
Charyn has claimed that Ben Ravage is his fictional avatar – a kind of superhero dedicated to helping the poor who cannot fight for themselves, particularly in a rigged system whose goal is to milk them dry and leave them decimated. The assertion naturally leads one to consider whether novels have that power in the real world. What is evident in Ravage & Son is that there is beauty in the attempt to demonstrate the complexity of the human experience, even in its most violent and dangerous.
In the end, it is the story that counts for Charyn. Ravage & Son matters because the novel and its author provide today’s readers context for imagining and reimagining their own lives. He masterfully navigates his character’s duality, painting them as intensely human, filled with imperfections, but resonating with readers via their empathy and decency. Charyn’s haunting melody takes us into a strange and unfamiliar world, using history to present a tapestry of the past.