Middle of Nowhere Productions

Middle of Nowhere Productions

Alphabetville (Jerome Charyn) Notes


This text is an extract, actually the beginning, of a novel by Jerome Charyn, war cries over Avenue C. The novel itself takes place in a rather crazy parallel world of Vietnam war veterans, Russian, Jewish and Colombian hoodlums. The introductory chapter, from which this passage is taken, is supposedly the editor's note to what is probably an underground guide of Manhattan: Your Manhattan Spy, sixth edition, written by one Doris Quinn, who also appears as a minor character in the novel It is really an introduction to the underworld described in the book, both because of the information it delivers about the district considered and because of its construction and style: a crescendo in weirdness and a decrescendo in civilization. Although we learn in the very first lines that the action takes place in New York City, New York, a place we know very well thanks to the numerous films and serials that have it as a background or main character, we gradually become immersed into another universe, where, as it is said further in the introduction, There's nothing ( .. .) identifiable with the least of human landscapes.

The text is naturally linear, as it describes a slide towards the darkest side of Manhattan, avenues A,B,C, and D, presented as soon as the first lines as a dirty appendage to Manhattan's Lower East Side, already considered as a pretty dreary neighbourhood in itself. The reader is guided from civilization to Indian Country, a label that means that in that part of the town, the concept of the frontier has been moving backwards, both in time and space, as it concerns the Easternmost part of the East, compared here to what the West used to be in the XIXth century. The multiethnic character of Manhattan, pockets of Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Italians and Germans, is then insisted on, in order to make things even clearer about that other planet, the land of murder and cocaine. The reader is actually stepping into another world, where the various populations of the Big Apple have no power whatsoever. What is more, even the religious particularity of New York, the fact that, because of its numerous Irish and Italian communities, the population is still overwhelmingly Catholic, does not work there. As Doris Quinn is supposed to put it, quoting the most religious inhabitants of the place, Christ has stopped at avenue A.

The description begins with First Avenue, the last real avenue before Alphabetville. It begins with a bit of social criticism and humour: Doris Quinn treats her reader as if he were (and he probably is) a rather well-educated New-Yorker wishing to rub elbows with rougher people. The fact is that first Avenue is, for most New-Yorkers, a place of ill repute. Yet, it is still civilization, whatever your mommy and daddy tell you, a warning that comes from a terrace up in Riverdale, another neighbourhood where the people are dean. According to Doris, what is the essence of Manhattan exists on First Avenue; mainly commerce, that sense if the constant entrepreneur, wealth hiding behind a window, taxicabs, and, surprisingly enough, Chinese restaurants, but not any Chinese restaurants: Hunan ones, considered as the most hard-working and consequently successful.

The third paragraph starts with a strange, poetic sentence, nicely rhythmed: Shove a little east to Avenue A, and you begin to smell the moon. Mentioning another planet appears here as something you can actually smell; there is mystery in the utterance: does the moon smell like anything? The moon is naturally here to emphasize the difference, but also to evoke something more than mysterious, rather clandestine., with echoes of moonshine and moonlighting. The change is subtle, and it is described as something almost imperceptible, from the comfort of a Russian beanery, with all its common delicacies., stuffed cabbage, golden pancakes, a strawberry in your tea, which make the customer feel almost biblicaIly secure: you’ll think that Avenue A was your own fatted calf. Yet, a change has occurred in the street, only a vague terror, stylistically rendered through an oxymoron, which settles in when the customer discovers that there is no taxicab there: You could die whistling and might not meet a checker cab. There is also some kind of a paradox in the way things are put there, as you could die whistling can be understood both ways, in its raw meaning, which sounds poetic enough, as in its usual popular meaning.

From then on, the fall becomes quicker, although, according to Doris Quinn, you have entered Indian country without even knowing it. All the marks of civilization disappear, following suit after the Checker cabs: Hunan restaurants go bankrupt there, and corner drugstores, so much a part of your culture, a piece of civilization you've come to expect, are replaced by Medicaid mills, that place for destitutes and derelicts, which Doris dubs a little factory of doctors and dentists. Further on, to add atmosphere, there's the legal clinic, which is to law what Medicaid is to health, a service where you can get legal advice and help free of charge. The description is tragic indeed, making the alphabet the world an ocean of tears in various languages, which are all the languages of immigration: Polish, Spanish, Yiddish, Chinese, Russian and Italian phrases, and a picture of multiethnic New-York at its worst. History is once more turned into derision, as the lawsuits of those poor people, men and women with angry faces, are described as long scrolls, as if they were the sad account of their own history. more, they sit inside the window, as if they were the parody of that wealth hiding behind a window in §2.

Yet, the reader has not reached the end of his journey, because, as Doris puts it - and this is dearly understandable by any New-Yorker, as he lives in an exceptional place, the Big Apple, the City That Does Not Sleep- A might be just another eccentric avenue, such as the Bowery and its bums, for example, and the marks of civilization mentioned are once again gastronomic ones: blueberry blintzes and brown bread. It must be noted here that, in effect, it is possible to eat almost anything in New-York, precisely because of its multiethnic specificity, and specialties, all different and coming from different horizons, are part of the specificity as well. The beginning of the end is Avenue B, because there, all the cozy earmarks evaporate; it is there that everything that compose the landscape of the New-Yorker, his references, his sense of belonging to a place, vanish. History is once more made use of, with the term good burghers, which refers directly to the very origins of the town, in 1642, when Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant, from the Dutch Company, bought the island from the manahatta Indians. Of course, what is left when those burghers have fled is Indian country. The description becomes almost surrealistic, with strange useless items in the windows, such as half a loveseat or a broken crib, and closes down on the original American vegetable, bushels of potatoes, like a perfect opposition to all the imported specialties that can be found elsewhere in the town.

Extreme poverty is evoked through the reference to the Puerto-Rican community, which West Side Story has immortalized as the ultimate New-York ghetto: B wears the colors of a poverty so basic, it has no use for pretense ( ... ) Alphabetville isn't burdened with any dream of little San Juan. What certainly made the force of New-York, the fact that every community, albeit poor, kept its traditions and created Chinatown or Little Italy or Little San Juan as places of energy and life, is absent from the place which is described here, and even the language and the gods are different: the gods ( ... ) can only manage the Creole of that particular street.

There is the same backwards movement of yetting and butting at the opening of the last paragraph, which makes the decrescendo even more powerful: But B is nearly civilization next to C. What was announced in the introduction enters the text, the land of murder and cocaine, the realm of delinquency, the dark side of an empty closet. The description verges once again on surrealism, as the cops wear Batman capes on Avenue C in order to signal the snipers in the windows that they are not on duty, otherwise they get shot. But is it really the end? Apparently not, as a backwards movement, although desperate, comes again to interrupt the downwards movement of the text: But don't interpret this as anarchy in an empty closet. Teenage hitmen patrol the street. What makes the backwards movement desperate is of course the term teenage hitmen, a dreadful oxymoron, which in fact shows that the reader has reached the bottom of the world.

The text provides a very intimate vision of New-York, as all texts by Charyn do, but including as usual a very strong European background. It echoes of course that specificity of New York, that mosaic of people who managed to merge without really losing their original cultures, and which makes of the city the first Jewish town in the world and one of the most important Italian towns as well. The movement of the passage is also interesting, almost musical at times, and fits perfectly its aim, which is to be an initiation journey, a fall indeed, down to the worst zones of what urban deliquescence can produce, but with some resting levels and a sense of humour and poetry.

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