Friday, July 23, 2010

Short-a-Day: Jerome Charyn's "Lorelei"

Originally published in The Atlantic, Fiction 2010. Personal enjoyment rating (out of 100): 78.

Charyn's got an original character, a small-time grifter named Howell who half-cheats wealthy widows by using his conservative attitude and his "beautiful hands" to get them to fall for him and, subsequently, to invest in him--as a means of tying themselves to him. In return, he offers actual emotions, not mere illusion: "The chiseler fell in love, even if only for five minutes." It's a great start, especially in the way he sets himself apart from the lonely widows, "the real birds of prey. They grasped at Howell with their forceful talons." Now, though: "He was middle-aged, well past 50, and couldn't bear to romance another widow."

So it is that he finds himself back at his old home at the Lorelei, a development in the Bronx that served as a haven for the rich kids--and himself, the poor, single superintendent's son imprisoned in the basement apartment. While reminiscing, he finds that his first love still lives here: "Naomi Waldman, the little Bronx debutante who'd driven Howell wild when he lived under the ground with his Pa." Charyn's got a smooth way of introducing Naomi's parents and the blossoming child--these memories do, as Howell describes them, stick in there "like a strange claw."

This is when Howell starts putting the pieces together, so to speak, realizing that he's been caught up in Naomi's "con" since the beginning--that he is the way he is, forging love for money, because he learned from Naomi and her father, Mr. Hugo. That is, he understands, for the first time, why the widows are so eager to invest in him--it's because he himself is so eager to invest in Naomi, even now that she's aged and is confined to a wheelchair. But rather than face this, he flees, amid hints that the 90-year-old Mr. Hugo has lusted after his own daughter and that she has remained needlessly chaste. It makes sense in a full-circle way, for he starts off on the lam and ends up "running for his life," from the terrifying abandons of love, but the feeling itself is missing, lost in the too-cute wrap-up.


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Lenore said...

I found the story entrancing and the characters haunting. It evokes a Great Expectations for the Bronx. So happy the Atlantic Monthly placed it first.

Aaron Riccio said...

Glad you liked the story, Lenore. By the way, feel free to leave recommendations for other shorts out there. I've got tons of collections and back-issues to get through (this project is, in part, a way to do that), and recommendations are a great way to help weed through all the fiction that often cr(a)ps up.