Excerpt from back to Bataan:
Mauricette told Harriet Godwin I was the pig of the class. I had treated her like garbage. Mauricette wouldn’t answer my phone calls. She wouldn’t read the notes I dropped inside her desk. But Arturo Fink kept reminding her who she was. “Fiancée,” he said. “Jack’s fiancée.”
I promised myself I wouldn’t write anymore compositions, but how could I graduate from Dr. Franklin’s class and join General MacArthur?
It felt lonely without a fiancée.
Mauricette began seeing Barnaby Rosenstock after school. They were holding hands and having chocolate malteds at the Sugar Bowl on Seventy-ninth Street. Fat Arturo was eating two ice-cream sodas. The Sugar Bowl is our hangout. It’s the official candy store of Dutch Masters Day School. I didn’t have money for ice-cream sodas. I didn’t have money for malteds. I’d buy a Hershey bar or some Chuckles once a week. I’d peek at the comic book rack and wonder what was happening to Captain Marvel or the Sub-Mariner. Marvel and the Sub-Mariner were already at war, fighting Japs. And when Mauricette was still my fiancée, I’d sit with her over a glass of water and treat her to some candy whenever I could. But now she was sucking malteds with Barnaby Rosenstock. I could hear her from my corner, next to the comic book rack.
“Oh, Jack Dalton,” she said. “He has a wild imagination. He likes to fling words around. He thinks half the school is going to marry him.”
She didn’t have to shame me in front of her friends. Arturo was laughing into his fat cheeks. Barnaby had a chocolate rainbow on his lips. I didn’t even bother with the comic books. Marvel would have to fight the Japs without me. I walked home.
Mama was at the factory. She makes parachutes. Sometimes she’d bring home a little piece of silk left over from one of the chutes. That’s how I get my handkerchiefs. Not even Arturo with all his father’s money has a handkerchief of genuine silk. But handkerchiefs couldn’t make me feel good. Silk is only silk. I wondered about the American fliers who had their planes shot down and had to fall into the dark wearing some of that silk.
I couldn’t concentrate on my homework. It didn’t seem important when you considered all the Japs and Germans out there. I hope General MacArthur takes me with him to Bataan. I’m not asking for a Purple Heart. I’m only asking to kill Japs. And if I have to die, I want to die near my dad…
Mama came home at seven. The streets from my window looked so dark, I thought the world had gone gray. I didn’t care. I wouldn’t mind going to school after midnight.
“Darling,” Mama said, “what’s wrong?”
I couldn’t tell her how I lost a fiancée, because she would have figured I was insane.
“Mama, I’m blue…that’s all.” “You’re still dreaming of the Army, aren’t you? We’ll have dinner and listen to the radio, my little blue boy.”
We had soup and bread and boiled potatoes and peas out of a can. It’s not Mama’s fault if meat is rationed and sugar is rationed. No one can inherit ration stamps, not even the President or Arturo’s dad.
We listened to Jack Benny. He played the violin and talked about the Japs. Mama laughed, because Jack Benny is the biggest miser in the world. He would never spend a nickel. But he told everybody to buy war bonds.
“What about you, Mr. Benny?”
Mama told me it was time for bed.
I put on my pajamas. But I didn’t feel like sleeping. I dialed Mauricette’s number and let the telephone ring. Somebody picked up the phone.
“It’s me,” I said. “Jack Dalton. Your former fiancé. Coco, are you there? I wanted to—” Mauricette hung up. And I wondered who was lonelier. The dead cowboys on Bataan, or young Jack Dalton.
Interview with Jerome Charyn
What are your thoughts on the explosion of popularity concerning the YA genre?
I think it might very well be that it started with Harry Potter, that young adult writers are trying to tell good stories and adults have moved into that kind of dream.
You are the master of writing across a realm of different genres, what excites you about connecting with different audiences?
I’m not so sure that these are different audiences, I think we all love stories, whether we’re children or great-grandfathers and when you move from genre to genre you are still telling a story like Scheherazade and the king is always waiting for the next tale.
Your writing is so precise, yet evocative – how do you work at crafting your unique style of prose?
Everything begins and ends with the word, with the music of the sentence and as Tolstoy once said, “I’m always composing.”
Being a published author for nearly 50 years, what do you think of eBooks?
I think that this is a kind of logical step as we move from the Internet into eBooks. Publishing is changing even as we speak. I think there now will be a more complicated dance between the eBook and the printed book, and as we’ve seen recently, successes in eBooks allow the author to move into print.
What would be your advice to young people who aspire to a literary career?
It’s not worth the money – only write if you’re absolutely in love with it.
How much of your life is in Back to Bataan? How did you personally experience New York during World War II?
I think so much of the source of my writing comes from my childhood, I grew up during the War – so many of the terrors and the magic of certain films have remained with me. And all of this appears in the character of Jack.
Your older brother was a detective. Did your experiences with him influence the plot?
Not really, I think all writing is crime writing. And Back to Bataan is a crime novel with a very original twist.
Why did you decide to include the fascination with the famous as a theme – Gary Cooper, Eleanor Roosevelt, etc.?
These people were heroes to me as a child, particularly Eleanor Roosevelt, who was one of the most extraordinary women who ever lived, and of course as a child I fell in love with Gary Cooper’s face and with his very slow drawl, that seemed so exotic to me. Jack finds acclaim through his writing, yet feels guilty for exploiting other people (Mrs. Fink).
How does a writer starting out work to bridge this gap?
You’re always cannibalizing other people and writers when you start to write, so it’s natural that Jack should be a young cannibal.
How important is the New York Times in your own life? Why did you decide to make it a form of connection between Jack and the Leader?
As a child, I didn’t even know that the Times existed – I grew up in a neighborhood without newspapers and books, so that when I first fell upon the New York Times, I was very very greedy, and wanted to include it in Jack’s middle-class life.