Thursday, March 7, 2013
I've written a few times lately about Bruce Jay Friedman (b. 1930), whose novels and plays and films entertained not just me but countless other folks back in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. After a series of great successes (his novels Stern, The Dick, About Harry Townes; his plays Scuba Duba and Steambath; his screenplays Stir Crazy, Splash, The Lonely Guy), he sort of drifted out of public awareness.
Recently, reviewing a book on a different subject, I came across a quotation from Friedman, and I wondered what had ever happened to him. And so off I went on a little mini adventure of reading his two most recent books--one, a collection of stories (Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella, 2008) and a memoir (Lucky Bruce, 2011). I've written here about his early career, about the recent story collection, but not long ago I finished his memoir and wanted to say a few things about it.
The book breezily rehearses his life, employing few organizational or stylistic devices to alarm, amaze, or even surprise or delight. An occasional flashback. He writes, for example, about his father's background--and his family's central European heritage (Romania, Hungary, Russia). He recalls his boyhood reading (from the Hardy Boys to Anne Frank), his love of narrative radio and movies.
He wrote Stern, he says, in five months (and Scuba Duba in five days!)--but with a darker ending than the publisher wanted. So he changed it. (What we'll do, early in our careers, just to get published.) The book did pretty well--and he began entering a world he could only have imagined earlier. A long friendship with Joseph Heller, partying with Plimpton and Puzo, meeting and scrapping with Mailer (of whom he writes that humor was "never one of his strengths" ) and Steinem, and novelist Richard Yates. "He," says Friedman of Yates, "came across as having a demon or two more than the rest of us" (106). He makes an occasional pronouncement: "All writing is autobiographical," (194) and "the short story had become the stepchild of American literature" (258).
He writes about a failed marriage, his friendships later with Vonnegut and Mel Brooks and Dan Wakefield. And he ends with some sad sentences: "For me, there has never been enough time"; "it's been a highly decent life" (290).
Lucky Bruce is an old-fashioned memoir--what used to be called a writer's "memoirs"--generally frivolous, even random memories burnished by nostalgia and wishful thinking. Friedman shows no real awareness of the contemporary memoir genre--a genre that demands more introspection, reflection, analysis, a sharp edge. In a way, the book is a lengthy "What I Did Last Summer" essay from school days. Yes, it's well-written, fun to read--but as light as helium. Released, it floats away, quickly vanishes.