Saturday, November 22, 2008

Three Balconies is "as good as it gets."

Today's Globe & Mail review:

Friedman in fine form


By Bruce Jay Friedman

Biblioasis, 203 pages, $26.95

What a treat it is to have new fiction from Bruce Jay Friedman, this one a volume of stories, a couple of humorous sketches and a novella. Three Balconies brings together some uncollected stories, or stories written since the landmark Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman, published more than a decade ago, and complements an impressive body of work: eight novels, including Stern, About Harry Towns and The Current Climate; five volumes of short fiction; five screenplays, including Stir Crazy; three plays, including Scuba Duba; and four books of non-fiction, including The Lonely Guy and The Slightly Older Guy.

What is it about Friedman's work that is so appealing? When we can stand back a little and look at it at the level of the line, we realize that we are witnessing a triumph of language, of street idiom. As in great music, in which one note follows naturally upon another, not a word is out of place in Friedman, and not a word has been written to impress. These are the words of the office, the diner, the golf course, the bedroom and the bar.

In Neck and Neck, a rival author asks Baum, the protagonist, "Why do you waste your time on movies? All that counts is the novel. Nothing else. Nada. Nada. Nada." Baum is stung by the remark: "One Nada would have been sufficient," he remarks.

In The Thespian, Harry's wife, Julie, has taught Harry "to say 'I love you' at the end of all conversations, whether he felt like it or not. On automatic now, he had once said 'I love you' to his accountant."

Friedman's world is one of Everyman and Everywoman, a world of imperfections, one in which dreams don't quite get realized. His alter ego, Harry Towns, who has not quite become the great novelist or great screenwriter he has always aspired to be, is asked by an old flame to play a bit part in a feature film of hers. In the role, he works the cash in a bookstore and is to ask the lead nothing more than, "May I interest you in Pushkin?" But feeling confident in his delivery, "the bit firmly between his teeth, Harry gave a colourful account of Pushkin's fatal duel with his wife's paramour, raising the possibility that the poet's rival, D'Anthes, might have cheated by wearing a steel vest. He described in detail Pushkin's final moments and Nicholas II's graciousness in not only settling the poet's debts, but also establishing a trust fund for his family. 'Can you imagine an American President doing that for his family?' "

In The Investigative Reporter, Alexander Kahn, the novelist and journalist, hates his own dull life, visits a prison and ends up lighting up a joint within view of the guards. In The Secret Man, Jacob challenges the neighbourhood tough guy, only to see him back down. Jacob learns in later years that, as a consequence, he was viewed as something of a bully himself. In Kneesocks, Harry Towns, who has never gotten over being dumped by a girlfriend in college, sees her again 25 years later. He realizes "the fit wasn't quite right" - it never has been, and the encounter serves to fortify his love of Julie, waiting for him at home.

Friedman is great at encapsulating people as they strive heartily within the confines of their lives. In The Great Beau LeVyne, Heidi is a "slender raven-haired woman with exquisite skin and patrician features whose flesh was cold to the touch. As I was later to learn, she had been a Homecoming Queen at the University of Missouri, majored in political science and then veered off to become a curator at the Indian Museum. She now spoke with an English accent that was convincing."

In Fit as a Fiddle, Liebermann, "his long time editor, keeled over at his desk, as if he had grown weary of reading introspective first novels."

While Friedman's characters rarely despair enough to take their own lives (with one notable exception in this volume), in the title story, Harry is lured to the railing of one of the three balconies in his new Miami condominium. His "Two Big Pictures" are a distant memory, his image as a gentleman and lover are fading, his inspiration is fleeting, yet he knows still where to look for hope. He "would deal with the balconies one at a time. Wasn't that what life was about - taking it one balcony at a time?

"If that wasn't a philosophy, he didn't know what was."

In these stories, Bruce Jay Friedman blends his brand of humour with a kind of sadness and darkness that sneaks up on you and reminds you of that old adage of Mark Twain, that "the true source of humour is not joy but sorrow."

This is as good as it gets. Treat yourself to Three Balconies.

Joe Kertes is dean of the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College. His most recent novel is Gratitude.

1 comment:

sondra hassman said...

Bravo This is a keeper Turn these stories into great screen plays Bruce and write More Sondra Eve Harris Hassman