Bruce Jay Friedman's razor-sharp wit and keen observation of the genus American male (from the 1950s to the present) have the power to make men laugh and women weep. He has written highly acclaimed novels ("Stern," "A Mother's Kisses"), hilarious books of nonfiction ("The Lonely Guy," made into a movie starring Steve Martin, and "The Slightly Older Guy,") a hit Broadway play ("Steambath"), two hit movies ("Stir Crazy," "Splash"), and short stories published everywhere from Playboy to The Antioch Review. Many of the stories were published a decade ago in "The Collected Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman," and now a fresh batch has arrived in "Three Balconies."
The title story is Friedman at his best, somehow managing to turn what begins as wry comedy into a searing and painfully credible tale of a man on the brink of suicide. Harry is a 60-year-old writer whose career is on the wane. He is told by a Hollywood agent that his name "no longer comes up on the radar screen." The director of a small theater advises him to "thread a Diane Sawyer type" through the plot of his play about the Siege of Malta - "someone covering the siege for some medieval publication," - and he's desperate enough to give it a shot.
Harry hopes to refresh himself and his work on a trip to Miami Beach. He's happily married but still loves the company of women; when he finds a bevy of attractive young females partying every night at the bar of his hotel, he forgets about his problematic play. He revels in mixing it up with the tanned young beauties in the bar, happy with nothing more than the "pursuit," until the fatal third night, when he meets the most gorgeous one of all and fantasizes about seducing her. She says she has observed him the last two nights and thinks he is "very courageous."
" 'Because I'm old?' said Harry.
" 'No, no, no,' said Miriam Rosen, but the two extra no's were confirmation that he had read her correctly."
Betrayed by his age, Harry slinks off to a remote strip club for a nightmarish lap dance. As he sits on the balcony of his 18th-story hotel suite the next morning, he fears that he might "hop over the railing and bring down the curtain once and for all." The balcony now seems like a ledge, and he realizes, to his horror, that the new condo he has purchased in a not-yet-completed building features three balconies. Harry convinces himself that he should return to his work; he will deal with "one balcony at a time."
Friedman deals in a similar comic-turned-serious manner with another of his frequent themes in "Mr. Wimbledon." The favorite activity of Siegel, a well-off manufacturer who "had achievements in bullet-proof sportswear," is engaging in a "favorite activity - looking for evidence of hostility to the Jews." On a tennis vacation in the Northwest, his WASP girlfriend "found a club for him, one that anyone could join; as a result it had no members." In an argument with a Jewish couple on the next court, an anti-Semitic slang term is shouted. Siegel hears "a word dredged up from his childhood, like a dirty animal in a cellar. He was shocked when he realized the voice was his own, but also gratified that he had finally found the enemy."
Insights often come in these stories when the author deftly reverses the roles assigned by society. An architect's own psychiatrist arrives at his door one morning, looking for therapeutic help in "The Reversal." Dr. Gold explains to his client that "I thought I'd change the game plan and try the unorthodox. It's worked for me before. I once got sound advice from a building superintendent."
Friedman reveals male fantasies in all their embarrassing political incorrectness. Men may have a hilarious shock of recognition over stories like "Kneesocks," when a middle-aged man meets a beautiful woman he had a crush on in college. "The thought of her long slender legs in kneesocks made him dizzy. He wanted to run right off with her and have her put some on for him."
The best (and largely futile) efforts of the middle-class American male who came of age in the 1950s to deal with the current scene is expressed by Harry in "Three Balconies": "Was it possible he just liked to be with women? One of his favorite things was when he met someone he had at one time thought of as a 'pretty young thing,' somebody's assistant, and have her turn out to be a leading neurophysiologist. Or a feared litigator . . . . Harry was delighted by this change in the culture. How could he not be? In his lifetime - as a phenomenon - he ranked it right up there with the overnight collapse of communism."
I know, I know: The truth is we ought to be home anyway, it's way past our bedtime. And look what happened to Harry.