Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Last of the Summer Wine: A New York Times Review of Friedman's Three Balconies

by Charles Taylor

A friend of mine had an uncle who, years after surviving a concentration camp, would respond to every petty inconvenience and irritation by exclaiming, “First the Holocaust. Now this!” That expectation of suffering, greeted with more shrug than outrage, is at the heart of much Jewish humor. You can find it in many of the stories that make up Bruce Jay Friedman’s “Three Balconies.”

Just listen to these opening lines:

“It was a dark time for Dugan.” “Herbert Plotkin did not so much appear in Jacob’s new neighborhood as he seemed to loom up out of nowhere.” “Alexander Kahn, a failed novelist, and at best a marginal producer of off-Broadway plays.. . .” “The blindfold had been removed.” And, of course, the ever-popular “The Jews killed Christ.” Hear any of those — but particularly that last one — and you’d have to be a little touched to feel like whistling “Maytime.”

Friedman, whose work includes plays (“Scuba Duba,” “Steambath”), novels (“A Mother’s Kisses”), nonfiction (“The Lonely Guy”), and screenplays (“Stir Crazy”), is in something of a dark mood. Which isn’t to say that he’s stopped being funny, only that we still have to point out that darkness and comedy are not a contradiction. Friedman is aware of that. Why else start one of the three stories here about his old protagonist, the screenwriter Harry Towns, with the sentence “As is the case with most men, Harry wanted to be taken seriously and resented the suggestion that he was not a serious man.” In the novella that ends the book, “The Great Beau LeVyne,” a writer rises in self-righteous indignation at a literary conference, points to Beau, the narrator, and announces, “I’m not funny.” As a declaration of somber intent, that’s a pip, but see if anybody wants to have a drink with you.

That blowhard is remembered with more amusement than indignation. Friedman turned 78 this year, and many of the protagonists in “Three Balconies” are older, looking back on their lives, remembering old rivals and allies — the difference, at this distance, seeming not so great as perhaps it once was. Even the ones ruing lost time are caught up in the comedy of aging rather than in its tragedy. The story “Neck and Neck” reads as an illustration of the old adage “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” You can’t help laughing at the protagonist, a writer paralyzed by the success that seems to come effortlessly to his chief rival. The writer in “Joined at the Hip,” driven to murder by the slick-talking theatrical producer who costs him his confidence, is described in terms that we’ve come to associate with the image of the leonine Hemingway­esque writer, linking his productivity to his virility. Friedman treats that as grandiloquent delusion.

Writers, as a group, are so vain and so given to complaining that it’s no wonder there’s practically a subgenre of fiction about the suffering of writers. That’s why it’s always such a treat when a writer like Friedman (or Stephen King in “The Dark Half” or “The Shining”) puts that kind of self-pity in its place. (And it’s why Harry Towns, largely free of that self-pity, is so appealing a character.)

Some of the stories here are a bit too clever. The opener, “The Secret Man,” and a few others, like “The Convert” and “The Investigative Reporter,” rely too much on easy, and heavy-handed, ironies. The intent to instruct gives the killjoy the upper hand over the entertainer.

Friedman saves the best for last. Perhaps the model for the protagonist of “The Great Beau LeVyne” will be obvious to readers who, like Friedman, were part of the New York literary scene of the 1960s (or the Hollywood scene in the ’70s). You don’t have to know who he was, though, to recognize the sort of wildly charismatic, self-destructive, marginally crazy figure who gravitates to the fringes of the arts, sustained by friends and contacts and, often, a con man’s charm. It’s easy to believe in the sort of madman so hyped up on his own macho fantasies that he chooses restaurants as the place to challenge both Bill Russell and Crazy Joe Gallo.

“The Great Beau LeVyne” — the very name conjures up someone who’s half good old boy, half gigolo — is one of those pieces of writing rife with the names of cities and restaurants and the people who inhabited them. But Friedman isn’t name-dropping. He’s evoking the glamour and cachet they once possessed, and doing it in the name of affectionate, though cleareyed, remembrance. On the last page he writes of LeVyne, “If his intention was to make us feel his absence, he succeeded brilliantly.” That’s what Friedman has done for the era he remembers so vividly.

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