Friday, October 07, 2011

Inside Bruce Jay Friedman's Pulp Arcadia: The New York Times Reviews Lucky Bruce

“You’d think that someone born in the thick of the Great Depression would have a sad story to tell,” Bruce Jay Friedman writes, “but mine isn’t one of them.”

For the length of this jaunty, dishy memoir, Friedman makes good on this promise, spinning campfire tales from a career spent turning the written word into that uncelebrated but elusive commodity, a living. Some writers seek immortality and end up scarred and bitter. Friedman sought regular paychecks and occasional furtive embraces and ended up with a table at Elaine’s. Boohoo. Whose memoir would you rather take away for the ­weekend?

“Lucky Bruce” is a “literary memoir” mainly for the persistence with which it reminds readers that Friedman, whose biggest successes include an early screenplay for “Splash” and the play “Steambath,” also pursued bigger game, the biggest being the almighty novel. Working both ends of the literary food chain, he edited a stable of swashbuckling men’s magazines and also wrote novels like “Stern” (1962) and “The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life” (1978) that got good reviews and won him fans among literary writers. In such a career, the occasional dark night of the soul may seem tempting, but not compared with a high-paying screenplay or magazine assignment. As Friedman recalls the playwright Jack Richardson telling him at a literary conference: “I don’t know anyone like you. You’re a writer. And you actually write.”

Insecurity runs through the volume at hand. Friedman quotes from positive reviews of his work and — oh, the shamelessness of it — uses his own bons mots as chapter epigraphs. It is as hard to imagine, say, Alice Munro feeling the need to subtitle her reminiscences “A Literary Memoir” as it is to imagine her writing of a college grapple, “As we made love, or what passed for it, she said: ‘You don’t really care much for this, do you?’ ” The soundtrack to this book is a rimshot.

Rarely does Friedman get caught up in the more formal stringencies of his art. When he meets the jazz clarinetist Artie Shaw over tongue sandwiches at the Carnegie Delicatessen, Friedman burns to ask about Shaw’s wives and lovers, who included Ava Gardner and Lana Turner. But to his disappointment Shaw waves such piffle aside. What does he want to talk about? “Short-story construction.” The author’s insights on this topic may be quite edifying, but you will not find them in this book.

What you will find instead is a free-­associative scrapbook of dropped names, gossipy anecdotes and comfy jokes — or, in keeping with Friedman’s oft-­visible Swank magazine roots, atasty confection of gossip and the rest. “Did I say ‘dalliances’?” he writes, raising an eyebrow over his own breathy prose. “You can lead a boy out of the pulps, but you can’t, etc.”

It is the right voice for the anecdotes collected here. Friedman gets in a fistfight with Norman Mailer, urinates next to Muhammad Ali, receives a blunt proposition from William Saroyan’s daughter, has “a night of madness” with Jean Seberg, hangs out at Elaine’s or on the patio of the Beverly Hills Hotel, hires Mario Puzo for one of his men’s magazines, helps Warren Beatty manage a tryst, manages a few of his own, marries twice and, in later midlife, settles into a regular lunch routine on Long Island with Puzo, Joseph Heller and a few others. They reject James Salter from the clique because he is too good a writer. In Friedman’s pulp Arcadia, bosoms are “capacious,” their owners “amply endowed” or “painfully beautiful,” figures are “dashing,” foreign lands are “far off,” and sums are “princely.” A more abstemious writer might have denied himself such clichés, but the joys here derive in part from Friedman’s guilty appetites, which include a jones for the equivalent of junk food.

For the rest of the review please go here.

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