Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The New York Times (Daily) reviews Lucky Bruce. Again.

In what is certainly a first for a press-published book, The New York Times has reviewed Bruce Jay Friedman's literary memoir Lucky Bruce for a second time in three days. If Sunday's New York Times Book Review review was very positive, Dwight Garner's New York Times Daily review, out today, is even more so. If, as James Baldwin said to him, "You're not a writer until you have a shelf," then Friedman is a hell of a writer indeed, and Lucky Bruce is a wonderful addition to that ever-expanding shelf.

Garner writes:

Funny novels, like funny movies, rarely gain traction with prize committees. “People assume that it’s the gloomy buggers that are the serious ones,” Martin Amis has said, “but in fact, anyone who has ever been anywhere in fiction is funny.” A great comic actor, if he or she sticks around long enough, might win not an actual Oscar but a consolation prize: a lifetime achievement award. The National Book Awards need something similar for America’s comic writers. Among the first I’d nominate is Bruce Jay Friedman, whose prose, over the past five decades, has mostly been a pure pleasure machine.

There’s a bit of Larry David in Mr. Friedman, whose best novels include “Stern” (1962) and “A Mother’s Kisses” (1964), and whose vinegar-and-oil short work can be found in “The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman” (1995). There’s a bit of Joseph Heller and Nora Ephron and Peter De Vries and Calvin Trillin and early Philip Roth in him too.

Mr. Friedman, also a playwright and screenwriter, called one of his plays “a tense comedy,” and that phrase describes his best fiction. It’s a bundle of neuroses. The Friedman book I hold most dear is “The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life” (1978), which was made into a mediocre Steve Martin and Charles Grodin movie. At times when I’ve felt like one of its sad-sack antiheroes — luckless, friendless, dumped, alone — that book has been high comic nourishment. It makes low-level depression and ineptitude seem stylish and ironic, almost a supreme way of being in the world.

Mr. Friedman returns now with “Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir,” a buoyant book. He is 81, but his prose, in terms of its vigor, is still in its 30s. “Lucky Bruce” is about a kid from the Bronx who finds early literary fame; fritters away some of his prime years, dabbling in movies and theater; makes and loses a load of money; eats very well; has close and funny friends; sleeps with more than his allotment of beautiful women; and, agreeably for his readers, has a way with anecdotes.

The author is big and gregarious; he seems like the kind of guy who might, out of the blue, decide to give you noogies. That’s what he essentially did to Norman Mailer, at a party at Mailer’s town house in the late 1960s. In return he was head-butted by Mailer, whose wife, Beverly, yelled, “Kill the bastard, Norman.” The pair took it outside. Mr. Friedman got in a few belly punches and won the fight, but Mailer bit him in the neck. Mr. Friedman ended up at Lenox Hill Hospital, on the receiving end of a tetanus shot.

There are a lot of stories like that one in “Lucky Bruce.” Mr. Friedman warned his friend Mario Puzo not to call his book “The Godfather.” (“Sounds domestic.”) He accidentally shushed Edmund Wilson at the theater. Al Pacino said to him admiringly, “Some men can wear a hat.” James Baldwin said to him, “You’re not a writer until you have a shelf.” Kurt Vonnegut asked, “Can you teach me how to hang out?” Philip Roth once called out to him, “Remember, Saul Bellow am de daddy of us all.” (Mr. Friedman thought to himself, “I did not feel he was my daddy.”)

Mr. Friedman criticizes himself for name-dropping in “Lucky Bruce,” but he needn’t worry: the stories are good ones. And he never strays far from his own shapely life story.

He decided to be a writer because he thought it might help him with women, and his early role model was J. D. Salinger. Mr. Friedman sold one of the first stories he wrote to The New Yorker. A letter he received from the magazine read, “All of us here are delighted with your story and we would like to publish it in the magazine.” Mr. Friedman’s response was, he writes, “All of us here in the Bronx are delighted that all of you there at The New Yorker are pleased with my story.”

By the time he was in his late 20s, Mr. Friedman had three sons, an unhappy marriage, a house on Long Island and a job editing low-brow men’s adventure magazines. He wrote his first novel, “Stern,” on subways and commuter trains.

“I recall writing the book in a heat,” he says, “as if I was being chased down an alley.”

The book sold only 6,000 copies, but its editor, Robert Gottlieb, assured Mr. Friedman that they were “the right copies.” The author later wondered, “Would it have been so awful to sell a few hundred thousand of the ‘wrong’ copies?”

Literary fame came; so did the smell of money, coming from the film business. Mr. Friedman wrote the screenplays for “Splash” and “Stir Crazy.” One of his short stories, adapted by Neil Simon, became the Elaine May film “The Heartbreak Kid.” He had cameos in three Woody Allen films and palled around with Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood and Richard Pryor.

Pryor asked Mr. Friedman if he wanted to get high. The author responded by explaining why, as he put it, “there were no (or very few) Jewish junkies.” The three reasons: “Jews need eight hours of sleep”; “They must have fresh orange juice in the morning”; “They have to read the entire N.Y. Times.”

In his best work, Mr. Friedman has always bounced his comedy off dark human action and emotion, and those things are here too. He worries that he was not a good father to his sons.

“I’d always felt shabby,” he writes, “about not doing a good enough job in looking after my father before his death.” He berates himself for career missteps.

“I’m a great fan of comeback stories,” Mr. Friedman writes in “Lucky Bruce.” His book is a pretty good comeback story of its own.

No comments: