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Friedman, Bruce Jay

FRIEDMAN, Bruce Jay

Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 26 April 1930. Education: De Witt Clinton High School, Bronx, New York; University of Missouri, Columbia, 1947-51, B.A. in journalism 1951. Military Service: United States Air Force, 1951-53: Lieutenant. Family: Married 1) Ginger Howard in 1954 (divorced 1977), three children; 2) Patricia J. O'Donohue in 1983, one daughter. Career: Editorial director, Magazine Management Company, publishers, New York, 1953-64. Visiting professor of literature, York College, City University, New York, 1974-76. Address: P.O. Box 746, Water Mill, New York 11976, U.S.A.

Publications

Novels

Stern. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1962; London, Deutsch, 1963.

A Mother's Kisses. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1964; London, Cape, 1965.

The Dick. New York, Knopf, 1970; London, Cape, 1971.

About Harry Towns. New York, Knopf, 1974; London, Cape, 1975.

Tokyo Woes. New York, Fine, 1985; London, Abacus, 1986.

The Current Climate. New York, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

A Father's Kisses. New York, Fine, 1996.

Short Stories

Far from the City of Class and Other Stories. New York, Frommer-Pasmantier, 1963.

Black Angels. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1966; London, Cape, 1967.

Let's Hear It for a Beautiful Guy and Other Works of Short Fiction.

New York, Fine, 1984. Collected Short Fiction. New York, Fine, 1995.

Uncollected Short Stories

"Pitched Out," in Esquire (New York), July 1988.

Plays

23 Pat O'Brien Movies, adaptation of his own short story (producedNew York, 1966).

Scuba Duba: A Tense Comedy (produced New York, 1967). NewYork, Simon and Schuster, 1968.

A Mother's Kisses, music by Richard Adler, adaptation of the novel by Friedman (produced New Haven, Connecticut, 1968).

Steambath (produced New York, 1970). New York, Knopf, 1971.

First Offenders, with Jacques Levy (also co-director: produced NewYork, 1973).

A Foot in the Door (produced New York, 1979).

Sardines (produced New York, 1994).

Have You Spoken to Any Jews Lately? (produced New York, 1995).

Screenplays:

Stir Crazy, 1980; Splash, with others, 1984; Dr. Detroit, with others, 1988.

Other

The Lonely Guy's Book of Life. New York, McGraw Hill, 1978.

The Slightly Older Guy. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos: Best Nonfiction. Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Editor, Black Humor. New York, Bantam, and London, Corgi, 1965.

*

Critical Study:

Bruce Jay Friedman by Max F. Schulz, New York, Twayne, 1974.

Theatrical Activities : Director: Play First Offenders (co-director, with Jacques Levy), New York, 1973.

* * *

For good or ill, Bruce Jay Friedman seems destined to be forever linked with the literary phenomenon of the 1960s known as "black humor." In his foreword to Black Humor, an anthology he edited in 1965, Friedman ducks the business of rigid definition, insisting that each of the 13 writers represented is separate and unique, but he does suggest that "if there is a despair in this work, it is a tough, resilient brand and might very well end up in a Faulknerian horselaugh." For Friedman, style is a function, an extension, of the disorderly world that surrounds him. As he puts it, there is a "fading line between fantasy and reality, a very fading line, a god-damned, almost invisible line." Friedman's slender fictionas well as his drama and his screenplaysare pitched on this precarious edge. In such a world, the New York Times is "the source and fountain and bible of black humor," while television news convinces Friedman, perhaps too easily, that "there is a new mutative style of behavior afoot, one that can only be dealt with by a new, one-foot-in-the-asylum style of fiction." We are hardly surprised when a contemporary novelist declines rather than develops, when he or she adds increasingly smaller additions to the original house of fiction. For Friedman, Stern doubled as his debut and his most accomplished novel. It's all there in Stern: the uneasy Jewishness, the ulcers, the suburban situation. But the sense of terror it generates is actualized, altogether convincing, located in a compactness that never quite appears again in Friedman's fiction.

Stern is, in short, the angst-ridden apartment dweller, nose pressed against suburbia while visions of extra rooms dance in his head: "As a child he had graded the wealth of people by the number of rooms in which they lived. He himself had been brought up in three in the city and he fancied people who lived in four were so much more splendid than himself." Alas, as Stern quickly discovers, he is not one of the Chosen People who can make the exodus from the bondage of crowded apartments to the Promised Land of suburban living. He is, at best, a reluctant pioneer, a man who misses the cop on the beat, the delicatessen at the corner.

Stern is a contemporary variation on the classical schlemiel, one victimized by darkly comic fantasies of his own making, rather than by accidents. Besieged by problems on all sidescaterpillars devour his garden, neighborhood dogs attack him on a nightly basisStern pictures the police as "large, neutral-faced men with rimless glasses who would accuse him of being a newcomer making vague troublemaking charges." Especially if he complains about the threatening dogs: "They would take him into a room and hit him in his large, white, soft stomach." And so he swallows his impulse to protest, only to imagine himself "fighting silently in the night with the two gray dogs, lasting eight minutes and then being found a week later with open throat by small Negro children." Friedman's subsequent works confirmed two facts: that he is equally at home in the novel (A Mother's Kisses ), the short story (Far from the City of Class ), or the play (Steambath ); and that he is a flashy writer of limited scope. For example, in A Mother's Kisses, the psychodynamics of black humor shrink to Momism and the difficulties of getting into college. As always, excess is the heart of Friedman's matter:

He [Joseph] saw himself letting a year go by, then reapplying only to find himself regarded as a suspicious leftover fellow, his application tossed onto a pile labeled "repeaters," not to be read until all the fresh new ones had been gone through. Year after year would slip away, until finally, at thirty-seven, he would enter night school along with a squad of newly naturalized Czechs, sponsored by labor unions and needing a great many remedial reading sessions.

Joseph's American-Jewish mother begins as a vulgar cliché, and Friedman's touch merely raises it to a second power. When Joseph went away to summer camp, mother struck a camp of her own just across the lake; when Joseph finally sets off for Kansas Land Grant Agricultural (where courses like "the History and Principles of Agriculture" and "Feed Chemistry" comprise the curriculum) Mom insists on coming too.

And yet, there are moments in A Mother's Kisses when the terrors of contemporary life are rendered with sharp, metaphysical precision:

A long line had formed in the men's room, leading to a single urinal, which was perched atop a dais. When a fellow took too long, there were hoots and catcalls such as "What's the matter, fella, can't you find it?" As his turn came nearer, Joseph began to get nervous. He stepped before the urinal finally, feeling as though he had marched out onto a stage. He stood there a few seconds, then zipped himself up and walked off. The man in back of him caught his arm and said, "You didn't go. I watched."

Little of Kakfa's flavor is lost in the translation. And the hand that descends to unmask our smallest deception strikes us as real, all too real.

The problem, of course, is that Friedman throws off brilliantly comic moments without the inclination to turn them into sustained, comic fictions. He remains the perennial sophomore, chortling at what can only be called sophomoric jokes. In The Dick, for example, Friedman means to draw a parallel between sexuality and crimefighting, as the title of the novel and the name of its beleaguered protagonist, LePeters, suggest. One bad joke begets another. When LePeters has his psychological interview, the conversation owes more to Hollywood than to Henry James:

"What do you think all these guns around her represent?" he asked LePeters in a lightning change of subject.

"Oh, I don't know," said LePeters. "Phalluses, I guess." Actually, he had dipped into a textbook or two and was taking a not-so-wild shot.

"Not bad," said Worthway, lifting one crafty finger in the Heidelberg style and making ready to leave. "But some of them are pussies, too."

About Harry Towns focuses on a moderately successful screenwriter, one given to verbal razzle-dazzle, urbane irony, and just enough innocence to be amazed about the money producers stuff into his pockets and the girls who fall into his bed. One shorthand way of putting it might be this: the Sexual Revolution caught Harry Towns with his pants up. The result is a man in his forties (formerly married, now anguishing through a permanent "temporary separation") trying too hard to be trendy and protesting too much about enjoying it. No doubt Friedman's biographer will, one day, point out just how "biographical" the stories in fact were.

In Tokyo Woes, Friedman introduces Mike Halsey, a more circumspect protagonistat least in the sense that he is more routinized, more circumspect, than the likes of Harry Towns: "Normally, Mike was a fellow who liked to stay close to his beat. Once he bought newspapers in one place, that's where he bought them." In short, Halsey "was a fellow who kept to the center of the road, although he had to admit that every time he swerved off a bit it had worked out nicely." A short chapter later (indeed, all the chapters in Tokyo Woes run to fewer than ten pages), Halsey is on his way to Tokyo, where comic misadventures and sexual peccadilloes will follow him like the night the day. For Friedman followers, the highjinks are all to predictable, all too self-consciously offered up.

With The Current Climate, Friedman returns to Harry Towns, the Hollywood wordsmith he had invented as a comic projection of the writing business and himself. Harry is still crazy after all these yearsstill frisky, still foolish, and still likely to be found in a writers' bar where sex and drugs are the major attractions. Friedman relates Harry's escapades in short, choppy sentences and with appropriately coarse language, but if the result has its comic moments, they tell us precious little about the scriptwriting racket and even less about who the Harry Towns under the highjinks really is.

For nearly two decades, Friedman has been a steady worker in the vineyards of Hollywood. One learned to look quickly as his name, and the other credits, rolled over the silver screen. The heyday of the black humorist was over. Some, like Ken Kesey, dropped out. And some, like Bruce Jay Friedman, apparently found the medium their "message" had been looking for all along.

Sanford Pinsker

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