Friday, May 25, 2012
FFB: LUCKY BRUCE by Bruce Jay Friedman (Biblioasis 2011)
Bruce Jay Friedman is a survivor of the days in which freelance writing could, if you were indeed lucky, reasonably support some writers with a living wage; what you won't find out too directly from this memoir is how one actually writes well enough and steadily enough to have been so lucky. Born in 1930, the child of a seamster and a theatrical publicist, he notes several times that his childhood bed was a kitchen chair; what he never quite explains is how one sleeps in a kitchen chair (I'm guessing he slumped over the table, but it's a guess)...and the offhanded discursiveness of the early chapters is maintained throughout this entertaining, digressive, and only occasionally time-bound memoir (you can go a whole chapter or so without a specific year, sometimes even a decade, being mentioned). Also, each chapter is written, out of ingrained habit perhaps (or perhaps because some of most of the chapters were originally published thus) as one might write an interview or profile piece for a magazine, with a "grabber" anecdote at the beginning from the thick of the action, and then in the second or third page a return to the beginning of whatever events are to be covered (he also quotes himself and conversations with others for epigraphs before the opening anecdote in each chapter).
But this is BJF, as he refers to himself, the author of the stories collected in Far from the City of Class, of the story "A Change of Plan" now filmed twice as The Heartbreak Kid, of the novel Stern, of the plays Scuba Duba (a hit, and to him a surprise hit) and Steambath (at best a moderate financial success till being taped for PBS's Hollywood Television Theatre in 1973, the production for television featuring Valerie Perrine in a much-remembered nude scene, Bill Bixby, and José Pérez as God)(and it's typical of the chronological vagueness of the memoir that Friedman usually here mentions the 1973 PBS broadcast and the 1983 Showtime cable miniseries based on the play as if they happened in immediate succession...decades fade away). Friedman would make somewhat more money in films, writing Stir Crazy and early drafts of Splash along with having many other of his scripts, stories and novels optioned repeatedly without much result (the weak Dan Ackroyd film Doctor Detroit is loosely based on a Friedman short story). But the book does proceed in a mostly chronological fashion, dealing with his youth, his college journalism career at the University of Missouri (where he would meet his first wife, Ginger Howard, and entered a bad marriage that lasted for about a decade and a half; there is no photo of Ginger anywhere in the book, despite copious photography of their sons as adults, among other friends, acquaintances and family, including his second wife), his passage through the Air Force (and his work on an airbase magazine, with which his editor hoped to rival The New Yorker in some fashion) and BJF's early short story sales to The New Yorker, leading to a meeting with the staff at their offices there, only to be shushed when walking down a corridor near editor-in-chief William Shawn's office; Friedman is advised that "Shawn is upset when he hears unfamiliar voices." If ever a sentence encapsulated everything that was wrong with Shawn's version of the magazine through allusion alone....
Friedman, needing a steady paycheck, takes on a position with Martin Goodman's magazine factory, where Marvel Comics was born, but the company was making a lot more money at the time from "men's sweat" magazines, including Men and the shortlived attempt at a downmarket "prestige" title, Swank (Friedman notes that Goodman's son would have much greater commercial success with the skin-magazine revival of the Swank title in the decades to come). BJF hires Mario Puzo as one of his writer/editors, and gains a lifelong friend, one of the many writers and other literary folk who gravitate to Friedman, and he to them. The balance of the book follows Friedman's passage, mostly as a social creature, in and out of awkward and occasionally not so awkward adventures with kind women, witty if at times challenging friends (overlapping groups), and the asinine Norman Mailer.
He notes throughout that he titled his book with no irony; that he's had his share of tough times, but that his second marriage has been with the love of his life, Patricia O'Donoghue (their daughter is cheerfully photographed as well), he's managed to keep body and soul together through writing since quitting the Goodman mill, and generally has found ways to amuse himself and others (two chapters in the middle of the book are mostly about the literary scene in the '60s and '70s at the NYC restaurant Elaine's). It's an exceedingly pleasant book by a man who has little left to prove, and yet doesn't seem to be either overly impressed with himself nor unaware of how good his best work is. And while it definitely has the feel of a collection of polished anecdotes from a born storyteller, as he often dubs himself here, retelling them from the viewpoint of someone who's lived for eight decades and has survived many of his best friends (including Puzo and Joseph Heller), he still seems to be making a few discoveries as he writes (as well as lightly mocking himself for the occasional use of dramatic or at times melodramatic turns of phrase), and even without too much searing self-analysis nor literary exegesis of his own work (or anyone else's), one does come away with a sense of how he's managed a remarkable career, and apparently a pretty rewarding life.
Vince Keenan wrote a much more concise review at time of release. It seems odd to suggest this book is remotely "forgotten" (since that release was just last year), but it was issued by a small Canadian press and Vince's review is one of relatively few it's received, at least among those archived on the web, even if one of those was in the NY Times and another was from Kirkus. Worth your time, and the small effort of borrowing or acquisition. Who else, after all, can tell you what it was like to have Natalie Wood, at liberty in a fallow period, assigned to them as a private secretary...a rather depressed and extremely efficient secretary? Though all kinds of people have been drawn into clumsy fistfights by Norman Mailer...
For more of today's books, please see the recuperating Patti Abbott's blog for the list of links...
Relevant posts: Nelson Algren's Own Book of Lonesome Monsters
Jules Feiffer: Backing into Forward