Bruce Jay Friedman
Bruce Jay Friedman has been a presence on the American literary and cultural scene for a very long time.* He has published over twenty books and authored (or co-authored) numerous plays and screenplays. His work, however, is still most often considered as a contribution to the emergence of “black humor” in American fiction during the 1960s, although his first novel, Stern (1962), more likely would have been regarded as absurdist, an existential comedy about the angst of Jewish assimilation. The novel’s title character finds himself in alien territory—the American suburbs—confused and beset by a series of humiliations he struggles to understand. The story of his misadventures is funny, but in the way the plays of Beckett and Ionesco are funny, in a detached and deadpan manner that can also be disconcerting. The same is true of Friedman’s second novel, A Mother’s Kisses (1964), although here the subject, a meddling Jewish mother, is more conventionally “comedic” in its overtones. In this novel the humor comes from the straight-faced way in which the narrator relates his mother’s speech and actions, as if it is simply expected in the ordinary course of things for a mother to say outrageous and embarrassing things and behave erratically enough that she would fly with her son to Kansas on his first day of college and remain with him for several weeks as he adjusts to the place, staying in a hotel room the two occupy together.
By the time Friedman published A Mother’s Kisses, this sort of unadulterated comedy delivered in an impassive tone had come to be called black humor. Indeed, Friedman himself edited an influential anthology of black humor fiction that did much to delineate and draw attention to this newly prominent mode of fiction (not literally new, since Friedman traces it as far back as Gogol, and one of the included writers is Céline). Friedman doesn’t insist on too strict a definition of black humor, just that “the work under discussion, if not black, is some fairly dark-hued color,” while “the humor part of the definition is probably accurate although I doubt that the writers are bluff and hearty joke-tellers who spend a lot of time at discotheques.” In fact, “invite them to a party and you would probably find a great deal of brooding and sulking.” Presumably Friedman intended his own work to be covered by this general description, although of all the black humorists, with the possible exception of Joseph Heller, Friedman was the writer most likely to be counted among the “joketellers,” as his fiction, especially the short stories, does indeed significantly rely on gags and jokes as a structural device. (Probably he was the black humorist most likely to be found in discotheques as well.)
Friedman’s analysis in Black Humor is shrewdest in its perception that the fiction of such writers as Heller, Pynchon, and Barth (the Barth of The Sot-Weed Factor) cannot be described as satirical, that these writers (including himself) had “to discover a new land, invent a new currency, a new set of filters” and “sail into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire.” The humor of black humor encompasses in perhaps its purest form a tendency shared by much fiction of the 1960s and 1970s, one replacing the high seriousness of modernism with a pervasively comic perspective that takes human reality seriously by refusing to take it seriously on its own terms, representing it through various kinds and degrees of distortion and exaggeration. Some of this fiction is laugh-out-loud funny (Stanley Elkin), some closer to the grotesque (Pynchon), some surreal (Donald Barthelme), some using comedy to hold not just “reality” to the implicit mockery of the comic vision but also fiction itself, the conventions and presuppositions of the form (what came to be called “metafiction”).
The mockery of such comedy is implicit because, as Friedman rightly points out, it is “out beyond satire” and does not explicitly ridicule specific behaviors or social conditions for the traditional satirical purpose of highlighting and correcting them. “Black humor” puts this quality of postwar comedy in particularly high relief in its depiction of a world whose every feature is the appropriate subject of ridicule or lampoon, every character a figure of jest, even the protagonist (maybe especially the protagonist). In Friedman’s case, he achieves this effect by invoking the schlemiel figure, beginning with Stern, whose protagonist may be the ne plus ultra of beleaguered schlemiels in American literature, but extended throughout his stories and novels as well. Indeed, “The Peace Process,” the novella that anchors Friedman’s new book, features a schlemiel protagonist who, although outwardly a respectable figure (or once a respectable figure) experiences only a series of humiliations as his reward for performing a good deed.
The protagonists of Friedman’s two novels of the 1970s, The Dick (1970) and About Harry Towns (1974), experience humiliation of a sort, but theirs is less pristine, so to speak, more attached to their own questionable behavior than Stern or the narrator of A Mother’s Kisses. These novels are closer to conventional social satire than to black humor, and they probably mark the end of Friedman’s career as a novelist who seemed in tune with the more radical developments in American fiction of the 1960s and 70s. Both of these books could be called more “topical” than Stern or A Mother’s Kisses, more self-conscious of their place in a culturally turbulent and accelerated era, but this now makes them seem dated, artifacts from their historical moment, in a way that the first two novels, despite the superficial details of setting, finally do not. The Dick concerns itself, in part, with racial attitudes in 60s-era America, although at least one prominent critic, Anatole Broyard, contended that the novel didn’t merely depict racist attitudes but itself embodied an essentially racist perspective.
The protagonist of The Dick, a “clippings specialist” with a big-city police department, finds his life falling apart when, after moving to this city, he discovers his daughter will have to attend a school whose students are predominantly black. His wife is especially upset about this (she is clearly a racist), and she eventually leaves her husband for another man, ultimately motivating Kenneth Le Peters (formerly Sussman), heretofore a hesitant if not timid man, to assert himself more vigorously. At the novel’s conclusion, Le Peters removes his daughter from the school and they leave the city, presumably to begin a new life, but while Le Peters is escaping all of the confining assumptions of his old life, it remains at best unclear whether he has escaped the confinement of the racial attitude that regards the daughter’s school as inherently a hindrance to her education and social status.
That this question lingers about The Dick is the most serious indication of a tonal uncertainty in the novel. Its comedy is not thoroughgoing enough to render the characters and their circumstances so farcically absurd that in effect the author is insulated from an association with any character’s less savory actions or beliefs. (Perhaps under the circumstances it would have difficult, even impossible, to pull off such a move.) Le Peters is indeed at times a ludicrous and rather hapless figure, but in his conflicts with his wife and many of his colleagues (the real police officers), he induces some sympathy for his plight, and the narrative clearly implies growth in his outlook and his sense of responsibility. Le Peters is not like Yossarian in Catch-22, whose flight at the end of the novel is existential, an attempt to restore sanity in an insane world. Le Peters has in a way triumphed, and this outcome fits uneasily with the unresolved racial issues and softens the novel’s comic identity.
If The Dick awkwardly yokes social commentary with a slapstick sensibility, About Harry Towns is a more coherent but mild send-up of Hollywood culture, represented by the title character, a dissipated screenwriter sounding out the depths of his dissipation through most of the novel (which might also be taken as a series of stories). As in The Dick, however, Harry Towns has apparently accomplished meaningful change at the book’s conclusion, so that even more than the previous novel, About Harry Towns could be called a kind of moral allegory, albeit one loosely structured and realized through an underlying comic vision. That vision produces consistently funny, occasionally outrageous, vignettes, but with this novel we have travelled pretty far from the “darker waters” of the foreboding humor we find in Stern. The comedy of About Harry Towns is more ordinary, more predictable, the comedy of the standup with his shtick.
By the time Friedman published About Harry Towns, he had not only begun working in Hollywood but had also written two successful theatrical comedies, Scuba Duba and Steambath. During the 1980s he worked primarily as a film and television writer, his most noteworthy scripts being those for the Gene Wilder-Richard Pryor film Stir Crazy and the Ron Howard-directed Splash. Since Harry Towns, his most notable books are probably two works of nonfiction, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life (made into a Steve Martin film) and Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir (2011), as well as The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman, published in 2000. The latter shows Friedman to be a prolific writer of short fiction, although the book itself does a poor job of showcasing Friedman’s best work in the form. Some of the stories (“The Brazzaville Teenager, “Black Angels”) do indeed show that he is adept at a kind of episodic, sketch-like story, usually proceeding from an outrageous premise—in “Brazzaville” a man believes his sick father will recover if he embarrasses himself by asking his boss to “make a recording with Little Sigmund and the Flipouts, three kids, doing the background doo-wah, doo-wahs and the second chorus yeh yeh yehs.” Which the boss does.
Many other stories in Collected Short Fiction are slight and gimmicky, such as “Let’s Hear It For a Beautiful Guy,” the narrator’s paean to Sammy Davis, Jr. This story, as well as too many others in the book, participate too easily in the show-biz entertainment model of comedy, and while Friedman can do this style as well as or better than most, it prompts a milder, less anxious sort of laughter than we find in his early novels. Friedman described his plays as “tense comedies,” moving away from the perceived vagueness of “black humor,” but many of the stories in Collected Short Fiction lack tension, and the situations are frequently more weird and “wacky” than they are dark in their humor, a problem that afflicts a later novel such as Tokyo Woes as well. Friedman would be well-served by a “Selected Stories” that highlights his best short fiction and more emphatically indicates its continuity with the work that brought Friedman his initial attention and that represents the achievement with the best chance to endure as part of an important tendency in postwar American fiction.
Unfortunately, none of the short stories in The Peace Process can be ranked among his best, although a few nevertheless provide samplings of some of Friedman’s signature character types and typical situations. A number of the stories feature writers or other characters with show business ties, increasingly a feature of Friedman’s fiction after his first two novels and early stories. Several stories riff on psychiatry and therapists, also a frequent motif in Friedman’s work since the 60s (when to be in therapy was a trendier, and perhaps funnier, preoccupation). Two of the stories, “The Storyteller” and “The Choice,” are exercises in outright fantasy, in which Friedman has occasionally indulged, black humor edging into fabulation and the irreal. A number of the stories evoke aging and encroaching (or actual) death, probably not a surprise for a writer in his mid-80s when this book was published.
“The Impulse” and “A Fan is a Fan” are the two best stories included in The Peace Process, but they represent departures from Friedman’s prevailing methods and concerns. The former tells of a man named Dwight, who, at the time story takes place (it has a retrospective frame) is a just-fired book editor still hoping to return to his job. Upon leaving a dinner honoring his former employer, Dwight encounters an elderly lady (Dwight himself is nearly 70, but estimates the lady may be 90), who introduces herself as “Fleming” and invites him to her townhouse on the Upper East Side for a drink. After resisting her rather grotesque attempts at seduction, Dwight steals a necklace, but the old woman proves less addled than he apparently assumed; when he arrives home, his wife informs him “there’s a detective who called and wanted to have a chat with you. . .Do you know a woman named Fleming?” While Dwight is in some ways a recognizable enough Friedman schlemiel, and the scenes between Dwight and Fleming are uneasily funny, this story uses a more self-contained slice-of-life narrative approach than we see in most of Friedman’s fiction (the novels, as well as many of the stories, tend to the picaresque in form), and the protagonist is less morally ambiguous, not so much a true schlemiel as just a schmuck.
“A Fan is a Fan” is a dark and ominous story, but there is nothing at all humorous about it. A Jewish writer named Max Wintermann receives a call from Joseph Goebbels, acting in his capacity as editor of the “People’s Observer,” asking the “celebrated” writer for a “satirical piece” that will be appropriately “Wintermannesque.” Wintermann has been expecting some such call, after “one by one, family by family, friends and acquaintances had disappeared, a number of them spirited away in vans in the dead of the night,” but certainly not from Goebbels himself, and certainly not extending this sort of invitation. Goebbels assures Wintermann of his admiration for the writer’s work, and Wintermann accepts the commission, only to produce a piece that Goebbels finds inauthentic, causing him to exclaim: “I defy you to show me one touch of Wintermann in these pages. One speck. A crumb.” Wintermann is handed an armband (one also for his daughter) and led off to meet his fate.
Beginning with Stern, Friedman’s fiction is of course notable for its Jewish characters, themes, and sensibilities, especially the comedic outlook that is its most signature quality. Seldom, however, has he so directly attempted to engage with Jewish history and the legacy of anti-Semitism as in this story, which itself perhaps helps us see why. “A Fan is a Fan” is chilling in its seamless simplicity, but it evokes dread and revulsion, not laughter, not even the tense or nervous kind. The story reminds us that the line between black humor and outright horror was always very thin, even for a writer like Friedman, who in all but his best work did not often approach that line, preferring to stay back in the more settled areas where comedy is careful to safeguard its identity. But, as Max Wintermann discovers, when the satirist attempts to confront evil the effort is doomed, since evil doesn’t get the joke.
The Jewish milieu in the book’s title novella could not be more conspicuous—the first part of the story takes place in Israel—but it offers a much more recognizably Friedmanesque comedy of mishap and misfortune, in this case afflicting the novel’s protagonist, a no longer employable film director reduced to scouting locations in Jerusalem. William Kleiner first encounters an Arab man named Mahmood when the latter masquerades as a hotel employee anxious to please the new guest who has arrived from the United States. Mahmood believes Kleiner can help him leave Israel to attend his brother’s wedding in New York, but Kleiner informs him this is not the case. Later, when the claustrophobic Kleiner faints while visiting the Chapel of the Ascension, Mahmood is there to rush him to the hospital. Kleiner agrees to help.
Not that Kleiner doesn’t question his decision:
Then he went to bed, the enormity of what he was attempting to do closing in on him. Over decades, the country of Israel had been constructed with the blood and money of a multitude of Jews. Kleiner himself had sent them a few dollars. Yet what was his major contribution to the Jewish state? Sneaking an Arab out of the country to attend a wedding, when a simple present would have sufficed. What kind of Jew did that make him? And a Jew he’d remain until his dying day. Unless of course, hostility to his people ended, in which case he would have to think over his options.
Perhaps William Kleiner is a prototypical kind of Jew, if the schlemiel can be considered such a figure. After nearly drowning trying to get Mahmood across the border, the two of them do make it to New York, where Mahmood takes over Kleiner’s apartment, steals his girlfriend, and (through Kleiner’s own auspices) sells his screenplay and is hired to direct. Kleiner leaves New York and reunites with his wife and daughter in Miami, assuming he has left Mahmood behind, but soon he hears form the former girlfriend: “We’ve run into some trouble on the film. The completion bond fell through at the last minute and Mahmood is taking it badly. He’s out on a ledge at the moment, threatening to commit suicide. And he says you’re the only one he’ll talk to.”
The novella ends as Kleiner pulls Mahmood off the ledge and then parts company with him for good, joining his wife at their daughter’s ballet recital just in time for her solo. Again Friedman’s protagonist is offered the possibility of renewal, in the prospect of the “Promised Land” he sees as his daughter begins her dance. Thus this late work is of a piece with The Dick and About Harry Towns, summing up Friedman’s career as a writer whose early work legitimately participated in an important movement in 20th century American literature, but who eventually retreated from the most radical implications of that work to become a comedy craftsman of sorts, whose later fiction can still be funny but employs a mostly safe and ultimately formulaic kind of comic narrative that does not elevate Friedman’s work above ordinary modes of humor. “The Peace Process” superficially raises the thematic stakes by introducing the Arab-Israeli conflict as an allegorical backdrop, but finally the novella projects on it the same by now overworked story Friedman has told since the initial inspiration that produced Stern seemed to flag. Certainly it does no particular damage to Friedman’s literary legacy, but neither does it provide us much reason to assess that legacy more favorably.
*Friedman died in 2020, a few years after this essay was written.