Bruce Jay Friedman Essay - Friedman, Bruce Jay (Vol. 5)

Friedman, Bruce Jay (Vol. 5)

Friedman, Bruce Jay 1930–

Friedman is an American short story writer, playwright, and novelist with a talent for evoking the black-comic aspects of contemporary Jewish life. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Bruce Jay Friedman's [play] Scuba Duba is a nearly perfect product of the new pseudo-sophistication, being a compendium of varieties of dishonesty, an icon of simulated seriousness and fake wit, a gross indulgence masquerading as a work. And it has been taken up overnight by an audience which constitutes the complement of the exploiters, their target and body politic, an audience wised up to Broadway and avid for what it considers—or has been told to consider—"real," au courant, hit-'em-where-they-live drama, absurd, cocky and daring as hell. (p. 188)

Thematically [Friedman] seems to be dealing with some exceedingly pertinent contemporary social and psychological material, and dramaturgically he appears to be in the full recent tradition of what we might call the scatalogical-absurd. In the stage's new climate, where anything goes and everything is bound to come, it is nevertheless an impressive feat of exploitive playwriting to fuse two such disparate elements of audience appeal—hip sociology and advanced bawdry—into the simulacrum of a dramatic experience. Negroes and tits, together with a dash of Jewish mother-fixation, all of it served up with what has come to be known as "irreverence" or "if cultural rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it": such is Scuba Duba, whose very title conveys that distinctive lilt of the current imagination as it sets off to appropriate the games other people play. (pp. 188-89)

[Nothing] is going to bring conviction, comic or otherwise, to a play that [exists] as a fraud, an exercise in self-indulgence, and one whose chief interest in social phenomena lies in literally getting back at their seriousness through japes, fashionable wit and the most vulgar kind of mockery. For Friedman's comic impulse, whenever it isn't simply drilling down into that exhausted mine of neurotic Jewishness (mothers, psychiatrists, hypochondria, self-pity) is capitalizing on the tensions and terrors of the interracial situation by letting us hear, in that liberating communal atmosphere the theatre is supposed to provide, the "things we haven't yet dared say" about it. (pp. 189-90)

[A] vocabulary of insult and invective runs through the play as its verbal leitmotif and functions as that kind of sterile catharsis which is obtained whenever something previously forbidden is allowed a temporary and revocable release. It is hermetic, cut off from true feeling and thought, not part of any dramatic action or purpose, sent up into the air in the interests of coarse therapy, of "acting-out." And yet in the play's most cowardly procedure it is all made safe, legitimized by the playwright's having seen to it that we are made aware of our inferiority, that the Negroes come off better, that they get the girl while we, poor schnooks who have been suffering with the hero all along, get the bird. That masochism has long been a mainstay of American commercial theatre, Broadway audiences having reveled in the exposure of their middle-class deficiencies and delusions, is a commonplace observation; the bright new fact is that masochism has spread to the outlying precincts where an audience purportedly hungry for truth and art has really been waiting for its chance at homeotherapy. (p. 190)

[If] Friedman had written a true play, if he had a dramatic imagination (as Stern clearly showed he has a novelistic one), his substance would have altered under its pressure, even while his "subject" remained the same. But lacking a dramatic imagination, not knowing how to set people or faculties in confrontation or how to force a histrionic reality out of raw experience, he is left with that experience at its level of deprivation of meaning and form. What he seems to have done to compensate for this is to have picked up information on how other writers have gotten by with their non-plays in this era of formlessness and the cash value of gratuitous outrage. (pp. 190-91)

The damage is to the pretense that we are witnessing some-thing more than a situation comedy. A black comedy if you will, but one whose darkness seemed to me to lie in its revelations of what is likely to be esteemed for some time to come in certain quarters as wit, imagination, theatrical zest and social sophistication. (p. 192)

Richard Gilman, "Anatomy of a Hit" (1967), in his Common and Uncommon Masks: Writings on Theatre 1961–1970 (copyright © 1971 by Richard Gilman; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1971, pp. 188-92.

I remember buying a hard-cover copy of Bruce Jay Friedman's first novel, Stern—an impulse purchase, made on the strength of the book's first paragraph. Although its brittle style might seem in retrospect a bit facile, too easily imitable (Friedman went on to imitate it badly himself) something was there: a sense of the swallowed terror in an ordinary man's ordinary life. Friedman's new novel, About Harry Towns … comes with the publisher's promise that Friedman has returned to the "moving and serious" work with which he began his career….

The narrative voice of this book sticks close to the consciousness of Harry Towns, who, though melancholy and self-judging, is not what you would call articulate, and the book depends on the irony of inadequate statement…. There are episodes in which this spare method works, particularly Towns's pathetic effort to entertain his son while entertaining himself in Las Vegas; and his failure to do what he intends for his parents ("He was Captain Almost"), who die within a few weeks of each other, or, as Towns puts it, "back to back." But in the end you're asked to invest more in Towns's agonies than he seems to do himself. (p. 128)

Richard Todd, in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1974 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1974.

The attitudes and assumptions about success, marriage, family, and the Bourgeois American Dream bodied forth in About Harry Towns are by this time so shopworn and hackneyed as to require no recapitulation. As the book moves along, the narrator seems to develop a kind of condescending affection for Harry Towns. Nevertheless, as he is portrayed here, Harry is throughout this book a study in enervation and failure; devoid of any moral or imaginative energy; riddled with warranted guilt and self-doubt, but for all the wrong reasons; disaffected to the point of autism; lacking, despite the enviable opulence in which he manages to maintain himself, any visible involvement in work—a man who in middle age suddenly seems to find himself, for reasons beyond his ken, and for reasons never made clear to the reader, living a life that depresses and depletes him. He is, in short, a singularly distasteful and unengrossing individual, and one can only wonder what exactly it is about him that Bruce Jay Friedman expects us to find of moment. (p. 26)

Jane Larkin Crain, in Saturday Review/World (copyright © 1974 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), June 1, 1974.

"The thing I like about Harry Towns," a character comments, "is that everything astonishes him." The thing about Bruce Jay Friedman is that he's a seasoned pro who continues to astonish—leveling off a career which has included three novels, two books of short fiction, a shot at Hollywood and two very successful plays—with About Harry Towns, a collection of recent stories which tickle, depress, gouge below the belt and at second or third reading hold up as nothing less than a joy….

Harry Towns is something of an ordinary language philosopher; his crutch and salvation, his argot, the wide-eyed cynicism of New York street talk, has not been done better since Joseph Mitchell's 1930s New Yorker profiles of odd Manhattan characters….

What Bruce Jay Friedman has accomplished in About Harry Towns is to have created a character straight out of a fiction writer's dreams: unique, haunting and completely memorable. Short fiction is possibly the most demanding prose medium, in that one has so little space to sketch so much. Each of Friedman's Harry Towns stories stands on its own (and has) and each complements the other brilliantly. The book is novel, it is short fiction, it is essay. It is a goddamn heartbreaking delight and you are a fool if you miss it.

Toby Thompson, "Oh Dad, Poor Dad," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 16, 1974, p. 2.

A number of our toughest novelists have gone so far in the direction of comprehensive in-joking, cosmic cynicism, urbane oversoul that they've out-toughed themselves, outorbited modernity, and checked themselves back in with the basics—parents, children, marriage, friendship, gutted tradition. Their over-experienced, flailing heroes have reeled through all the circles of our hip Inferno and are now ready to retest their reactions to certain establishment values even if the retesting process hurts. And it does hurt.

Case in point: Bruce Jay Friedman's unheroic but swinging compendium of vulnerabilities named Harry Towns….

[About Harry Towns is a] book … of brilliant chapters, a series of episodes with little development, change that is no real change, irresolute resolution…. Friedman solves nothing for his well-meaning protagonist…. (p. 32)

James R. Frakes, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1974 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 23, 1974.

Bruce Jay Friedman's "stand-up comic" routines … have become an essential trademark of a very impressive body of drama and fiction. In Friedman's comedy, however, there is a disquieting quality. His play Scuba Duba was accurately subtitled "a tense comedy," alerting us to the fact that in his work laughs come always at the expense of overbearing psychic pain. His heroes are worriers, with an uncomfortable inheritance of guilt from their Jewish past.

About Harry Towns, Friedman's fourth novel, has much in common with the manner and narrative method of Stern and The Dick. Harry Towns is more successful and self-assured than the heroes of these earlier novels but he too has to work very hard to keep his guilt at bay….

Friedman's art thrives on the incongruous, the unexpected. Readers familiar with his play in which a steambath turns out to be the afterworld run by a Puerto Rican attendant, with Stern, in which a rest home proves to be a place of fierce excitement and activity, or with A Mother's Kisses, in which a Kansas land grant college is virtually taken over by an aggressive Jewish mother, will not be surprised at some of the curious juxtapositions in About Harry Towns….

Friedman is a gifted chronicler of the fantasy life of the urban and suburban Jew. The emphasis in About Harry Towns, however, is less conspicuously Jewish than in the earlier three novels, the Jewish ingredients largely restricted to the death of Towns' parents. Harry's mother has virtually none of those traits that we associate with the Jewish mother, so dominant and vocal a presence in his other work.

Despite the toning down of Jewish elements, there is much in this novel that echoes his earlier work. Towns' Bryn Mawr girlfriend has appeared before in Steambath. Harry's relationship with his son, which is never quite satisfactory, resembles Stern's bumbling filial gestures. Marriages do not work out very well in any of his plays or fiction and promiscuity, real or imagined, is always much in evidence.

The occasional sense of déjà lu that one gets from reading About Harry Towns reinforces our feeling that Friedman's admirable work is all of a piece. With remarkable consistency, he continues to catch the verbal rhythms that we associate with Philip Roth, Wallace Markfield, Irvin Faust, Jay Neugeboren and other American-Jewish writers who came to maturity in the 1960s. (p. 28)

Melvin J. Friedman, in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1974 by The New Republic, Inc.), July 27 & August 3, 1974.

About Harry Towns specialises in that sour and dead-pan American prose which has been untouched by human hand. But any writer who can create sentences like Ascot hats—"I am Mary Jo Smith, your waitress for tonight, and here is your special chilled fork for the Brazilia Festival Salad"—can't be all cardboard. (p. 183)

[Harry's story] … would be the usual blues of urbanised and industrialised Man, but Friedman's flat and sour prose comes into its own very quickly and becomes a very effective description of the toneless way in which Americans conduct their affairs and the bland way in which they conduct each other. I enjoyed this book. (p. 184)

Peter Ackroyd, in The Spectator (© 1975 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), February 15, 1975.

Bruce Jay Friedman is … refreshingly unpretentious, though it will inevitably be added that he has plenty to be unpretentious about. About Harry Towns is a … walkabout novel: a discursive, anecdotal evocation of the urban male menopause…. It is a book that needn't have been written which is probably one of the reasons why it's so easy to read—fluent, droll and moderately likeable. (p. 250)

Martin Amis, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), February 21, 1975.