Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 876
Bruce Jay Friedman is an American novelist, playwright, and short-story writer who gained recognition in the 1960’s as a black humorist. He was born in New York City, son of a manufacturer, and developed an interest in writing while working on the DeWitt Clinton High School paper. After graduation, Friedman majored in journalism at the University of Missouri in Columbia, completing his bachelor’s degree in 1951.
During a 1951-1953 stint as a lieutenant in the United States Air Force, he was a correspondent and feature writer for the air force magazine; his experiences provided material for his short stories and his first novel. After completing his military service he married and returned to New York City, where he went to work for publishers of men’s adventure magazines. Eventually he became an executive editor of three magazines. By 1964 he had published two novels and a short-story collection. He left his job in 1966 to devote more time to writing.
Friedman became linked with the 1960’s black humorists, writers noted for using irreverent or grotesque humor to accent the absurdities of existence. Common themes in Friedman’s work are ethnic paranoia, sexual neurosis, and stressed family relationships. Employing sardonic humor, Friedman’s fiction depicts a transient, impersonal, and materialistic America peopled by anxiety-ridden middle-class Jews alienated from Christian America and even ignorant of the roots of their own religious and cultural tradition. Consequently, the most common Friedman protagonist tends to be a loser casting himself as a media version of the non-Jewish hero.
The title character of Friedman’s critically successful first novel, Stern, is a caricature of a self-conscious, bungling urban Jewish American filled with paranoiac delusions about anti-Semitic neighbors. Dependent on others for his identity, Stern seems incapable of responsible relationships. A younger version of Stern, Joseph, is the main character in Friedman’s next novel, A Mother’s Kisses, which focuses on an overprotected young man made indecisive by dependence on his overbearing mother. Most critics praised Friedman’s satirical portraits of a stereotypical Jewish mother and her son, a comic victim.
A Mother’s Kisses was preceded by Friedman’s first short-story collection, representing ten years’ work, Far from the City of Class and Other Stories. Friedman had been regularly contributing stories to leading periodicals since 1953. The collection included sixteen stories divided into those based on Friedman’s years in college, in the Air Force, and in his early career. Many of the stories share the themes of his novels and are characterized by startling conclusions. One of his most successful stories (produced as a short play in 1966), “Twenty-three Pat O’Brien Movies,” concerns a police officer who, after successfully talking a man out of suicide, jumps off the building ledge himself.
Unexpected developments also occur in Black Angels, Friedman’s next short-story collection, whose tales also repeat his novels’ themes and are united by unfulfilled, alienated protagonists. Critics considered the more realistic pieces to be best, particularly the title story, in which black handymen charge a white suburbanite scarcely anything for remodeling his house but ultimately charge him four hundred dollars for listening to his problems. A third collection, Let’s Hear It for a Beautiful Guy, and Other Works of Short Fiction, was followed by The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman, encompassing works from 1953 to 1995.
Following a 1966 production of a dramatized short story, Friedman’s first full-length play, Scuba Duba, was a critical and popular Off-Broadway success examining the racial attitudes of a middle-class liberal who immediately imagines that his runaway wife’s black lover fits a crude stereotype when in actuality he is a refined intellectual. Success with Scuba Duba encouraged further playwriting. Steambath treats with wild irreverence a loser who finds himself in a steambath afterlife presided over by a Puerto Rican bath attendant who is God. Friedman continued to employ his fiction’s themes and characters in such successful screenplays as Stir Crazy and Splash.
Critical reviews of his novels after 1970 are more mixed. In The Dick a frustrated deskbound homicide inspector is disastrously influenced to imitate movie detective stereotypes. About Harry Towns centers on a failed screenwriter separated from his wife whose attempts at swinging bachelorhood, family reconciliation, and new resolutions fail. The title character, Towns, returns in The Current Climate. Both novels received a lackluster critical response. Faring no better with critics was Tokyo Woes, about a Friedman loner who fails to transform his life by taking a trip to Japan. A Father’s Kisses received mixed reviews, a story of an inefficient hit man who does not catch on to the plot quite as quickly as readers do. Violencia! is a backstage comedy about an editor of a homicide newsletter who is drafted to write a musical comedy about homicides, and the collection of oddballs he encounters in the process.
The nonfiction sketches and essays in The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life collectively are a satirical guide spoofing the single man’s condition. Reviewers commended Friedman for his wry, empathetic treatment of contemporary bachelorhood. The work’s publication paralleled Friedman’s 1978 divorce from his first wife, and Friedman coped with bachelorhood until his second marriage in 1983. The Slightly Older Guy, as its title suggests, presents Friedman’s further ruminations on life and aging.
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