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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2498

Bruce Jay Friedman condemns his succession of fictional schlemiels, losers, “lonely” and fall guys to a violent, morbid, and paranoic world; his terrain is a stark, post-Thurberesque hell haunted by the enfeebled ghosts of Franz Kafka and Søren Kierkegaard (the first “Modern Day Lonely Guy,” according to Friedman). The author claims that he has merely attempted to mirror the surreal montage of the first page of The New York Times. In such a world, anonymous victims that no one could imagine happy trudge their daily Sisyphean hills. Those sensitive or foolish enough to wonder, why me? deserve whatever additional anxieties hyperconsciousness assures.

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Indeed, the only Friedman characters to escape the avenging furies of their own souls are those who cannot or do not think at all, and those who thrive as caricatures of themselves (such as the notorious “Jewish mothers” cluttering the novels and short stories). Such characters possess little genuine self, and, for Friedman, self and suffering form the two halves of a terrible equation. One should not assume something Christlike in this sacrificial formula, however; Brooklyn and New York City are not exactly Golgotha. Hence, lacking this saving archetypal dimension, Friedman’s characters bear their insipid papier-mâché crosses in a cultural and spiritual vacuum. No bands of scraggly disciples witness their travail or await their return, and their passage thus proves all the more torturous. (It takes Stern, in the novel of that title, more than one year to “get even” with a man who has insulted his wife. Meanwhile, Stern develops ulcers and has a nervous breakdown.)

The element of “sick” humor in Friedman’s fiction is probably what prompted critics of the 1960’s to describe it and similar work by writers such as Vladimir Nabokov, Joseph Heller, James Purdy, Thomas Pynchon, and Terry Southern as “black humor.” Friedman himself popularized the term when he edited the anthology of short fiction, Black Humor, in 1965. Critic Max Schulz seems to have identified black humor correctly as a phenomenon of its time. Perhaps this is because, as Friedman recognized in an influential introduction to his anthology, the phrase fails to convey the essence as well as the comic seriousness of fiction which, for whatever reasons, finds itself so classified. Then again, there is the wider generic question of comedy in general to consider.

Friedman claims in his introduction that black humor has always been and always will be written—“as long as there are disguises to be peeled back. ” Black humor, he suggests, asks “final questions”; it announces to the world—“be preposterous, but also make damned sure you explain yourself.” One does wonder, given these qualifications, how black humor differs from the traditional satiric humor of, say, a Jonathan Swift or a Petronius. Critics and theorists, nevertheless, have taken pains to distinguish the two forms. Charles Harris, for one, emphatically denies any satiric function in black humor; so does Robert Scholes, and so, somewhat contradictorily, does Friedman. Black humor apparently shrugs off any hope of personal redemption or social reform; its sole purpose is the exposure of absurdity. In this sense, black humor can be regarded as a kind of vaudevillian naturalism devoid of the scientific and deterministic restraints peculiar to classical naturalism. The only solace it promises is relief through laughter for its own sake. The world, Friedman proclaims, is a tense, brutal affair, and you might as well laugh at what little of it you can; if nothing else, discharge muscular tension.

There is, however, more to Friedman’s fiction than pure gag or memorable one-liners or even a peculiar and rather perverse comic vision. This extra dimension develops most definitively in the novels, but one can also catch glimpses of it in the short stories that make up the author’s first two collections. Beyond the subsuming survival motive of Friedman’s neurotic anti-heroes, certain old-fashioned virtues and values do emerge as possible alternatives to meaninglessness. Courage, for example, would eliminate many otherwise humiliating compromises; love, forever elusive in Friedman’s work, might cushion every fell blow; and compassion would neutralize hatred, bad vibrations, and egotistical self-dotage, but courage, love, and compassion—defenses, all, against what Friedman describes as the “new Jack Rubyesque chord of absurdity [that] has been struck in our land”—lie buried deeply beneath the Sisyphean hill. Friedman’s characters remember them fondly, as they would childhood baubles. Eternally lost, their very absence makes them the most conspicuous themes in Friedman’s fiction. Evil and accident result, then, as consequences of the lack of goodness and order. Without knowing it, perhaps, the Jewish Friedman delineates an Augustinian world. (Judaism does have its Augustinian equivalents in certain gnostic scriptures.)

Against courage, love, and compassion Friedman assembles an entire arsenal of badness: germs, disease, physical deformity, violence, humiliation, embarrassment, despair, free-floating anxiety, nervous breakdowns, failure, divorce, infidelity, loneliness, isolation, everyday banalities, and—encompassing them all—the fear of death. In practically every story the central character recognizes but fails to overcome some major obstacle, and minor obstacles also abound.

Castrating Mother Stories

In a group of stories involving “castrating” mothers (almost certainly leftover material from the novel, A Mother’s Kisses), the protagonists cannot escape their mothers’ omnivorous presence. In “The Trip,” for example, a young man’s mother accompanies her son to the Midwest to make sure he gets off to a good start in college. The mother, like all Friedman mothers, is loud, crude, brash, and offensive and thrives on the fantasy that strangers will mistake her for her son’s lover. The student desperately wants his mother to act like ordinary mothers, for her power not so much inhibits his style as renders him styleless: “I was marked as a fellow with a mother,” he groans. In a related story, “The Good Time,” a young soldier’s mother visits her furloughing son in Philadelphia to, as she puts it, show him “a good time.” She succeeds only in embarrassing and oppressing the anguished son. In still another story, “The Enemy,” the men of a typical Jewish family appear weak and impotent when pitted against the voracious, saw-toothed females of the clan.

Unmanageable Women Stories

In general, Friedman’s world is full of unmanageable women. The wives of his characters, while inhabiting a different domain entirely, prove no better than their mothers. While the mothers, however perversely, do in a sense remain faithful to their weak sons, the wives constantly drift away from their husbands, emotionally, physically, and legally. Friedman wives, insubstantial intellectually and often emotionally vapid, refuse to remain homebodies, mothers, and kitchen drudges. Their rebellion, if it can be called that, involves nothing so abstract and ideological as the lure of independence or feminist ideals; rather, it takes the form of vague dissatisfaction, diffuse ennui, and an ultimate rejection of the shortcomings of men in general. The husbands, equally fed up and bored with their wives, react in two ways; either they attempt to make amends and sincerely desire to patch up a shattered marriage, or they abandon their wives for the prospect of nervous one-night stands and ubiquitous nubile flesh in a sexually revolutionized world for which they are little prepared.

Castrating mothers, unsatisfactory wives, problematic girlfriends, and sexual objects—these are the women who populate Friedman’s fiction. Their purpose, which they serve by existing, is to expose men where they are most vulnerable, as heroes and/or lovers. Perhaps Friedman spares women no mercy precisely because they undermine all of the splendid myths men have created about themselves. In “The Punch,” a recently married public relations man named Harris describes his marriage as a “series of tense situations.” The mere presence of his sexy young wife erodes Harris’s confidence and masculinity, and he responds by resorting to violence as “the need to hit someone gathered up like an abscess.” Harris feels the only way he can impress his wife is to slug another human being. Yet the fear unsettles him: He knew that “no matter how smoothly things were running, always, at a party there would arise some confrontation in which he would be brought to the edge of violence and then, in some way or other, fail to throw a punch.” Finally, to his wife’s immense delight, Harris manages to punch a stranger on the street. Once he proves his manhood—that is, after the fact—Harris realizes that what he really wanted to do was punch the infuriating creature who had so disrupted his life. Thus, violence precipitates more violence.

Neurotic Men Stories

Missing the comforts of domestic, conjugal, and romantic fulfillment, Friedman’s male characters develop numerous real and psychosomatic ailments. Stefano, in “Black Angels,” describes his life as a “sea of despair”; the patient in “The Investor” observes his fever rise and fall with the fluctuations of Plimpton Rocket Fuel stock; Gorsline, in “The Death Table,” draws a roulette card that promises him early demise via heart attack; Mr. Kessler, in “When You’re Excused You’re Excused,” claims that bad health excuses him from family and social obligations; Merz, in “A Foot in the Door,” arranges a Faustian pact by accepting an ulcer and asthma in order to get the woman he wants; and the lead character in “Mr. Prinzo’s Break-through” spends his last cent on psychoanalysis. (The paragon of hypochondriacs in Friedman’s fiction is Stern in Stern.) Freudian critics, particularly those who follow Leslie Fiedler’s perceptive analyses, might interpret this widespread hypochondria, as well as the general disrespect for women in Friedman’s work, as a sign of latent homosexuality. Homosexuality does not, latent or otherwise, seem to preoccupy Friedman, however, except occasionally, when he adds it to the ever-growing list of deleterious options threatening contemporary man. It is altogether safer, and more accurate, to assume that the neuroses of Friedman’s characters are metaphysical rather than psychological in nature.

Not surprisingly, perhaps their very Jewishness remains the sole, frayed connection Friedman’s comic wretches can make with their culture, their tradition, their heritage, and their brethren. Thematically, Jewishness offers these characters what Faulkner might have called an “eternal verity.” For Friedman, however, one is Jewish practically by default. In The Dick (1970), the protagonist changes his name from Sussman to LePeters in order to enter mainstream America, and in one of Friedman’s best stories, “When You’re Excused You’re Excused,” Mr. Kessler seems more interested in avoiding obligatory Jewish holiday rituals than he does in restoring his health at Vic Tanny’s gym, where he decides to work out on the eve of Yom Kippur. Throughout the story, Mr. Kessler tries to convince himself that he has been excused from Jewishness for a while. He gets together with a group of unsavory characters and indulges himself shamelessly. In the end, however, Mr. Kessler punches a man in the nose for never having heard of the Jewish baseball hero, “Phumblin’ Phil” Weintraub. That was too much for any Jew on Yom Kippur. “I may have been excused,” Mr. Kessler mutters, “but I wasn’t that excused.”

Harry Towns Stories

Harry Towns is a sort of black-humor Everyman—a bit of a loser, a bit of a creep, somewhat pathetic, somewhat despicable. In “The Partners,” Harry is in Las Vegas with his young son in an effort to spend more time with him in preparation for a divorce. This idealistic notion is “black humorously” spoiled by the fact that Harry has venereal crabs and has trouble getting away from the boy long enough to satisfy his gambling habit and his sexual desires. Although the boy is hurt by a falling barbell in a gym to which Harry takes him, that does not deter Harry from leaving him in the hotel room while he goes to gamble and visit a hooker. When the boy has him paged, Harry is at first angry, but then he feels guilty when the boy, who wants to be with his father regardless of the setting, says he loves Las Vegas more than any place in the world. The only way Harry can show his fatherly love is to give the underage boy a handful of coins with which to play the slot machines and then to stand by him to ward off the casino guard, saying he will kill anyone who dares to come within ten feet of the two of them.

The “lady” in the Harry Towns story “Lady” is cocaine, and Harry is a drug user who also uses cocaine to get women. When Harry’s mother dies, her death becomes the opportunity for his meeting a new dealer who gets him some of the best cocaine he has ever had; he has no scruples about exploiting the mother’s funeral for the sake of his habit. However, similar to the ending of the previous story about the father-son bonding around the slot machines in Las Vegas, Friedman creates an ironic version of Harry’s saving grace at the end of this story. In the only moral gesture toward his mother’s memory that Harry is capable of, he vows to finish the cocaine before dawn of the day of the funeral so he can start off the day clear. He vows that no matter what someone might offer him on the day of the funeral, even cocaine used for brain surgery, he will turn it down. In an ironic and unknowing reference to himself, Harry swears that anyone who sticks so much as a grain of cocaine up his nose on the day of the funeral had to “be some new and as yet undiscovered breed of sonofab—. The lowest.”

“Pitched Out” is a kind of black-humor coda to Harry’s not-so-noble adventures. At age fifty-seven, he is a writer sunk so low that he is unsuccessfully trying to pitch a show about a dog to network executives. While in Los Angeles, he meets a friend for dinner and laments that he is getting old and is coming up empty in Hollywood. Both men bemoan their lost youth which they still try to maintain by hustling women in the bar. As they watch beautiful young girls come out of a night spot, Harry knows that any one of them could have slipped past the fence he had built around himself when he met the woman he now lives with. Typically, Harry knew “there were still some adventures up ahead.”

Friedman’s work, in general, exaggerates and exposes the neurotic condition of Jews in America; but as the alienated Jew comes to represent contemporary Everyman, so Friedman’s stories transcend their Jewishness and read like absurd vignettes of any postindustrial civilization. It would not take much to convert such vignettes into minor tragedies—a laugh less here, a bit more pathos there—and this is exactly why Friedman’s humor seems so right for this Age of Anxiety. Saving graces and verities are there, but no one seems to know what to do with them.

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Friedman, Bruce Jay (Vol. 3)