Bruce Jay Friedman Critical Essays


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.

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...

(The entire section is 2498 words.)