Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1973
When Bruce Jay Friedman edited a paperback collection of plays, stories, and excerpts from novels in 1965 under the title Black Humor, he became America’s best-known spokesman for a brand of fiction characterized by a quirky kind of comic satire with a sardonic slant. Although in his introduction to that milestone collection (which included the work of John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, Joseph Heller, Vladimir Nabokov, Edward Albee, and others) Friedman said that he would have about as much luck defining black humor as he would defining an elbow or a corned beef sandwich, he described the genre as a “one-foot-in-the-asylum style of fiction” whose typical theme was the absurdity of society and whose typical technique was marked by a “fading line between fantasy and reality.” Many of the pieces in The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman are typical of his own version of black humor. In the foreword, he says that he has never known what to say when people ask him to recommend a work that best represents him until the publication of this new collection.
Individually, these “short fictions,” written by Friedman between 1953 and 1995, are not as well known as his novel Stern (1962) or his playsScuba Duba (1968) and Steambath (1971), but as a group they solidify his claim to a certain kind of fiction that combines social criticism with a gleefully sardonic sense of humor. Friedman is right, however, to call this a collection of short fictions rather than short stories, for few of these pieces are realistic explorations of individual human actions and emotions characteristic of the contemporary short story. Rather, most of them are what might be called satires or thesis stories—idea pieces whose primary reason for being is to illustrate a jaundiced observation about some social silliness.
“Mission,” a sort of “what if” single-concept story, is typical. The piece begins with a slow, methodical description, told in a serious tone, of a man on a solemn mission to capture a grysbok, a specimen of a rare endangered species. The reader begins to doubt the seriousness of the endeavor, however, when the protagonist lets it be known that he wants only the tongue of the beast. After dutifully reading about the man’s arduous efforts to capture the beast and get the tongue back to a famous chef (who comes out of retirement to prepare his specialty dish, “Casserole of Sharpe’s-grysbok tongue with mushrooms in bécamelsauce”), the reader discovers that the special dish is the last meal request of a condemned convict on death row. The story ends with the warden expressing hope that the next joker to be executed is a steak-and-apple-pie man.
“Black Angels” is probably one of Friedman’s best-known stories, if for no other reason than that it was included in the popular anthology that he edited in 1965. It is a simple, one-joke story. Its protagonist dreads spring because of the expense of hiring high-priced gardeners. On an impulse he tries a new company of four African American men, who charge him only a fraction of what his old gardeners did for initial cleanup and monthly maintenance. They also charge him a ridiculously low price for painting his house, waterproofing his basement, and refinishing his kitchen cabinets. The joke comes at the end of the story, when the protagonist begins telling the men about his personal insecurities and his wife’s leaving him. Although the black laborers give him no real advice and respond mostly in monosyllables, the protagonist concludes that they know just the right thing to say. The punch line comes when the protagonist asks them, just for fun, what they would charge to let him talk to them and blow off steam a couple of times a week. Although he is shocked when they quote him a fee of four hundred dollars, the story ends with his accepting their price and telling them that his wife is a lot like his mother. Although the piece is a clever satire on analysts who do little more than confirm the patient’s self-understanding, it is still only a one-joke story with a punch line.
Similar satires are “Detroit Abe,” about a Jewish professor of irony who, ironically, becomes a pimp; “The Mourner,” about a man who attends funerals of people whose obituaries he reads in the newspaper because he does not think enough fuss is made about their deaths; “23 Pat O’Brien Movies,” about a patrolman who tries to talk a man out of jumping from of a window and ends up jumping out himself; and “Holiday Celebration,” about some sick-jokers who set up a traffic accident on Labor Day so they can win a bet on how many fatalities will occur on the holiday.
Not all the pieces in the collection are one-joke stories; some are more highly developed satires. In “Far from the City of Class,” two college boys spend Thanksgiving holiday with a classmate in the Midwest. One of them, who is always making fun of the provincial nature of the Midwest and insisting on the classiness of New York, reveals a decided lack of class when he pretends to be a Broadway producer and dupes a young woman into stripping for them. In “An Ironic Yetta Montana,” Friedman creates the persona of a scriptwriter who, while failing with a script for a singer/actress named Sandra Moxie, discovers an extraordinary film property in a book in the actress’ library and decides to produce his own film version of the book. “Our Lady of the Lockers,” a black humor satire on hard-boiled detective stories, deals with a woman whose body has been found in pieces in Health Spa lockers in Manhattan; this story is complete with the snappy patter of the gumshoe and an ironic reversal at the end. In “The Canning of Mother Dean,” a group of college fraternity men allow a fast talker to convince them they should get rid of their housemother; they regret it in the end, when they realize how much they need her.
The book is divided into seven categories, the relevance of which is known only to Friedman. The section titles—“By Way of Introduction,” “Crazed Youth,” “Halcyon Days,” “Mother,” “Sex,” “Death,” and “The Family Man”—suggest an autobiographical structure; without dates on the stories, however, it is not clear whether they follow some compositional chronology or whether they roughly correspond to thematic categories parallel with Friedman’s own experience. Practically every section has at least one story with the parenthetical subheading “Featuring Harry Towns”; three of these—“The Partners,” “Lady,-” and “Back to Back”—appeared in a 1990 book by Friedman titled About Harry Towns. The other two Harry Towns stories, “The Gent” and “Pitched Out,” may have been written since 1990.
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 first Harry Towns story in the collection, “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 his son 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 angry at first, but then he feels guilty when the boy, who wants to be with his father regardless of the setting, says that he loves Las Vegas more than anyplace 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 that 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 coke to get women. When Harry’s mother dies, he gains the opportunity to meet a new dealer who gets him some of the best coke he has ever had; he has no scruples about exploiting the mother’s funeral for the sake of his habit. Yet, as in the ending of the story about father-son bonding at 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 can make, he vows to finish the coke 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 coke that was used for brain surgery, he would turn it down. In an ironic and unknowing reference to himself, Harry swears that anyone who sticks so much as a grain of coke up his nose on the day of the funeral would have to “be some new and as yet undiscovered breed of sonofabitch. The lowest.”
The last Harry Towns story in the collection is also the final story in the book and may serve as a kind of black humor coda to Harry’s not-so-noble adventures. At age fifty-seven, Harry 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 an old 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 women come out of a night spot, Harry knows that any one of them could slip past the fence he built around himself when he met the woman with whom he now lives. Typically, Harry knows that “there [are] still some adventures up ahead.”
Although Friedman claims to agree with Samuel Johnson’s celebrated observation that no one but a blockhead writes for anything but money, he insists that most of these stories were written to puzzle things out, because when something weighs heavily on him, writing about it makes him feel lighter. Yet he says that he has also written stories merely to show off, to put brackets around an experience or intriguing experience, or to put in boldface what he believes to be ridiculous or unfair in modern culture. Indeed, most of these stories—which originally appeared in such places as The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire,Playboy, and Cavalier—seem simply “occasional” idea pieces, written to highlight a human foible or social absurdity.
None of Friedman’s short fictions has that center of human “necessariness” that Elizabeth Bowen once said is characteristic of the short story; none of them springs from the complexity and ambiguity of individual human experience. This is not to say that they are poor pieces of fiction, only that they are examples of a rather narrow subgenre—entertaining, amusing, and clever, but not profound explorations of the soul. As Friedman said in his introduction to Black Humor, there will always be black humor under one name or another, as long as “there are disguises to be peeled back, as long as there are thoughts no one else cares to think about.”
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. XCII, October 15, 1995, p. 384.
Library Journal. CXX, September 15, 1995, p. 95.
The New York Times Book Review. C, November 5, 1995, p. 9.
Newsweek. CXXVI, November 6, 1995, p. 88.
Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, September 11, 1995, p. 75.
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