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...
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