BRUCE JAY FRIEDMAN (LUCKY BRUCE)
My learned brother-in-law, Pat, sent me as a Christmas gift a copy of Bruce Jay Friedman's memoir Lucky Bruce. I believe I introduced him to the wonderful writings of Friedman back in the early Seventies, as we delved together into his mesmerizing short stories and his ebon-dark essays. I think our favorite collection was Black Angels, which contained a variety of provocative stories, both witty and disturbing. The title story was a classic of dark, absurdist humor, a topsy-turvy tale of an encounter between Stefano, a troubled suburbanite, who is at first elated by the service provided by a quartet of mysterious black landscapers and then flummoxed by them. Typical of Friedman's fiction, the denouement leaves the reader bemused and reflective. (If you go to Google Books, the story is included in the free preview of Friedman's Collected Stories). Bruce Jay didn't quite belong with the likes of Woody Allen and Mort Sahl as witty commenters on the American scene, but he also couldn't find his niche in the pantheon of Jewish-American fiction writers, Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, often known as the Hart, Schaffner, & Marx of post-war American letters.
He was regularly found in Playboy and Esquire, back when they both proudly boasted publishing the best American fiction writers. Friedman was Bronx born, and an up-and-comer during that glorious period in the 50s and 60s that not only gave us Bellow, Malamud, and Roth, but Updike, Mailer, Baldwin, Salinger, Welty, O'Connor, Capote, Barthelme, Barth, Styron, Vonnegut, Bradbury, Paley, Cheever, Yates, Heller, Shaw, Pynchon, Oates, and so many others. What a time to become an English major! People who recognize Friedman's name today probably remember him as the original author of "A Change of Plan," which was made into a film called The Heartbreak Kid by Elaine May in 1972, starring Charles Grodin and Cybill Shepherd. Neil Simon penned the screenplay from A Bruce Jay story. The tale of an insincere sad sack who falls in love with a beautiful blonde while on his honeymoon is pure Friedman. Friedman's characters are invariably victims to life's inevitable curveballs. That film was a critical and commercial success. The crude 2007 remake with Ben Stiller, directed by the Farrelly Brothers, was not. In the mid 70s, Friedman came up with a series of essays based upon a character called "The Lonely Guy." This inspiration proved to be commercially successful, so readers would regularly find additions: "The Lonely Guys's Apartment" and "The Lonely Guy's Cookbook" were two. Eventually, Steve Martin assumed the persona of "The Lonely Guy" in a modest 1984 film comedy of the same name. Friedman also achieved some success as a screenwriter, as author of such films as Doctor Detroit, Stir Crazy, and notably Splash. Friedman also received some popularity for his work in the theatre. Scuba Duba, a hilarious story of a Jewish man dealing in the 60s with issues of race, infidelity, and psychiatry, was a sizeable hit in 1967. In Steambath (1970), Friedman hilariously posits God as a Puerto-Rican steamroom attendant. PBS broadcast a production in the early 70s. The playwright was determined to leave no group unoffended. Below a clip from the PBS special, starring Bill Bixby and Stephen Elliott.
Still, I think Friedman, now in his 80s, should be regarded as an important writer of the period. Novels like Stern and A Mother's Kisses captured male angst wonderfully well. His insecure protagonists deal inadequately with women, success, race, religion, ethnicity, addiction, and family. With life itself. Friedman's close friend, Godfather author Mario Puzo, once said of Friedman's short stories that they were "like a Twilight Zone with Charles Chaplin." Not quite sure what he meant, but Bruce Jay's short works are graceful tales of emotional displacement, so Puzo is not far off. Read "Let's Hear It for a Beautiful Guy", a classic skewering of the Hollywood star system. I could not catch my breath from laughing when I first read it. Read the stories in Black Angels or Far from the City of Class. Read one of the early novels. They are rich comedies of the human condition. In an interview you can find on the McSweeney's website, Friedman is quoted by Mike Sacks: "In his foreword to Black Humor, an anthology he edited in 1965, Friedman argued that the thirteen writers represented in the collection weren't just 'brooding and sulking sorts' determined to find levity in the world's misery. Rather, they were 'discover[ing] new land' by 'sailing into darker waters somewhere out beyond satire.'" (http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/conversation-3-bruce-jay-friedman). There are disturbing truths beneath all the laughs. Give Bruce Jay a shot.