Monday, November 28, 2011

Book: Lucky Bruce, by Bruce Jay Friedman (2011)

The era that Bruce Jay Friedman’s “literary memoir” covers isn’t that far in the rear view mirror. But the world that his book describes – one in which novelists had cultural currency, and a writer could sustain oneself, a family and a handful of carefully selected bartenders with a combination of short fiction and journalism – seems every bit as remote as the Middle Ages.

As is often the case in autobiography, the early years of struggle register the most strongly. Friedman genuinely means the “lucky,” though, because his version of hardship is running what used to be known as men’s magazines, replete with yarns like “G.I. King of Nympho Island.” Three of the rags under his stewardship were Male, Men, and Man’s World, which must have made trips to the newsstand confusing. His high point was editing Swank, which wasn’t pornographic when he was in charge; his boss’s edict was, “I’d like it to be classy but not too classy,” which gave Friedman license to pursue a “mix of hernia ads, starlet interviews and unpublishable stories by great authors.” My favorite incident from this period is when Friedman is visited by Leicester Hemingway, spitting image of big brother Ernest, who offered Friedman a story called “Avast.” The first line was “Hi, ho, me hearties.” Friedman passed.

Friedman would go on to the kind of long and successful career that verges on unimaginable now, spanning novels (Stern), theater (Steambath) and film (an Academy Award nomination for Splash). He considers his triumphs with the same air of amiable bemusement as his failures. Best of all are his recollections of his fellow writers, many the lions of an age of letters that still had vitality. It’s brazen name-dropping. Friedman admits it. More to the point, he’s very good at it. Mario Puzo was one of his first magazine hires; Friedman told his friend not to call his novel in progress The Godfather because it sounded “too domestic.” He feuded with Joseph Heller and got into a fistfight with Norman Mailer. Kurt Vonnegut asked Friedman to teach him “how to hang out.” The crime writer Henry Kane, “always thought of, unfairly I felt, as being a notch or two below Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett in ability,” was a figure out of his one of his own stories, hiding from his third wife and sending a Chinese valet out for Scotch. And for weeks the great Richard Yates would turn up at the magazine offices, sit down at a desk as if he worked there, then head out with the staff at the end of the day for cocktails. The chapter on Elaine’s, the fabled Manhattan restaurant where many literary lights including Friedman held court for decades, is a marvel.

The book has the feel of a conversation that unfolds over several hours and bottles of wine. It’s convivial and hazy, full of digressions and tales with misplaced punchlines, sly observations that you know you’re going to forget even as you vow to remember them. Friedman is often described – and dismissed – as a funny writer, but don’t let the lightness of tone fool you. Of his first play Scuba Duba Friedman writes, “Though the play had a comic veneer, there were powerful emotions boiling up beneath the surface. Or so I thought.” The same is true of this book.