He’s back. And for that we should be thankful. Of course, Bruce Jay Friedman never really went anywhere. It’s just that Friedman, who was at the top of the literary heap with his hilarious, dark, comic novels, Stern and A Mother’s Kisses, not to mention his successful plays, Scuba Duba and Steambath, seems to have been in the Witness Protection Program for the past decade or so.
But you can’t keep a good man down, and so now we have Three Balconies, a welcome collection of 17 short stories, three of which, “The Thespian,” “The People Person,” and “The Great Beau LeVyne,” (which, at a mere 30 pages certainly stretches the definition of novella, but what the hell) have never seen the light of day before now. Most of the others were previously published in magazines like Esquire and Playboy. Yes, some of the stories are dated, but what’s wrong with that? Others, no matter when they were written, are timeless.
Friedman has never really been interested in well-adjusted winners, but rather those on the way up or down, or even better, those going nowhere fast. The neurotic, the unhappy, the malcontent, the put-upon, the outsider, that’s patented Friedman territory, and we’re the better for it. But the beauty of it is that Friedman never makes fun of his characters. Instead, they are drawn so sharply and with such understanding, that even though we might feel a twinge of pity for them (okay, sometimes a bit more than a twinge,) we certainly don’t feel guilty laughing at them. In large part, this is because one suspects that they represent a not so hidden side of Friedman himself.
In “Fit as a Fiddle,” we are introduced to Dugan who, “though he was hale, if not hearty, at sixty-two, his friends were dropping like flies.” And so, it logically follows that Dugan would be obsessed with his own well-being, which results in a nice comic payoff.
In “Neck and Neck,” Friedman writes of the writer Baum, and his arch rival Albert P. Wiener, both of whom were named “as two of the most promising artists of the Post-World War Two era.” But as Wiener (that name is obviously not chosen carelessly and could he possibly be a Philip Roth stand-in?) rises, Baum settles into mediocrity bordering on oblivion. As they age together, try as he might, Baum can’t quite reach the heights of his nemesis whose success seriously throws him off his game. Perhaps there can be second acts in America. But you’ll have to read this story to find out how.
In “The Thespian,” we have Harry, a former Hollywood screenwriter, now asked by an ex-girlfriend to play a small role in a movie she’s producing. Following the wisdom, “‘There are no small parts’,” he said, quoting someone he’d heard on the Bravo channel, “‘only small actors’,” Harry agrees. Besides, maybe it’s a way to get back into the game. “Your name,” a Hollywood agent had told him, “no longer comes up on the radar screen.” He’s asked to play a rare book dealer with, as his daughter points out, “â€¦three lines and one of them is `hi’.” But Harry is “relieved to see that his third line had to do with Pushkin and seemed to be central to the plot. Harry had never actually read Pushkin, but he knew a lot about Pushkin. He felt he could really sink his teeth into the Pushkin line.” Vintage Friedman.
Some of the stories, like The Reversal, are a bit too predictable and fall a little flat, but that’s more than made up for by “The Convert,” and “The Great Beau LeVyne,” which showcase Friedman at his dyspeptic albeit comic best.
Good to have you back, Bruce Jay, and hope you’re working on something longer.