Bruce Jay Friedman: “He often spoke about the conflict between writing screenplays for the money and the fun of it, and the higher calling of writing novels.”

Bruce Jay Friedman: “A deadpan prose stylist with a keen eye for the absurd.”

From a New York Times obit by Bruce Weber on “Bruce Jay Friedman, 90, Author With a Darkly Comic Worldview”:

Bruce Jay Friedman, whose early novels, short stories and plays were pioneering examples of modern American black humor, making dark but giggle-inducing sport of the deep, if not pathological, insecurities of his white, male, middle-class and often Jewish protagonists, died on Wednesday at his home in Brooklyn. . . .

Like his contemporaries Joseph Heller, Stanley Elkin and Thomas Pynchon, he wrote what came to be called black humor, largely because of an anthology by that name that he edited in 1965.

His first two novels, “Stern” (1962) and the best-selling “A Mother’s Kisses” (1964) — tales of New York Jews exploring an America outside the five boroughs — and his first play, the 1967 Off Broadway hit “Scuba Duba,” a sendup of race relations that is set in motion when a Jewish man fears his wife is having an affair with a black spear fisherman, made him widely celebrated. The New York Times Magazine in 1968 declared Mr. Friedman “The Hottest Writer of the Year.

Mr. Friedman was again on the cultural radar in the 1970s. His play “Steambath,” which posits the titular location as purgatory and a Puerto Rican towel attendant as God, appeared Off Broadway in 1970 and on public television in 1973. Later that decade he wrote “The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life,” a trenchantly uproarious treatise on adult solitude that began as a series of essays for Esquire magazine and that was adapted by Neil Simon for a 1984 film, “The Lonely Guy,” starring Steve Martin and Charles Grodin.

A deadpan prose stylist with a keen ear for the absurdly self-involved dialogue that emanates from neurosis, Mr. Friedman was, at his best, a savage social satirist. He took advantage of the social upheaval he lived through in the 1960s and ’70s to write about race and gender relations from the suddenly uncertain perspective of men like, well, himself, gleefully tweaking the white male psyche’s tenderest spots. . . .

“A Mother’s Kisses” was adapted into a stage musical that nearly made it to Broadway (it closed out of town). It introduced readers not only to Joseph, Mr. Friedman’s portrait of a lonely, perplexed Jew as a young man, but also to the indomitable Meg, a woman whom Haskel Frankel, writing in The New York Times Book Review and sparing no hyperbole, called “the most unforgettable mother since Medea.”

Mr. Friedman followed up with two novels that changed milieus, imbuing both an urban detective (in “The Dick,” 1970) and a cocaine-addled screenwriter (“About Harry Towns,” 1974) with the signature qualities of bafflement and self-questioning. And he continued to write short stories, including “A Change of Plan,” a comic tale about brutal selfishness in which a young man goes on a Florida honeymoon, meets another woman at the hotel pool and ditches his new wife for her.

Adapted by Mr. Simon, the story became, as the women’s movement was taking hold in 1972, a highly provocative film, “The Heartbreak Kid,” starring Mr. Grodin, Cybill Shepherd and Jeannie Berlin, whose mother, Elaine May, directed. (A 2007 remake, starring Ben Stiller, was directed by Bobby and Peter Farrelly.). . .

“People ask where do stories come from,” he continued. “Well, they come from a lot of places. Very often it’s your life, and then you extrapolate from a personal experience. In my case, yeah, OK, I got married, went down to Florida, we were exhausted, my wife fell asleep, I went down to the pool and I saw a very pretty girl. And I said, ‘Oh, God.’ And I did tell her I was a little married, and she just splashed some water at me. That pretty much ended it. I went back into the marriage, had three children. And then got divorced.

“But that’s how a story will happen. You have a fragment of an experience and ask yourself, ‘What if?’. . .

Mr. Friedman wrote several more novels, including “Tokyo Woes” (1985), about an American gadabout’s adventures in Japan; “The Current Climate” (1989), a revisit to Harry Towns; and “A Father’s Kisses” (1996), about an unemployed poultry distributor who becomes a hit man. Though they all received respectful reviews, critics failed to find in them the freshness of his early work. He also had small roles in several films, including three directed by Woody Allen: “Another Woman” (1988), “Husbands and Wives” (1992) and “Celebrity” (1998). . . .

Mr. Friedman often spoke in interviews about the conflict between writing screenplays for the money and the fun of it, and the higher calling of writing novels.

“The truth is, I tortured myself by moving back and forth, from one to the other,” he wrote in “Lucky Bruce,” in which he also acknowledged the career arc that started at the top and declined.

“Stories, quite a few of them, got written and published,” he wrote of the later years of his writing life. “If they lacked energy (were less frantic?) I assured myself they were more ‘dimensional.’ Once I discovered that comforting description, I clung to it like life itself. There were a few books, some plays that still need attention. And quite a few pieces about me in the literary journals, wondering what had happened to me.

“Where had I gone? I began to feel like the most (fondly) remembered forgotten writer in America.”

Speak Your Mind