Time was serious writers wrote to entertain audiences. Not entertain in the "anything for a laugh" style we're so accustomed to, but to move, to captivate, to probe, to scare, to inspire, to confuse. From Dickens to Tolstoy to Chandler to O'Connor to Lardner to Dahl to, even, Hemingway, these artists used stories and storytelling to get to people. These days movies, and mostly crappy movies, have taken over this role.Short stories, at least "literary stories," have become the province of minute movements, domestic dramas often featuring despondent creative writing professors who write literary short stories. Entertaining? Perhaps to a select group of members of the MLA. Of course some masters such as T. C. Boyle can still pop off a whiz-bang, and Stuart Dybek probes inner realms of consciousness, but overall, to be respected, you gotta be boring. Boring.
Into this somber salon bursts Bruce Jay Friedman. Never one for the pieties of literary minimalism, Friedman simply writes like a bastard. I mean this in the best sense. He tells stories, with a unique point of view, that give the reader, no, that take the reader, on a ride. Like a boxer, Friedman assaults you, even when he's being quiet. His words dance, graze, and sometimes pummel, and when they connect, they do so by planting a smile (more often a smirk) on your lips.
I'll be blunt. These stories are FUN to read. Is that bad? Well, is Pink Floyd bad because they're fun to listen to, or is Federer bad because he's fun to watch?
I'll let you answer that one.
Friedman came up in an era of superstars, especially in his designated niche. Roth, Bellow, Malamud -- big hitters. Despite writing a couple of seminal (pun intended) and critically acclaimed Jewish American Guilt novels, Friedman has possibly suffered because he's too good of a writer too flexible, too able to tell stories in any genre. But this is a guy (and if ever there was a writer who deserved that tag, it's BJF) who grew up editing men's adventure magazines. A mainstay of Playboy and the glory days of Esquire and Elaine's, his Harry Towns character is one of the great (to use another Friedmanism) American literary heroes. (Or is he an anti-hero?) Towns, who figures in a few stories in Friedman's latest delectable collection, is a too honest, too guilty, too sweet, too nasty creature. He is ruled by his ex-wife, his child, and his libido. He could not be a woman. He could only be a certain kind of American man at a certain time, and that's another way of saying, Towns is so expertly observed and drawn that he is all of us -- everyman.
To get back to, or rather, to get to Friedman's latest book, Three Balconies: Stories and a Novella, it's a delight. As befits Friedman's punchy persona, what he calls a novella, his The Great Beau Levyne, would be considered a vignette in a collection by many other contemporary short story writers. No matter. The tale, a rare foray into first person, and with a position of pride at the end of the book, captures a life. Its scope is grand, and it delivers. Many of the other stories in the collection touch on, and master, tactics and techniques ranging from moderately surreal to downright hilarious to Roald Dahlian irony. These are like O'Henry, or Maupassant, or Saki: short, sharp, shocks. Enjoyable, but not confections.
For example, Joined at the Hip is the kind of story Alfred Hitchcock or an HBO-ready version of Rod Serling would have loved to put on their shows. The dark, twisted stinger at the end is not contrived, a difficult task to pull off for that kind of surprise ending story. Instead, the zinger Friedman so expertly builds to resonates like a fable from Aesop. Makes you wonder how Friedman would tackle horror, or an essay or two, or a full-fledged novel.
Not every track in Three Balconies may be to your taste, or a masterpiece. But even on Sgt. Pepper's, not every song is A Day in the Life. But the whole thing is FUN, and not too shabby when it comes to Art (with a cap "a") either.
Go ahead, enjoy. It won't kill you. - Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in New York City. So there.