Sterner Measures

stern.jpgAt the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the '60s, if you owned a farm or an orchard within 50 miles of a major city, you were one happy camper. That's because, in the flash of a checkbook, you were rich rich rich. Which probably explains why there are no books about the plight of a suburban farmer getting a huge wad of cash to let his cornfield or pear orchard be turned into "Revolutionary Estate" or "Laurel Hills"or "Old Orchard," and why, at the same time, there were so many written about the poor displaced city people (mostly men) who had to trade in the bubbling, cosmopolitan, ethnic stew or the big town (mostly New York) for suburban bliss. Well, not exactly bliss. Well, to be precise, damn far from bliss -- more like mind-numbing, mind-addling, mind-breaking fear, longing, and horror.

The grandaddy of these, in current estimation anyhow, is Richard Yates's Revolutionary Road, his 1961 novel about the dangers of trying to mount an amateur theatrical production in a bedroom suburb, arguably as great a book as Gatsby. Yates, a bleak character under the most sunny of circumstances, hangs a lot of crepe over the muscular, post-war boom.

But when it comes to hanging crepe, I've come to be partial to the indigo stylings of Bruce Jay Friedman's novella Stern, a dark comedy (as befitting Friedman, the oracle of black humor) first published in 1963. While other Jewish-American writers were remaking literature with their bravado, wit, and anger (notably the triumverate of Roth, Malamud, and Bellow), in Stern, Friedman briefly but decisively dashes to the front of this angry pack for sheer, unbridled lunacy.

Stern, is, well, Stern, "a tall, round-shouldered man with pale, spreading hips." He buys a house from a realtor, Mr. Iavone, because he had spent so much time with him and his wife. No sooner do Stern and his wife and his young son move in than a gruff, anti-Semitic neighbor pushes Stern's wife down on the street, catches a view of her in a compromising position, and calls her a "kike" This sets Stern off on a journey that includes Brazilian millionaires, a nasty ulcer, enforced rehabilitation in a kind of sanitarium for ulcers (sanitariums, interestingly, also played a large role in Yates's fiction -- what a literary locale!) and not a little bit of wrestling with identity and memory that strips Stern to his personal floorboards.

The story itself is not the story here. Not even the anti-Semitism part, although that is strong and interesting. In a very bold move, Friedman turns even that into a kind of black humor Macguffin. The aspect that stands out is the tone, an arch, distant, black, disassociated kind of third-person that strikes a very unsettling balance -- sympathy and disgust perfectly mixed. You could look at Stern as a total schlemiel, which he most certainly is, but you could also look at him as a busted up (to use a Sternien kind of phrase) picture of a modern American hero. For instance, when he's complaining to his Brazilian millionaire about his ulcer, Stern could be talking about his spirit:

"Something's come up," Stern said. "I've got to go away. They found something inside me and I have to get it taken care of."

Of course, "they" can't take care of it. And that's the point. In a semi-demi-hemi-quasi-hopeful note, we're left to believe that maybe (unlikely, but possibly -- and hey, it's something right?), maybe Stern will be able to pull it off. Life, that is. In the suburbs. Maybe.

If you like your humor black, try Stern. You'll laugh till you cry. Or, more likely, cry till you laugh.

'Til next time...

Ken Krimstein Ken.jpg

Mr. Krimstein is a writer, professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.

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