Lucky Bruce: A Lit­er­ary Memoir

  • Review
By – December 15, 2011
Bruce Jay Friedman’s anec­do­tal mem­oir is about a life of con­tin­u­al striv­ing and set­tling — striv­ing for the qui­et tor­ture of being a writer; set­tling for mak­ing a liv­ing amidst famous, usu­al­ly inse­cure, denizens of a writer’s world. It plays loose­ly with anec­do­tal facts but pierc­ing­ly with each anec­dote. And the voice of the self-sat­i­riz­ing nar­ra­tor puts him just­ly in that com­pa­ny. Temp­ta­tions toward brava­do are con­tin­u­al­ly under­cut by par­en­thet­ic chal­lenges from an inner voice — a sur­ro­gate for par­ents always sus­pi­cious of big shots — that keeps BJF the reader’s com­pan­ion. I broke out laugh­ing on every oth­er page and yet felt the poignan­cy of non­judg­men­tal friend­ship and appre­ci­a­tion of foibles that were more than human bag­gage, more like human mar­row. The nar­ra­tive, gath­ered from pieces first pub­lished in mag­a­zines and reviews, occa­sion­al­ly repeats itself or just breaks off. BJF’s life, he says in a paren­the­sis, is all rough edges.

The bedrock of Bruce’s luck, as BJF sees it, was a Bronx Jew­ish boy­hood, sleep­ing next to the kitchen sink in a three-room apart­ment — but with a dropped liv­ing room! — and a moth­er who always thought he could move up, though for her up was toward man­ag­ing tick­et sales, not writ­ing plays or nov­els. He was launched into writ­ing in the Air Force, lucky to be out of harm’s way; then pro­pelled into the ad and mag­a­zine world, able, as an exec­u­tive, to man­age sev­er­al pub­li­ca­tions and to sup­port a young fam­i­ly (that hard­ly knew him as more than a sub­ur­ban cliché) by writ­ing on sub­ways and in restau­rants. His ros­ter of celebri­ties (he con­fess­es to being a name-drop­per) is breath-tak­ing, but his more sig­nif­i­cant (if under­stat­ed) drop­pings are the titles of books read through­out his up-and-down life. He is more sur­prised than impressed with hav­ing his sto­ries accept­ed by a dozen of America’s most high­ly regard­ed lit­er­ary mag­a­zines while him­self pilot­ing men’s pulps and slicks like Swank This mem­oir is lit­er­ary beyond BJF’s min­gling with nov­el­ists, play­wrights, direc­tors, actors, the whole crowd at Elaine’s, where you can find the men’s room by tak…[ing] a right at Michael Caine.” Out of his head came nov­els like A Mother’s Kiss­es and Stern, plays like Scu­ba Duba and Steam­bath, and movie plots like Stir Crazy, Splash, and The Heart­break Kid. 

For all this buck­shot con­tact with the pow­er­ful and famous, what moves the read­er most are the extend­ed por­traits in friend­ship. And from the author of all that lone­ly guy” stuff (most­ly writ­ten after he was warm­ly ensconced in a three-decade — and count­ing — romance with his sec­ond wife), some por­traits of insight­ful women emerge. Elaine, of the epony­mous Man­hat­tan restau­rant, not only served hun­gry guys, but launched part­ner­ships by seat­ing togeth­er tal­ents only she might see as com­pat­i­ble — in response to Sid­ney Zion’s famous quip on friend­ship, If you had Sina­tra you didn’t need a friend,” BJF remarks, If you had Elaine, you didn’t need Sina­tra.” The most remark­able friend­ships are with Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo, the one hard to like but even­tu­al­ly brac­ing to love, the oth­er, always need­ing to sink into work­ing-class Ital­ian sur­round­ings, even while giv­ing away piles of mon­ey to needy friends and astute gam­blers (BJF had hired Puzo for his ear­li­est, pre-God­fa­ther mag­a­zine work). These two reg­u­lar din­ner part­ners, authors of two of the most note­wor­thy Amer­i­can nov­els of the 20th cen­tu­ry, encour­aged BJF’s own fic­tion writ­ing. They also helped him stave off eco­nom­ic fail­ure with tips about — and defla­tions of — work in Hol­ly­wood. In New York, you wrote: in Hol­ly­wood, you penned, which might mean 200 words of a con­cept for a film that might nev­er get made your way, or at all. But Fried­man upholds his autho­r­i­al chasti­ty in Lucky Bruce’s final sen­tence: a fre­quent trav­el­er, he always fills in the Occu­pa­tion blank at Cus­toms with the sin­gle word…writer.”
Alan Coop­er teach­es Eng­lish at York Col­lege, CUNY. Notable among his numer­ous con­tri­bu­tions to peri­od­i­cals, reviews, and books is his Philip Roth and the Jews (SUNY Press, 1996). His lat­est book is the young-adult nov­el Prince Paskud­nyak and the Giant Bats.

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