At age 85 and after a writing career spanning more than 60 years, Bruce Jay Friedman might be beyond criticism. This collection of stories and a novella is vintage Friedman: anarchic and obsessive, funny and sad in equal measure and often in the same story. Whether one finds the mix endearing or annoying depends on one’s taste for the kind of humor that Friedman himself popularized u way back in 1965 in an anthology he edited entitled Black Humor. There have been great black humorists — those whose anarchic humor illuminates the madness of civilization — and Friedman, if not at the top of that category, certainly has claims to be a totemic figure to a tribe of humorists that seems to grow by the week.
It’s impossible to give the flavor of a Friedman story. They all start out with brilliant and wildly divergent concepts: a Jewish satiric writer in Nazi Germany gets an unexpected call from his biggest fan, Joseph Goebbels (“A Fan Is A Fan”); a community college literature teacher dies and goes to a place where there are no stories and has to come up with one in 23 hours but can’t remember the details of all he has read (“The Storyteller”); a professor attends a play about psychoanalysis and hires the actor playing the psychiatrist to serve as his therapist (“Nightgown”); a down-at-the-heels movie director visiting Israel helps a young Palestinian he meets in a hotel to go to New York to attend his brother’s wedding in Queens (“The Peace Process”); a man meets someone in a resort who years earlier had stolen his first wife from him (“The Savior”). The working out of these situations is not always the main point; the juxtapositions, swerves, and bizarre digressions are what give them their uniquely Friedmanesque texture. Sometimes they fall completely flat, such as in the title story, which seems to reach a stunning anticlimax after a wildly improbable but funny plot. Not unexpectedly for a writer who has been at it as long as Friedman has, there are repetitions and retreads (“Nightgown” is a variant of a situation from an earlier story, “Black Angels”). The dialogue often has a clunky feel, perhaps deliberately. You’ll either find the effects charming or want to hurl the book across the room.
Friedman came of literary age with Philip Roth, Joseph Heller, Woody Allen, John Barth, and many others who reshaped fiction both long and short for better or worse. Friedman’s career had its apogee nearly 50 years ago with his novels Stern and A Mother’s Kisses and his plays Steambath and Scuba Duba. (He also had great success as a screenwriter with such hits as Splash and Stir Crazy). He still persists, long after many of his contemporaries have departed the scene. Some of these stories are not among his best (see his 1997 Collected Stories) but they all have their moments of pleasure (and pain).