Not to get gushy, but if you’re a writer, or want to be a writer, or just like to hang out around writers and pretend you’re a writer, then you’ll gobble up Bruce Jay Friedman’s literary memoir, Lucky Bruce.
I met Friedman at this year’s Hunter College Writers’ Conference. At 80, he’s still tall and handsome, and he was full of chatter about stuff that hadn’t even made it into the book: the record 22 pieces he’s had published in Esquire over the years (“now they won’t even return my phone calls”). An encounter a few nights before with angry revelers (“I was on crutches with this knee replacement; they almost crushed us”) who’d been denied entry into Elaine’s, the legendary Upper East Side restaurant where he and best pals Joseph Heller and Mario Puzo tested out their best stories for more than 40 years. He was almost apologetic about writing a memoir, a genre he obviously considers low-hanging fruit. However, Lucky Bruce is no ordinary self-story; it’s a delightful addition to the catalogue of the last Mark Twain leviathans—writers like Mario Puzo, Joseph Heller, Norman Mailer, and Kurt Vonnegut.
Friedman is an admitted serial name-dropper: Cheever, Oates, Scorcese, Coppola, Bellow, Roth, Vidal, Plimpton, Wilder, Pryor, Beatty, Lish, Martin, “Crazy” Joey Gallo, P.J. O’Rourke, and Jackie Onassis, not the least among them. But hey, this is a man who’s written seven novels (Stern, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life), hit plays like Scuba Duba and Steambath, big-grossing films (Splash, Stir Crazy) and dozens of short fictions for the New Yorker, New York Times, Esquire, Vanity Fair, and Playboy. He even had on-screen roles in a couple of Woody Allen movies, and most of the names he mentions in Lucky Bruce are those of people he hired for their first jobs, introduced to their mates and partners, partied with, or made love to. In one of the book’s more humorous references, Friedman mentions his friend, Joseph Heller:
For one thing, I was cowed by his literary eminence, Then, too, Heller was a Brooklyn person, which accounted, or so I felt so, for a certain crassness. I thought, in my snobbery, that those of us in the Bronx were more reserved—cut from finer cloth. This, of course, was absurd. There were more hit men born in the Bronx than in all the other boroughs combined, The fathers of my friends were loan sharks and Broadway ticket scalpers; some free-lanced for Murder, Incorporated.
From his growing-up-days in the Bronx to his service in the Air Force, a legendary fistfight with Mailer, and the employment of Natalie Wood as his private secretary for two weeks, Friedman amuses, pontificates, and scandalizes gently. He also transforms the gangly parentheses, the Ichabod Crane of syntax, into a graceful praying mantis of punctuation:
During his prison stay, Gallo had discovered the pleasures of literature, developing strong opinions on the work of Jean Paul Sartre in particular (adored him) and Albert Camus (a “pussy,” couldn’t stand him)
His editors would have done better to lead off with the chapter on Elaine’s and scatter all the sentimental stuff about his mom and dad throughout the rest of the text, but my guess is that Friedman would have had none of it.