The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedmanby Bruce Jay Friedman
“A bona fide literary event.” –Newsweek
Bruce Jay Friedman has been acclaimed by critics as one of the greatest writers of his generation, a comic genius whose vision confronts the malaise of modern life with a liberating deadpan humor. The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman brings together his greatest stories, which originally appeared in Esquire, Playboy, The New Yorker, and other magazines from 1953 to 1995. These fifty-seven stories of love and angst, dreams and delusions are told with satiric touch so deft they seem almost otherworldly–until you realize you’ve been laughing for the past few pages.
“Bruce Jay Friedman has earned a permanent place of the shelf of contemporary American letters.” –Los Angeles Times
“A bona fide literary event.” –Newsweek
“Irresistibly charming and funny . . . Terrific.” –The New York Observer
“Irresistible . . . comic gems . . . Mr. Friedman has been likened to everyone from J. D. Salinger to Woody Allen. This collection should finally establish him for what he is: Bruce Jay Friedman, sui generis and no mean thing. No further comparisons are necessary.” –The New York Times Book Review
“Friedman writes with a wild-eyed wit, a hard-but-gentle touch, and a disturbing grasp on the fundamentals of society.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“Like a Twilight Zone with Charlie Chaplin.” –Mario Puzo
“From poignant bildungsroman to sly satire, from wicked comedy to surrealistic farce, a virtuostic collection . . . an expertly modulated voice that lies somewhere equidistant from those of Wilde, Salinger, and Woody Allen.” –Publishers Weekly
“Includes some of his wryest stories ever written about shame, mothers, and adultery–about the analyst’s couch and what got you there.” –Boston Sunday Globe
“A welcome, hefty collection of an American original’s finest writing.” –Kirkus Reviews
“Pure delight.” –Newsday
“[Friedman’s stories] begin in the realm of the mundane, take a quick surreal detour, and travel erratically through an idiosyncratic and highly risible countryside.” –Library Journal
MY FRIEND ED STAMM was the most all-American person I’ve ever met. It came out when he brushed his teeth and shaved. He did both at the same time, using enormous quantities of toothpaste and shaving cream. When you approached him in the morning, he looked like a white, foaming symbol of Free World cleanliness.
I knew him in the Air Force when he was waiting to get into jet fighter training, and I was waiting to get into something small and inconspicuous where my general lack of military know-how would do the least amount of damage. He looked like a recruiting poster, with clear blue eyes and perfect profile and a sweet countryness about his mouth. Audie Murphy is the Hollywood star he most resembled, although next to him, Murphy would have seemed swarthy. He had wonderful manners and said to me at the base swimming pool when we met, “I’d certainly enjoy your compny this evening.
” I’ve known people who wouldn’t have minded hanging around with me for a few hours, but the idea of anyone wanting my “compny” was something else again. It was a phony kind of line, but he said it with such all-American sweetness it actually became disarming. I worked it into my repertoire and even I was able to get away with it, although I used “company” instead of “compny.” He also fell right on top of little children, getting right down on the ground when one came along, his face scrubbed and beaming, and then saying, “Hello, little boy (or girl),” which came out more like “Heddo, lidder booey.” He wasn’t trying to impress anyone. He did it when people were around or when rooms were empty. He just felt like hugging and kissing little children. I do that one too, now. I felt kind of pretentious the first few times, but then I swung into it and now I get right down there with children just as naturally as I’d check my watch for the time.
I understand that Hollywood puts its new screenwriters into categories such as “adventure,” “comedy,” ‘suspense,” “war,” a typecasting, incidentally, from which I’m told they never escape. Ed’s background might have been concocted by one of the lesser lights in “homespun.” He came from a small town in the Midwest, lived with his family in a two-story frame house (mortgage just about paid up), had a kid sister with freckles, earned enough working part-time at a gas station to get through the local college, won four letters in sports. His dad: football and track coach at the high school. His Girl Back Home: the bank president’s daughter, cheerleader at the college, voted “Prettiest” in her senior class. Tennis wasn’t one of his sports, although when we played at the air base, he picked it up quickly, performing with the instinctive grace he would have brought to anything from jai alai to hammer throwing. I was better than him, though. I’d been playing for years and I beat him, not overwhelmingly, but consistently.
One day I wrapped him up pretty solidly and teased him about it and he said, ‘do you want to play for money? Forty bucks.” He picked just the right amount of money to get me nervous. In all our playing he’d never won a single set. Yet he looked at me in a funny way and made me back down. I said, “You can’t play for money without a referee. Anyway, I’m not taking your money.” I knew that in some crazy way, even though he never had before, he’d outlast me, or outgut me, or outheart me, or do whatever special thing it is that all-Americans do, and beat me no matter how much better a player I was.
I automatically gave up in all competitions with him. Where girls were concerned, we’d run neck and neck for a few minutes, but then I’d begin to peter out self-consciously and Ed would say, “We certainly would enjoy your compny in my car,” whereupon I would stand by while he hooked arms with the cuter of the two and I fell in behind with the bomb. Even when a rare, offtrail girl made it perfectly plain she preferred my swarthiness to his clean-cut wholesomeness, I would begin to do a lot of staring down at the ground until she disgustedly marched off to join Ed’s “compny,” leaving me to guard her heavily acned friend. Once, with Ed along, I completely mastered a girl. It was at a bar in Illinois, and the girl was serving drinks to the tables. I’d come in after a Bogart movie at the base, spit something out at her through clenched teeth, and she had loved it. Through sheer accident, I’d evidently found myself a pretty little masochist. ‘did I do anything wrong?” she asked, and, catching on, I spit out another line, twice as hard. “Could I call you somewhere?” she asked me, and this time, giddy in the role, I said the liquor was rotgut and knocked the shotglass off the table. “What did I do?” she asked Ed, who looked on in fascination. “For Christ’s sakes, she’s yours,” he said to me. ‘do you know what I’d do if she was giving me invitations like that?” I stared off into the distance, not really sure of what to do next, and said, “I don’t go for that.” She kept coming up to me, beseechingly, practically purring with hurt, and then finally I said, “All right. You can call me at Base Operations, extension 976. Any night except Wednesdays when I’m on duty.”
“I see,” she said, the fire dying in her eyes. Later, I saw her dancing with Ed.
This is not one of those stories in which one guy is better than his friend in a million things, and then at the end there’s this one thing the friend is able to win out in, proving it’s really better to be a terrible fellow with just one talent. As a matter of fact, there were quite a few things at which I was able to top him. Tennis is one I mentioned and then there is singing (he had no voice at all), general smartness (he had read very few books), and jokes. There was one girl I was sure I’d have the edge with because of the jokes and general routines I did, a new singer at the base club. As the welcoming committee that week, we were to meet her at the club and be her escorts for the evening. We sat with her awhile, Ed assuring her it was swell to be in her compny. I thought I’d work my routines in naturally, rather than announce, “Now I’ll do some routines.” But before I knew it, Ed was doing them, all of the best ones: Joe Louis commenting on the Ezzard Charles–Marciano fight, a Durante thing I do with a few variations of my own, and a short take from an old Fred Allen script in which two potatoes are the only characters in an avant-garde play. His Joe Louis was too Midwestern, his Durante came out Jimmy Stewart, and he blew the punchline on the Allen skit. His timing was awful, too, but the girl was giggling away just the same. After a while he said, “Now you do one, Tony,” forcing me to serve up an Edward Everett Horton imitation I’d far from perfected. The singer listened patiently and in a short while was, inevitably, walking to the jukebox with Ed, nibbling at his ear.
The other all-American things I remember about him are sort of scattered and don’t really sound that all-American when you set them down. He got the snuggest fit out of his jockey underwear of anyone I’ve ever known. He drove a new Nash, and instead of making out payment checks to the bank, he was paying off someone named “Old Man Bagley” in a combination of money and chores he was to do during his furloughs. In driving the Nash, long before he came to stops, his brake foot would begin to fidget on the pedal, caressing it, pumping it a little, testing it, until, if you were a passenger, you had ridiculous amounts of confidence that he would be able to pull off the stop. He called everyone “old buddy” and it was a thrilling and special thing to have him pat you on the back and say, “Old buddy, what’ll we do tonight?”
One night, a short colonel with a twisted body and a reputation for being touchy about his youth and the quick promotions he’d received, announced he was going off to the flight line to shoot landings in jets. Ed heard him and said, “I’d certainly consider it a great privilege to go along with you, sir.” It meant he was willing to squat on the floor of the plane while the colonel took off and landed and took off and landed long hours into the night. It really wasn’t necessary for him to do all this and he’d be getting plenty of it in pilot training. But it was something like sweeping floors in grocery stores and doing lowly things in banks and walking several miles to school each morning, and if you’re an all-American worth your salt, you don’t miss chances to do these things. The colonel explained that it was going to be a pretty miserable kind of evening, but Ed said if the colonel didn’t mind his compny, he’d like to go up with him. The colonel, a sour man, melted before Ed’s sweetness and said okay.
I’m not entirely sure how this last thing fits into the all-American picture. It has something to do with it. In any case, I did discover that for all his pretenses of all-Americanism, the freckled sister, the gas station job, the chores for Old Man Bagley, my friend Ed Stamm was a subversive.
I found this out during a weekend in which Ed invited me and a mutual “old buddy” of ours named Rig to his home in Iowa for the weekend. We made a perfect movie combat trio with Ed, the hero; Rig, the slow-talker from Texas; and me, the Brooklyn boy, telling jokes about my mother’s potato pancakes. We drove in shifts, with Ed, by silent agreement, taking over my turn, since my driving was uneven and I was obviously unable to do those confidence-inspiring pumps with my brake foot. Our first stop in Ed’s town was at his girl’s house; she came running out the way they do in Andy Hardy movies, predictably and agonizingly pretty, filling the car with a minty Seventeen freshness, kissing Ed’s head like a puppy, and then flouncing herself around and teasing with Ed’s “Old buddies’ while Ed drove to the–you guessed it–tree-lined street on which he lived. Ed’s father and sister were on the lawn waiting for us, his dad a slender, slightly taller and gray-haired Ed, his sister freckled, and surprisingly (rather disappointingly, since she was to be my date) broad-shouldered. Mr. Stamm took to Rig immediately, regarding me with a hint of suspicion. He had heard that Rig was in charge of painting at the air base and said to us all, “Now don’t forget, boys. You’re going to work for your meals. I’ve got a fence back there could use a good coat of paint.”
Not much more that night. We all ate dinner together, with Mr. Stamm, after donning apron and cook’s hat, fixing and serving the meal. Later, when Ed’s girl had gone home, Mr. Stamm turned down our beds and said good night to us. The following day, Ed went off early to do one of those chores for Mr. Bagley. Rig and I ate breakfast with Mr. Stamm and then we really did paint the fence. I thought the idea was wholesome and everything, but I could have done without it. In the afternoon, we all went to a roadside place and danced, Rig and Ed taking turns with Ed’s girl. I danced with Ed’s sister. A female version of Ed should have been wonderful, and she certainly was healthy looking, but when you analyzed her, she turned out to be all back and no bosom. It was that night at dinner that Ed was unmasked as a subversive.
We had all decided to wear our dress uniforms at the dance that night, and were sitting around the table with Ed’s sister, as though we were at a festive NATO conference. Mr. Stamm, in apron and cook’s hat, once again was serving platters of food. Ed had just done a George Sanders takeoff of mine, poorly, and then, as though to sell me to his father, said, “That one was made up by my old buddy here, Tony.”
“That Rig can certainly paint a fence,” said Mr. Stamm. “I could use a boy like that around here. I’d keep him jumping.” Rig said, “Yes, I believe you would, too,” drawling out the line, and Mr. Stamm slapped him on the back and said, “Oh that Rig, he’s a corker.”
Ed said, “I know how to pick my old buddies,” and then a wheelchair came into the room carrying a shriveled woman in a bathrobe with deep crevasses in her face and beautiful blue eyes. Her bathrobe went flat below her waist, concealing either withered legs or none at all.
Ed stood up at the table, his eyes shut and his fists clenched, screaming in a monotone, ‘sON OF A BITCH. SON OF A BITCH. GET IT OUT OF HERE. DIRTY. DIRTY. SON OF A BITCH. OH, DIRTY, DIRTY BITCH.”
The woman said, sweetly, “Now Ed. Now Ed,” and he screamed, “YAAH, YAAH, YAAH.”
Mr. Stamm came over quickly and said, “Now Ed,” spinning the wheelchair around and taking it out the door, with the woman saying, “Now Ed, now Ed,” patiently and sweetly, and giving off an odor of camphor.
When Mr. Stamm got back, we continued the meal, the chatter starting up again, with Mr. Stamm teasing Rig about getting a bargain on some Air Force paint, Ed telling Mr. Stamm about the books I’d read, and Mr. Stamm finally succumbing and saying to me, “We had a Brooklyn boy at school here once. Got along just fine.” Later, we went to the dance on schedule and I got in several dances with Ed’s girl, her sharp, pointed bosoms a fine relief from my date’s vague ones. We started back for the base around noon the following day, after shoveling a little coal for Mr. Stamm, who’d jokingly suggested we do it to work off our meals.
Weeks later, Ed and I drifted apart, or possibly got wrenched apart. My assignment came through before he got into jet pilot training. In the first weeks of getting oriented in my new job in base information, I didn’t call him at all, and once, when I did see him, I failed to introduce him to my new friends. They were flip and waspish and, for one brief second, I was a little ashamed of Ed. He must have sensed it. In any case, I violated some crazy all-American code of his for friendship. When I saw him later, there was a flatness between us, and we were never to be close again. This was much to my regret, because many times I longed for his compny and for his arm around my shoulder and for him saying, “What are we doing tonight, old buddy?”
In any case, I think of him as the most all-American person I ever knew (or perhaps I should drop the all-American part–because that’s sarcastic and I don’t mean to be–and just say “American”), his looks, his manners, his sweetness, the bit with the little boys and girls. Or at least I would think of him that way if I could forget that one subversive thing he pulled at dinner that night. It proved to me that you probably can’t trust a goddamned soul in this country.
©1997 by Bruce Jay Friedman. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic Inc. All rights reserved