The Current Climateby Bruce Jay Friedman
“The Current Climate has a sweet nostalgic richness that sets it apart from the other sequels.” –Playboy
In 1972 Bruce Jay Friedman published About Harry Towns, which gave us a character who perfectly embodied the discordant spirit of the times. The Washington Post said of the book, “It’s a goddamn heartbreaking delight and you are a fool if you miss it. Friedman has created a character unique, haunting, and completely memorable in stories that hold up as nothing less than a joy.” Harry Towns was a man who seemed reluctant to grow up, amidst the pleasures of a culture suddenly unbound. Now, after nearly twenty years, Towns returns in what may be Friedman’s most accomplished and ambitious novel.
“Funny and reliably irrelevant.” –Time
“Brought to life with charm and wit. Harry Towns, like his creator, shows in the end . . . amazing resilience, inventiveness, hope and good humor.” –The Washington Post
“The Current Climate has a sweet nostalgic richness that sets it apart from the other sequels.” –Playboy
“As witty as it is morbid. . . . Friedman is a master of the setup and has emerged as a witty chronicler of urban angst.” –San Francisco Chronicle
“One of the most important novelists writing today.” –Mario Puzo
ABOUT HALFWAY ALONG IN THE MEETing, Harry Towns could tell it was not going to work out. The network executives were polite, attentive. They even threw in an encouraging chuckle here and there. The woman with the man’s name leaned forward, as if she were right on the edge of excitement. But the executive who was known as the Inquisitor didn’t ask any questions. He kept his eyes lowered and scribbled notes. In the corridor, the agent said he felt it had “gone well.” Yes, the executives had the power to okay the show then and there, but sometimes they didn’t Sometimes they wanted to kick it around “internally.” As it turned out, Harry was right–the executives had just been going through the motions.
He had been pitching a show in which the main character was a dog. He used that as an example of how low he had sunk. “A dog show,” he had told a friend. “It’s come to that” But he had gotten to like that dog show. He imagined himself doing five years’ worth of it and never getting tired of the sucker.
As it turned out, the network had a similar show in development. One with a famous dog. That meant he had made the trip for nothing. Two and a half hours to the airport, a couple more sitting on the ground, then five in the air. Not to speak of getting up for the meeting. He hadn’t gone to one for a while, so naturally he was rusty. He had to remember to be focused but also a little casual, so as not to give the impression that it was life or death for him.
He had taken six months off to write his famous Spanish Armada play. Famous around his house. The way screenwriters are always going to write a novel someday, he was always going to write a play. He had gotten a few months ahead and finally decided to call his own bluff. The trouble was that the British and the Spanish never really went at each other. They stayed out of each other’s range until a storm tore up the Spanish fleet. So it wasn’t inherently dramatic. He thought he would jump in and see if he could drum up a little conflict along the way–but he hadn’t succeeded. Meanwhile his accountant had called and told him he’d better hurry up and get a payday. If he wanted to keep his house. The accountant had been a little detached. There was a possibility that the fucking accountant might drop him. How would that look?
And now he had to take the trip back–with nothing to show for it. He would call Julie and tell her about it and she’d be cheerful, telling him that something else would come up, it always did. But maybe it wouldn’t this time.
It wasn’t anyone’s fault. These things happened. The networks were secretive about their projects. They probably wanted to see if his notion was different enough from the one they had to justify a go-ahead. It wasn’t as if the trip could have been headed off.
He drove back to the hotel feeling bone tired. He had heard people say they felt every one of their years. It was his turn to feel every one of his, plus a few more. They had put him in a hotel of their choice, not his, and he had gone along with it What was so important about a hotel room? For a quick hit. He told himself it was nice to look out the window and see L.A. from a different angle–but he was aware every second that it was their hotel, not his.
He thought of calling Matty, who would take him to Spago, or Sid, who would take him wherever he wanted to go. They were powerful men. Industry survivors. They had weathered the trends and could always get something going. You could call them at the last second and they wouldn’t stand on ceremony. If either was free, he’d say so. Harry could get himself seen that way. He was tired at the moment, but he looked good. He had his own kind of tan, an East Coast tan, and though he had gotten a late start at it, he had become a tennis fanatic. So he had a tennis waist, too, or at least the start of one. There may have been some talk that he was a doper. He had reason to believe that a certain producer had spread that around. Because he had picked up the man and his wife and danced them around a disco. The two of them, off the ground and in his arms. A little error of judgment. Also, there was the new concern about your age. If you were past forty, you were in trouble. You had to come to meetings with a young guy who would act as a beard. And was Harry ever past forty. Cruising along, as he said, in his fifties. What the hell, he was fifty-seven. If he showed up with Matty or Sid, a deal would come up, right on the spot. A studio executive would recognize him and ask him to come by. Or a retired agent would shuffle over with a project–like a punch-drunk fighter answering a bell. And there would be something to it too. He had seen it happen. But not lately.
He had a few notions, too, and had intended to see if any of them would fly–as long as he was in L.A.–but the meeting had stolen his energy. He was pitched out.
He called Julie and told her about the setback and, just as he anticipated, she was cheerful and told him not to worry about it. The thing to do was to go out and have a great time his last night in L.A. Her response was predictable, but what was he complaining about? He had been with some gloombombs and should have known better.
Harry knew a handsome woman in L.A. and had a feeling that he could probably catch her in for dinner. But it had been several years since he had last seen her, and she’d had time to store up some new defeats. He didn’t feel he could take them on right now. Then, too, they might get something going, and he would have to fly back feeling awful.
He decided he needed a little home cooking, so to speak, and ended up calling Travis, the one friend he had in L.A. who wasn’t in show business. Not that he was entirely innocent Travis liked the fact that Harry had his name on a couple of big pictures. And he was ready to sign over his house to any woman with even the slightest connection to the entertainment world. Someone who’d been on Gilligan’s Island. Or even an old girlfriend of Hefner’s. That part of his life hadn’t gone well.
But everything else had. Travis had come to L.A. some twenty years back–as a pharmacist with shaky credentials–and had proceeded to make a ton of money. Not right off the bat but eventually. And not as a pharmacist but in business deals. Leases, franchises, buy-outs. All of it with a distinctive L.A. stamp to it. Once he had sat with Harry in a darkened car and told him he could make a lot of money for him “offshore.” Harry had listened politely, but he had let it go by. That kind of thing had nothing to do with him. Maybe because of the darkened car.
He had a lot of numbers for Travis, but the one he dialed was a central station manned by an assistant whose style was whipped and deferential, even over the phone. He knew who Harry was and how much pleasure Travis got out of the dinners and would see to it that his employer got the message. They set up a date for nine-thirty at the Palm. Harry felt confident that Travis would be there. You could call him at the last minute and usually he’d be available. Not in the way that Matty or Sid would be. With all the money Travis had made, he hadn’t been able to get anything substantial going in his personal life. His was a sad kind of availability.
Harry had a minor matter to take care of before dinner. An agent had called and said he wanted him as a client In the past several years Harry had been represented by a colossal agency, a kind of General Motors, and it hadn’t worked out. The arrangement was too vague. He had been warned about the impersonality of such groups, and sure enough, there wasn’t a single individual he could really get his hands on. The agent who called said he was just such an individual. So Harry said what the hell, he’d have a drink with him.
The agent certainly looked like a good agent. He had wavy hair and a great mustache. Harry thought he recognized the look from a TV show, one that was slanted demographically toward folks in their thirties, but it still looked good on him. Harry had a double Gibson and began to think it might be nice to have a handsome fellow representing him, one with a nice demographic look about him. And the agent certainly was eager enough. He said he was small but that he would work his ass off. They were joined by a woman colleague. She said she handled the “classy” side of the group’s clients, which presumably would include Harry. And she would work her ass off too. So now there were two people willing to work their asses off for him. Harry was starting to figure what the hell, he wasn’t going anywhere with the other gang, when the fellow made the remark. He knew about Megan, Towns’s four-year-old daughter. He had a five-year-old son.
“If I had you as a client,” he said, ‘my son would always have a little chippy waiting for him back East.”
And that was that. Harry said he would think about it when he got back home, but he had already thought about it. No chippy stuff.
Harry was that way. He had canceled out a business manager when the fellow said Towns would be given a “pishy little allowance.” Actually Harry had been prepared to allow him one “pishy,” but after the second one, it was case closed. He knew what the business manager meant. Walking-around money. But don’t call it “pishy.”
Travis had him paged at the bar of the Palm and said it was all right about dinner but that he might be a little late. Harry told him not to worry about it, to take his time. They were easy with each other now. Usually Travis tried to fool him on the phone with a Yiddish accent or a Spanish one, but he had dropped that. The accents were getting too easy to pick off.
After waiting at the bar for half an hour, Harry was sorry he had told Travis to take his time. He was ready to eat tables and chairs. Maybe they were being too easy with each other. He looked at the caricatures of celebrities on the wall. When the Palm had first opened, the owner had asked him for his picture and he had never gotten around to sending him one. Now he was sorry he hadn’t taken him up on it. At times like this he would be able to look at a caricature of himself on the wall. And the owner had never asked him again.
There were two women at the bar. Harry heard them say they were from Cincinnati. They weren’t major leaguers–just two women from Cincinnati. Normally he wouldn’t have thought of them that way–not anymore–but this was Hollywood. He shouldered his way into the conversation, telling them he was waiting for a friend who was finishing up a little brain surgery. He had been living in the country for a while, away from the bars, and he was aware that his remarks were strained. But they put up with the intrusion, and by the time Travis arrived, the women were curious about him, even when they found out he wasn’t a brain surgeon. Travis fell all over them, giving them every one of his numbers. It was as if he had just gotten out of prison and hadn’t seen a woman in years. Harry saw that it was useless to try to pry him away, so he went up ahead to their table and got started with a shrimp cocktail, thinking maybe he had missed his profession.
By the time Travis joined him, the crowd had begun to thin out and they had to rush to get served. Harry ordered veal parmigiana, an unusual call in a steak house, but that’s what he was in the mood for. He noticed that Travis dressed differently now. For years he had gone with what Harry thought of as a hairdresser look, the old kind of hairdresser, with his shirt cut low to the waist and heavy chains and white shoes with lifts in them and tassels. He’d worn a lot of orange. And he had come up with an odd color for his hair, one that hadn’t quite worked out. But someone had gotten hold of him and told him to lighten up. He wore a soft linen suit and had let his hair get a little gray and comfortable-looking. He seemed less prickly too.
Since they didn’t see each other too often, they were able to get a good clean bead on one another. Normally it was Travis who was up against it. Travis, with the sister who freaked out and lived in Cuba. Travis, with the father who surfaced after thirty years and threatened to kill his mother if she didn’t take him back. Travis’s women. The short, rudderless one with the great body. Should he let her do a split-beaver shot for a skin magazine? It was the first time Towns had ever heard anyone say split-beaver. Or Travis’s niece, would you believe? She had packed up her children and left her husband for Travis. Was she intelligent enough for him? Or the Polish model who had a roomful of furs but didn’t seem to have a visible means of support. Could he trust her? With his credit cards?
Travis couldn’t figure out where he went wrong with women. He had once taken a psychiatrist along on a date to see how he interacted with them. An L.A. solution. Harry had introduced Julie to Travis, who immediately perceived her as being a certain kind of parochial-school girl he remembered from his childhood. A type that had nothing to do with her. Nonetheless, he had flown at her with angry theological arguments–the Catholics against the Jews. Later, when Harry suggested that he had acted poorly, Travis had been shocked. He thought he had been charming. So Harry knew about Travis and women.
He would listen to Travis’s adventures and try to throw out a helpful comment, at the same time trying not to be smug about it. This was difficult since Travis was rolling around like a loose cannon and Harry was seeing things from the safe compound in which he lived with Julie and Megan. But the work stopped coming and Julie had started to knock them back, and he was so uneasy that he couldn’t even enjoy his daughter. So this time around it was Harry’s turn to unload.
He told Travis about the trip and how he had come up empty. And how the dice had been running cold for him. About the age thing in Hollywood. And how he couldn’t seem to get anything going. He had the credits, and as he was fond of pointing out, they didn’t put your name up there because you were Jewish. But it didn’t seem to matter. He was perceived as someone who couldn’t bring a script over the top. And to an extent it was true. But what was wrong with getting them in sight of the goal line? He had been doing that for years and hadn’t had a complaint. But it was different now. They wanted fellows who could take them all the way. He could do that, too, but they weren’t giving him a chance. Or who knows, maybe it was the dope rap. Harry didn’t use much these days, but he had used a lot back then, used it the night he had picked up the producer and his wife and waltzed them around the disco. The producer had a resigned little pout on his face as he and his wife were whisked off the ground, and who could blame him for being pissed off? He was known as an amoral little prick, but who knows, maybe the fucker had some dignity. Who could blame him for passing it around that Harry was a doper?
When Harry’s veal parmigiana came out, it didn’t appear to have any veal in it. Or maybe the veal had dissolved in the sauce. It had been that kind of trip. While Harry was deciding whether to send it back or just mop up the parmigiana part with bread, Travis took a quick turn. He was wondering if he should part company with a business associate. He had given the fellow thousands of dollars on ventures that kept going down the drain. He didn’t mind that part. “I’ making so much money, anyway,” he said. But the fellow kept putting him down. Travis had his eye on a girl, someone who had once done a Family Ties. The fellow had told him face it, what would a girl in her twenties see in someone like Travis? Harry picked that one off easily. He told Travis that by definition he shouldn’t have anyone in his life who put him down. And then he jumped in quickly and got started on the house, how much it meant to him with the peach trees, and how he would feel if he had to sell it and move Julie and Megan up to Vermont somewhere. He admitted he would be embarrassed about it. He and Travis had known each other since college. The clock was ticking. They could get naked with each other.
“Why didn’t you come to me?” Travis asked. “How is anyone supposed to know you’re in trouble if you don’t ask?”
“I wouldn’t be much good at that,” said Towns.
But why wouldn’t he? For one thing, he didn’t know if the offer was meant to be a loan or a gift. He couldn’t take a gift, could he? And if it was a loan, what if he didn’t pay it back in time? Travis’s father had been in the rackets, connected with one of the smaller casinos in Vegas. They had found him eventually under a piano in the lounge, and Travis had to go out to identify the body. So the father was dead. But he probably had associates. You could say that this was Travis, not his father, but Harry remembered his friend in the darkened car whispering about offshore stuff. Also, he had seen some types moving quietly around Travis’s house in the hills. Irritable men wearing Arrow shirts and ties in the hot sun. Not official hard noses, but worse in a way.
But that wasn’t it For all he knew, it was a straightforward offer, from the heart and with no strings. What reason did he have to doubt this? It was more a question of Harry not wanting to turn over the wheel. He had to be the one to bring the ball down, pick up the check. He had a few dollars out on the street He liked to say that: “I have some money on the street” In truth it wasn’t much–fifties, hundreds. But he was the one who passed it out How would it look if he started taking? How would it look if he had to move to Vermont?
At school neither of them had much money, but it was Harry who had bought milk shakes for his skinny friend. Later he was a screenwriter with his name on a couple of big pictures. Travis boasted about having gone to school with him. How would it look if he took money from Travis, who was shorter than he was? Always, it was how would it look.
So he let the offer slide. He had been in trouble before. Something always came up. Fuck the age thing. Could anyone match his original conceptions? When he was on target? Let them enjoy their youth. One of these days he was going to grab one of them and say: “Congratulations on your youth.”
He let Travis pick up the check. It was the least he could do. And they went out on the street Travis was in wonderful condition if you liked that kind of shape. Real tight and drawn. He hit balls every day of his life. He’d gotten up to ten hours a day once until he realized he was having a nervous breakdown. But for the moment, in the streetlight, bent over, with his shoulders bunched up tight, he had the skull of a little old man.
Harry was fading, but Travis wanted to keep going. He was almost cranky about it He didn’t get much of a chance to see his pal and he wanted to milk the occasion. Harry had a sign over his desk that read, SUCK IT UP, one that he had started to ignore. He just couldn’t suck it up anymore. But he did, one more time, and agreed to go down the street to the Mexican place that was still open and have a beer. Travis had an open Corniche waiting. He paid the attendant a few dollars to keep watching it, and then the girls came pouring out of the Troubadour. They had their hair chopped off and slanted six different ways to nowhere, and their clothes were black and netted and expensively forlorn, but it was them, all right, the same gang that had stopped him cold years back when he first came out to Hollywood and thought he was the only one ever to get a fruit bowl sent up to his room at the Wilshire. As usual, they were mismatched with pale men carrying attach” cases, but they were the cream and they had the kind of undeniable beauty that you simply couldn’t be casual about no matter who you were and what coast you were from. He looked around and quite frankly couldn’t spot a single one who’d be incapable of slipping past that fence he’d built around himself when he first met Julie– so as not to mess things up. All it would take was the inclination.
“Oh, Jesus Christ,” said Harry. “Will you just look at them.”
“I can’t,” said Travis, with a pop singer’s heartbreak in his voice. “It’s too painful.”
“For Christ’s sake,” said Harry. ‘show them the Corniche. You can get laid just on that.”
Travis had his first laugh of the evening, and Harry put an arm around his friend’s shoulders. Travis put an arm around Harry Towns’s waist A famous first and fuck the sentimentality. They just stood there marveling at the girls, and Harry asked his friend what he would say to fifty thousand.
“Where do I send it?” asked Travis.
“Hey, that’s right,” said Harry. “You don’t even have my address.”
They stayed fixed on the girls, watching them dance in place as they waited for their cars, some of them using the Troubadour’s awning poles as a ballet bar. Harry knew that there were still some adventures up ahead.
“Oh, yeah,” he could hear a friend in the theater say. “Blindness, impotence. I can hardly wait.” But that was his friend in the theater. It wasn’t Harry Towns. Take the next morning, for example. He’d get up, have a full breakfast, check the trades, then fly back to his family and get set to see what it was like on the receiving end.