Thursday, June 2, 2016

Review: The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories

The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories The Peace Process: A Novella and Stories by Bruce Jay Friedman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m a longtime fan of Bruce Jay Friedman, and I think that A Mother’s Kisses is the second or third funniest novel I have ever read (behind Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint and any of Mordecai Richler’s best).

That’s the thing about Friedman, in the likely case you aren’t familiar with his work. Excellent as it is, he always seems overshadowed. The man gets credit for inventing the term “black humor;” his novel, Stern, more or less created the literary model for making fun of the Jewish mother. And, in a mid-career gambit, he wrote the screenplay for the movie Splash and became, for a time, a Hollywood honcho. But admit it, you’ve never heard of him.

Remarkably, he’s still going strong. Good for him that this generally engaging book has come out after Roth has announced his retirement and years after Richler died. He was the earliest of that distinguished crew, and here he is the last man standing (or, as the case may be, sitting at the keyboard).

Friedman’s voice is utterly distinctive. He has a narrative gift for cutting all the fat out of his beginnings, and I’ve tried to learn some of his technique just by looking at his first paragraphs; they move so quickly from seemingly random insight to fully established context that, even though I follow the story perfectly, I feel I’ve been treated to a literary sleight of hand.

But even more distinctive is the tone. Friedman always seems like that crotchety guy who hates everyone but who, seeming to hate you less than all the other “putzes” in the room, confides in you. And it’s flattering. The guy doesn’t know how not to be clever, and all his narrators come across as worth listening to.

What’s even more surprising here – though it’s part of a fair bit of his earlier work too – is the degree to which his stories veer into genuine self-reflection. The main characters have almost always made a serious mistake – one has impulsively stolen jewelry from a doddering octogenarian, another discovers he has accidentally befriended the man who broke up his first marriage decades before, and another has just written a new movie scene that his wife recognizes as based on her – and they want to reflect on it, want to learn from it. They tend to avoid regret; instead, they ponder, and they take you along for that pondering.

As stories, most of these are almost extended jokes. Many end with what amounts to a punch line, not so much resolving the narrative (although they often do) as wryly releasing you from the hold of the opening lines. As such, most of these are mood pieces, explorations on a theme of distant disappointment. There are lot of ex-wives, a lot of petered out movie careers, a lot of children (or parents or siblings) who’ve drifted apart from close family members, but there are real differences between the narrators as well. Read the stories consecutively – in the best of ways the material flies by – and you’ll feel as if you’ve hung out at a good old-fashioned deli.

My favorites are “The Big Sister,” (about a man trying to figure out how to mourn his only sibling), “A Fan is a Fan” (about a Jewish writer in Nazi Germany with the mixed blessing of having Joseph Goebbels as a major fan), and “The Nightgown” (about a man who, so enjoying an actor’s performance as a psychiatrist, hires him as a shrink.) There are a couple of lemons here – “Where She Stops” and “Orange Shoes” disappointed me the most – but it’s otherwise a consistently strong collection.

I’m still unsure how to feel about the title story, one that takes up more than a third of the entire book. On the one hand, I admire Friedman’s willingness to interrogate Jewish anti-Muslim attitudes, but I can’t be certain what he is telling me through his ruminations. The vicissitudes of the narrator’s relationship to an Arab he meets during his first trip to Israel leave him sometimes a benefactor and sometimes a recipient. That part is fantasy, or farce, that moves quickly and, for the most part, with the same cleverness of the other stories.

It feels as if there’s a deeper message to the narrative, if for no reason other than that it’s so much longer than the others, but it’s buried under so much irony that I can’t pull it out in any straight fashion. Friedman may have something shrewd to say about Jewish self-righteousness, and he may be making the even bolder claim that the “new Jew” – the new plucky underdog – is the Arab. Both feel possible, but neither feels quite right. Either way, I’m left laughing, and I’m left thinking.

The book as a whole definitely works, and it’s good to have the old pro still at it.

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