"I wasn't getting along with a Hollywood producer. He was trying to figure out a way to put me in my place. He thought and thought and finally he said, 'Your know your trouble? You'll always be one of those hundred-thousand dollar guys,'
from "Hi. This Is Bruce Friedman Reporteing from Hoolywood"
"I'm sorry," Bruce Jay Firedman says, looking genuinely apologetic, which is a shame in itself because it terminates the most wonderful of warm, enrapturing smiles. "I don't have a lot of news."
Suddenly, an idea. "Why don't you tell your editor, 'I've got this really nonchalant guy.' Ask him, 'How are we fixed for nonchalants? I've got this guy who can out-nonchalant anyone.'" And the smile returns.
This easy-going puckishness is thoroughly characteristic of Bruce Jay Friedman, a man of effortless and to all appearances endless good humor, a man who, if the talk turns to writers with a capital W, will merely shrug and say, "I ain't one of them."
Yet his play, "Steambath," featuring God as a Puerto Rican bath attendant, is a perennial on PBS, his short story "A Change of Plan" turned into Elaine May's bitting "The Heartbreak Kid"; and both his nonfiction in Esquire and his novels like "Stern." "A Mother's Kisses" and "About Harry Towns" are startingly humerous evocations of the way life is lived right now.
Who but Friedman would have God order "Put bigger bath towels in all the rooms at the Tel Aviv Hilton" or have one of his characters worry about taking a lady who palled around with Hemingway to a Chinese restaurant: "If Harry Towns went for the sea bass with black-bean-and -garlic sauce, she gave him a look of cold steel that said he had done something second-rate and not really true." Friedmam knows what it's like out there, but no matter how painful things get, the mordant humor is not forgotten.
And, it turns out, Friedman really is news of a sort. Having started to cook for himself and not wanting to "waste the experience," Friedman wrote a piece for Esquire called "The Lonely Guy Cookbook," featuring advice like the following on veal: "Veal is the quintessential Lonely Guy meat. There's someting pale and lonely about it, especially if it doesn't have any veins. It's so wan and Kierkegaardian. You know it's going to hurt you. So eat a lot of veal."
Friedman typically did not think this was going to be great shakes - "I almost whisperethe notion to the editors" - but has had his mind changed by the sizeable reader response and by McGraw Hill, which promptly signed him to do a Lonely Guy book.
"I guess I touched a chord," he says, still perhaps a bit puzzled, "a lot of people left like that, women felt like Lonely Guys too. I started sending in Lonely Guy experiences, of which the following touched Friedman the most:
"Some famous Hollywood producer just split up with his wife after 20 years and moved into one of those barren buildings above the Sunset Strip. The first night he moved he realized he needed someone to put his eardrops in for him, but there was no one in the hotel but hookers and third rate actors.
"So he went doen to the doorman and said, 'I know this is going to sound a little peculiar, but I need someone to pot my eardrops in." The doorman agrees, the producer puts his head in his lap, the doorman starts putting the drops in , when all of a sudden a guy comes running out of the back waving a gun: he'd seen what was going on on a security monitor. He didn't know what it wa, but he knew it looked fishy."
Friedman pauses here to ponder the enormity of it all. "There's something about eardrops," he says finally, "that's terribly lonely."
Part of what makes Bruce Jay Friedman special as a writer, part of the reason for his easygoing, ironic, tone, is the 10 years, ending in 1964, he spent with a company called Magazine Management, 10 years working on magazines like Stag, Man's World, True Action - "that's as opposed to False Action" ' Male and Men.
"I was a concept guy, I just did concepts," Friedman says, deadpan. "We always wrote about battles, thousands of battles, 'Bombs Over Stuttgart,' 'Bombs Over Dresden.' When we ran out of real battles we made them up. We'de get all kinds of mail saying we'd gotten the designation of some armor carrier wrong, but no one ever said, 'Hey, there's no such battle.'"
And though the sexual content of those magazines was once considered risque, Friedman now views it all as "dreadfully, embarrassingly innocent. It wasn't even bikini time, all we had were bathing beauties striking haoughty poses.
"Even the acutal text was pristine. We had a big hassle once over the phrase 'dark triangle'. The publisher came storming in saying 'I don't know about you guys, but I have to live out there, my name's on this thing.' The worst we ever did was sling that word 'nympho' around. Everyone was a nympho," a state of afffairs which led to the title of a memoir Friedman wrote of those years: Even The Rhinos Were Nymphos."
That kind of off-the-wall jocularity combines in Friedman's writing with a wonderful gift for elaborate fantasies, for spinning out far-fetched juxtapositions. "I think in those terms," Friedman says, just for the hell of it starting in on the idea of Gregory Peck picking up a copy of Hustler: "I love this country but I see this magazine and it's . . . extraordinary."
Some of the best of these scenariors appear in "Steambath," where God works his good deeds in mysterious ways:
"That spade they beat up at Chicago Police Headquarters. Got a landing strip for a head. All right, kill the cop who roughed him up - and then send the spade over to Copenhagen for a vacation. At least three months. I don't know who picks up the tab. He's got a cousin in the music business. Records for Decca . . ."
Friedman is here, as everywhere, after more than simple humor. "If it just made you laugh, it wouldn't be much," he says. "If I had favorite among writers it would be Evelyn Waugh. I don't know how he did it, but it's very moving, terribly desolate behind the comedy. To me, that's the ultimate."
Yet, paradoxically, whenever Friedman gets close to that tone, it seems to hurt his sales. "There's something in it that's delimiting," he says. "There's a built-in . . . what? Cynicism? Darkness? People want a more positive attitude in a book. A lot of my work is dark, pessimistic, it doesn't reach as large as audience as it might."
And even though he believes "ranking writers like heavyweights - 'He's the Number 3 contender' - is preposterous," Friedman is aware that his supporters, perhaps because of that dark undertone, frequently feel he just isn't getting the respect he deserves. "I hear that a lot," he says. "I get the occasional lonely letter saying 'I'm your only fan in Gary. Indiana, and I think it's a shame you're in the toilet."
If this sound even a wee bit down in the mouth, it shouldn't because Friedman appears genuinely bemused by this alleged lack of prestige. "It's pointless to be bothered," he says. "Actually, I get an awful lot of people who think I like that. A guy from the Transatlantic Review just came to interview me, he said he had to fight his editor tooth and nail to get here. I get a lot of those, so it balances out."
It balances out because at age 46, with high school in the Bronx, college in the Midwest, some time in the Air Force and all those men's magazines behind him, Bruce Jay Friedman quite sincerely lookks on his career and calls it "a rich kind of accident."
"I didn't know about writing when I started. I had no special aspirations beyond maybe doing a Walter Winchell-type column," he said, remembering. "A reporter on a small city daily, that would have been heaven. Quite truthfully, I'm way over my quota now."