One of the most interesting things about Avery Corman is that he has never been divorced.
Despite the abundant hints offered by his last three novels -- "Kramer Versus Kramer," which was about fatherhood and divorce, and "The Old Neighborhood," which was about roots and career and divorce, and his newest novel, "50," which is about midlife crisis and fatherhood and career and divorce -- Avery Corman has just celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary.
"I once said that Judy and I will never get a divorce because we couldn't ever figure out who gets custody of the anxiety," says Corman, this time confirming another thing his novels seem to announce. He is a distinctly New York type, his conversation redolent of a Bronx boyhood and found Manhattan poise, his look the salt-and-pepper flair of dapper middle age: the wry, hypereducated face of the Upper East Side psychologist.
Corman, who passed through Washington this week to promote "50," acknowledges that in most respects it is fair to call him an autobiographical novelist. He has set all of his books in his native city, has freely incorporated elements of his life, and depicts himself as a man steeped in the issues he writes about: anxiety, guilt, money, mortality, sex, marriage, children.
And turning 50.
"I mean," says the 51-year-old Corman, who started writing the book when he was 49, "I don't think you write a book called '50' and neglect to have it be some kind of summing up of how you're feeling about age."
The Ted Kramer of male menopause is Doug Gardner. Divorced and in his late forties, Doug is a sports columnist who finds himself approaching the Big Five-Oh alone, unhappy and confused. His newspaper -- a sort of USA Today clone that specializes in sports -- has just been sold to an obnoxious 36-year-old Texan who wants him to write about aerobics; his ex-wife has just remarried, to a fortyish denim magnate who dazzles Gardner's son and daughter with trips and toys and a terrible enthusiasm for stepfatherhood. The women he meets are either hysterically anxious to get married or so young they "probably never heard of the Harry James solo from 'Sing, Sing, Sing.' "
After years of being the breadwinner, Doug is suddenly faced not only with seeing another man outstrip him at it, but with the prospect of losing his own livelihood; the final irony is that Doug's ex-wife has begun earning real money for the first time. The novel's simple thrust is to test Doug's willingness to sell out under the combined provocations of money, loneliness and his impending birthday.
It is a funny book. Yet Corman is writing, with rueful seriousness, about concerns that have been largely ignored in popular culture since the era when men wore hats with their gray flannel suits: the professional and family lives of urban middle class stiffs who are trying to muddle through in moral fashion. While domestic life has been tackled in many books by and about women, Avery Corman is almost alone in the niche of the middle-brow male who writes amiable, intelligent, nongenre fiction for the masses.
As The New York Times book review will put it on Sunday, " '50' is that rarest of books, a novel about good, intelligent people attempting to understand the nature of success."
Success and money. Or success as money. "I think many of us in the culture we live in are directed by money more than we would like to admit," says Corman, sounding for a moment as rabbinical as he looks. "And there are some obvious symbols of that ... It's like we're in this massive electronics showroom, you know, all of us walking around putting stuff in a cart, and then we get to stand in the lobby and say, 'Look at me, look at me, look what I have in my cart.' "
Also permeating the book is some conviction that Provider Anxiety is a major element of a man's identity. At one point, toward the end of his marriage, Doug thinks bitterly of his wife's part-time career, "She's out there expressing herself, and I'm stuck with the bill again."
And later, he remembers: "He would sometimes awaken in the night and go into the kitchen for juice and see his father, awake, hunched and exhausted at the kitchen table, bills scattered in front of him. Doug, reflecting on the events of the day, took a deep breath in his anxiety, trapped by money like his father before him, as if it were in the genes."
Surely it's been some time since Corman felt this kind of despair?
After his first novel, "Oh, God!," was published in 1971, there were lean years writing articles and educational films. But paperback rights to "The Old Neighborhood" sold for $1.45 million, of which Corman was entitled to at least half, and movie rights brought $1 million. Paperback bidding for "50" will begin at $200,000; movie rights have been sold for what his editor calls "a major, major six-figure sum," and while Simon and Schuster declines to reveal Corman's advance for "50," it is fair to say that you cannot sit down at the negotiating table for a Corman book with less than six figures in mind.
Corman also got some small part of the action on the movie of "Kramer Versus Kramer," and Judy Corman brings in a second income as the owner of two children's boutiques, in pricey Bridgehampton, Long Island, and in Manhattan.
"So, am I immune from that?" asks Corman rhetorically, when posed the Money Question. "No, I am not. Does the fact that I am, as you point out, doing better ... make it possible for me not to look at it? What I am looking at are the things that are within me and that I've seen in other people."
He adds, more quietly, "Also, I'm the son of people of the Depression. It just never goes away."
Here is the curious part: The parent who struggled through the Depression to raise him, who sat awake nights over the bills on the kitchen table, was his mother; his parents were divorced when Corman was 5, and he never got to know his father.
"Well, now here's the 'Rosebud' in all of this," Corman announces in the tones of a man who is modestly aware of Giving Good Interview: "My parents were divorced when I was very small, and a lot of people who have looked for the key to why I've been writing about divorce have always looked at it from the parental standpoint, when in fact I was a child of divorce, and that has made me very much more sensitive to these issues."
It was, finally, a child who wrote Corman a letter saying, " 'You wrote so well about that; were your parents divorced?' And that really is the clue," Corman continues, "and it's where I've come through the door on all this material, and why I have always had children in these marriages" that he writes about.
For Corman, with two teen-age sons, is it not also the happily married man's way of whistling past the graveyard?
"I think there's some of that," Corman says. "And also ... when you're writing fiction you want to find the correct theater for getting at what you want to do, and divorce gives you that. It's almost the -- kind of the ultimate moment in having people be combatants in what goes on with the sexes."
Corman's childhood leads him to another intriguing surmise. After the divorce, his mother moved with him and his sister into the home of his aunt and uncle, who were deaf-mutes. "So the deaf-mute sign language was the second part of my background, in terms of language," he says. "And I've been thinking recently that it's possible that the way I write has been influenced by that. Maybe the kind of spare, direct style comes out of that ... my sort of lack of interest in a lot of the de'cor, literally and figuratively. I'm always interested in moving on to the emotional content of a scene, and I don't really spend an elaborate amount of time setting it up."
Corman is a member of what may be the first American generation to inherit its social trends not from the previous generation but from the one that followed. Born in 1936, almost 10 years before the leading edge of the baby boom, Corman acknowledges that "50" is in part a book about being chased by a generational avalanche.
When Corman's hero divorces, for instance, he feels more than the usual culture shock: "Under the new ground rules if the woman didn't want to go to bed with you by the second or third date she wasn't interested, or you shouldn't be, and if she did, that still didn't mean she was interested, or that you were."
Doug, who like his creator credits the women's movement with making him a better father and mate, is nonetheless tired of living in an age of social trailblazing. "The children looked weary to him," writes Corman. "They had been living under joint custody for over two years, going between apartments, coping with the system, the transience, the oversights, the articles of clothing and the books suddenly needed that were left in the other apartment. There wasn't a previous generation who had lived through joint custody. These children were the first. Was it trendy, like 'in' food? Doug wondered. Was joint custody the pesto of divorce?"
But above all, the baby boom has meant that a man turning 50 is surrounded by people younger than him, different from him. Corman admits to feeling a little overwhelmed by the yuppie hordes of Manhattan:
"I think the worst aspects of when I was young I see repeated. I grew up in the Eisenhower years, in the '50s, when there was a lack of moral purpose to our lives and to our goals; many of us, anyway. And I see that repeating now ... I think the easiest example of that is how many feminists are concerned -- middle-aged feminists -- with the lack of passion they see in young women for issues that they fought so hard over.
"As for men, I just don't see how you can be so career-driven and have any area of agreement with a woman. The thing that men of my generation have learned through the women's movement is that you're going to have to give weight, morally, to the person you're with."
This sort of observation makes Corman crease his brow -- consternation produces precisely 5 1/2 lines on his forehead -- but he seems to enjoy the privilege of his distress. Here, again, is the dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker: "I am strongly of the opinion that in your large cities, we are on the social frontier," he says softly. "I feel very sustained by so much rich material."
"Every time you write a novel, it's opening a new restaurant. You don't know what's going to happen."
There is, finally, something shy -- even fragile -- about Avery Corman. At one point, asked about anxiety, he laughs: "You don't have enough time for what's made me lose sleep at night over the last few years."
It has been seven years since Corman's last novel, and his relief -- that it's done, that it's working -- is palpable. "There was at least one book that I shelved," he says. "I just kept digging a deeper and deeper hole and never really solved it."
Corman is especially pleased by his positive reviews this time out. "It has been not all that easy for me to be taken seriously as a novelist." The ever-judicious author corrects himself: "I shouldn't say that -- taken seriously as a serious novelist ... Because I write in a very spare, direct style, and because I use humor -- those are two things that don't always hold you in high odor with quote serious literary critics."
The good reviews affirm something that, he says, his 50th birthday was already close to teaching him.
"I find myself now -- with this book particularly -- much more ... in touch with what I can do. There was a time when I would read something by Bellow or Updike and be troubled by not being able to get at some of the intellectual speculations of Bellow or some of the lyricism of Updike. And be troubled that there was some level of writing that was outside my capability. And would feel an unease about it.
"But I've just -- I think this book in a sense has become a breakthrough for me, because you know I realize that I am now who I am; I've come to a point in my life where I can say I've written the best book I can possibly write, and I understand that they don't put me out of business. My respect for them doesn't invalidate what I am doing or what I am capable of doing."
At the end of "The Old Neighborhood," which is perhaps Corman's most autobiographical novel, his hero has bailed out of a high-speed advertising job and found happiness running an antique shop. "Some of these things are getting more valuable as they get older," he says, in the book's last line, of the curios he sells, "and, perhaps, so am I."
And, perhaps, so is Corman.