Bruce Jay Friedman has been writing fiction since the early 1960s. As a novelist, he is most well-known for Stern. But he is most famous for his plays Scuba Duba and Steambath. Both were shown Off Broadway in the early 1970s and were overnight successes. Steambath was adapted for TV in 1973. And Friedman wrote several screenplays that were turned into popular movies such as Heartbreak Kid (1973), Stir Crazy (1980). Dr. Detroit (1983), The Lonely Guy (1984), and Splash (1984), and Brazzaville Teenager (2013). (The last film is short directed by Michael Cera and Heartbreak Kid was recently redone with a starring role by Ben Stiller).
In most of his novels, short stories, and screenplays, Friedman includes at least one schlemiel character. To be sure, Friedman, like Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Harold Ramis, Mel Brooks, and Judd Apatow, has popularized the schlemiel in American culture. Unfortunately, very few people have properly read his schlemiels. In the Schlemiel as Modern Hero, Ruth Wisse characterized his novel, Stern, in negative terms. The main character, a schlemiel named Stern, “suffers from an ulcer, the localized symbol of hurt, and actual cause of his anxiety and pain. The ulcer is a kind of “heart condition”(87). This, for Wisse, is the anti-thesis of what Saul Bellow had done with the schlemiel in his novel, Herzog (Herzog means “heart song” in Yiddish). This schlemiel’s sickness is “a lower, less poetic organ” and it is, for Wisse, “symptomatic of Friedman’s harsher, lower form of humor”(87). Wisse goes on to call Stern just “another study of the sick man as the relatively healthy man, the psychological equivalent of loser as winner, but one that exposes the full horror of this inversion”(87).
Wisse’s words are by no means charitable to Freidman and neither are the words of the famous film critic J. Hoberman who recently likened – in the most negative way – the Coen Brother’s A Serious Man (2009) to Stern. Larry Gopnik, the schlemiel of Serious Man – is like Stern:
Abandoned by his wife, betrayed by his colleagues, ignored by his children, confounded by his rabbis, Larry Gopnik could be the most fully fledged schlemiel in American fiction since the eponymous anti-hero of Bruce Jay Friedman’s Stern. Stern, however, was a schlemiel in a gentile world; Gopnik is surrounded by Jews so grotesque that the movie might have been cast by Julius Streicher.
To be sure, the case for the weak and sick man-child schlemiel is made in many places by Bruce Jay Friedman. But what’s sometimes missed is how this sickness relates to the other or in the case of a story called “The Good Time” the (m)other. In this story the mother’s boundless energy also makes her into a schlemiel. And while she may appear healthy and the boy sick they are, in fact, a team.
In “The Good Time,” the main character and narrator of the story is a schlemiel who is going off to war in Korea. He is in Chicago and will be leaving from there to basic training and then war. Friedman uses “coldness” as a leitmotif in the story. The main character is followed by it everywhere:
No matter what I wore, the cold got into me and down inside my clothes and made feel lonely and as though I would never relax for the rest of my life. It followed me into the hotel room in which I stayed and chased me as I drove along the Lake. (117, The Collected Short Fiction of Bruce Jay Friedman).
It seems as if the main character is in a transitional point between childhood and manhood and that the cold chasing him around is the cold of life and adulthood which he pulls back from. Regarding sickness, he notes that the word Korea reminds him of the word “Cholera.” In the following sentence, he notes that, for the first time in his life, he is getting a pair of eyeglasses. The fact that he is astonished that when you put the glasses on you can “see everything” should alert the reader that he is naïve and childlike.
In the midst of this cold and his contemplation of what may happen to him over there, his mother decides to leave Philadelphia for Chicago so as to show him a “good time.” She “knew I was feeling bad” and wanted to “cheer me up”(117). His mother, to be sure, is fearless, loud, and brash. But when we see her in juxtaposition to her son, we see that she is also a schlemiel. But her schlemielkeit, it seems, is more in tune with a vital American culture. It is a kind of energetics that is based on fast-talk and quick-action.
When we first meet the mother (or rather “Mother,” her name throughout the story), we see that she is brimming with enthusiasm for every experience she has (as if every moment is her last). Mother brings a woman she meets on the train who travelled with her. She insists that the lady and her baby meet her son. It doesn’t make any sense, but since Mother is so excited by their spending time with each other she wants her son to meet her:
“Did you ever see such a sweet face on a girl? Look at her. That’s the type I meet everywhere I go. And good? Good as gold. Her and her baby.” (118)
Upon seeing him, Mother demands a hug: “Grab your mother around for a hug. It’s all right. It’s your mother. I came all the way from Philadelphia.” When he notes that the girl, which his mother said was so great, was ordinary, his mother says, “You’re in quite a mood.” In other words, the mother wants him to be infected by her intensity and to overlook the ordinariness of things. She wants him to live in the moment instead of being in fear of the future.
His mother yells for a cab, engages the cabbie in talk, and they are off. As they are moving, the narrator notes a juxtaposition between age and youth in his mother. And as he passes from the one to the other he warms up: “Her figure was still so young and good it embarrassed me to look at it. And I have to admit I didn’t feel quite so cold now with her near me”(119).
Once they start talking, the narrator feels he can be honest with her and speak about how he feels about going “over there.” In response, she tosses a line, rhythmically, that sounds off against the word “there” – he calls this a “pet line”: “He’s there and you’ve got to get there.” These lines irk him and make him cold because they refuse to give in to his fear. After hearing this, he remembers another one liner, which, to be sure is all about challenging the other: “You’re on your way in, I’m on my way out.”
To be sure, as the story moves on more and more of these pet lines come to the surface. They are used to get things going and keep things warm and exciting. However, they don’t leave room for any emotional bonding between them. And they don’t leave room for fear. They are given out in rapid-fire fashion, as are her bold movements.
She has no regard for the civility. When they get back to the hotel, she takes off her top and walks around in “her brassiere and skirt…it made her comfortable”(120). It doesn’t matter that she is doing this in front of her son. To be sure, he takes this as normal. But after a while, as we shall see, he lets too many things slide. And this comes back to bite him.
The story shifts into high gear as they go out. And as they move, we hear more and more noise. But Friedman turns this noise into a kind of music that is laced with optimism. In one scene they go to a club where Tommy Dorsey is playing music. While they are getting into the music, a large group of paraplegics come into the club. Excited by the music, they all start making noises to the music. They are giving canes by the club and they tap them against the floor in rhythm to the music. The narrator’s mother hears the word “sheeeet” repeated by some of them while one of the narrator’s friends, who tags along, goes “spit-spat.” All of this noise works to just move things forward, into the future.
Moved by this rhythm, they get into the car and speed off along the Chicago lakeshore Listening to music as they drive, they continue the rhythm from the club. They carry it on late into the evening, but the mother doesn’t want to sleep:
“If you want to sleep, sleep…It’s your privilege. But you’re crazy if you miss a minute. I have quite a day planned for you.”(124)
The next day they go off to see a musical comedy called “New Faces.” During the act, the mother has her own comedy act and interrupts people in the audience. She wants to be the center of attention and make a scene for her son. After having her laugh and causing a stir, she leaves with her son to see an old friend called “Monkey” Lucella.
Monkey is a lot like her. He is wild, but he is also very wealthy. When they first meet, Monkey pulls out a wad of bills and tells Mother, “look at this.” In response, Mother says: “The son of a bitch…The money this son of bitch must have made here in Chicago. The fortune of money”(126). All of this theater hits a fever pitch at the end of the party when Lucella, who is married (his wife is “cold” and quiet) and has a son named “Seal”, lifts Mother up on his shoulders.
The narrator breaks down when he sees his mother’s underwear:
Her skirt split open and some garment showed that I never wanted to see in my whole life. It had elaborate hooks and snaps on it and it seemed you’d have to be very old before wearing it. It was just something I never wanted to see on my mother. (128)
When he sees “more” of the undergarment, he loses control and does something “I haven’t done in perhaps fifteen to twenty years, but something I had been in the habit of doing for quite some time as a child. Starting to cry, I put my head down, closed my eyes and rammed my head into Lucella’s groin” (128).
His mother responds by sweeping him out of the house and getting a cab. Upon leaving, the main character, feeling miserable, vents:
Was this her idea of giving me a good time? Was that the way you treated a son who was very cold and couldn’t relax and needed glasses and was going to a place that sounded like a terrible children’s disease – a disease that probably began with a rash, for all I knew, and ended by attacking your damned kidneys. (129)
Like Stern, this story ends with sickness. But what needs to be seen is that this sickness, which is steeped in fear, is spurred in many ways by the mother. Her optimism and bold embrace of the moment divorce her from her son and make him sick. Moreover, it is her sexuality that she doesn’t hide from him. Freidman seems to be suggesting that this is what drives him back into his childhood and makes him a schlemiel. His mother has gone to far and instead of cheering him up, she has only made him more bitter and scared. This comic due shows us that a schlemiel can be a kind of nebbish character (like the son) and can also be a vital character who is out of touch with reality (like the mother).
Contrary to what many critics might say, Bruce Jay Friedman was interested in the many varieties of the schlemiel. The critics only got him half right. As we can see in this story, the main character may be like Stern but his mother is not. And I would like to suggest that it is the latter, fast-talking kind of schlemiel that is often missed in Friedman’s work. Her optimism and brashness, though foolish, is – in this story – juxtaposed to the main character’s fear, childishness, and cynicism. It is the relation between the two that makes this story – and these schlemiels – distinctly American.
….to be continued….