Truth in the matter of memoir has always seemed evanescent and, more often lately, either elusive or absent. Memories of the self are often in service of other agendas, including the settling of scores and the creation of a hero where a mere man once stood.
Those questions, and the recent travails of the genre, seem at great remove to the reader of “Backing Into Forward,” by Jules Feiffer. Reading Feiffer, you know where the truth lies because it is there on every page — resonant, self-lacerating and frequently hilarious. How else to explain Feiffer’s frank admissions that he could not stand his mother, even dead; that he coveted the success of peers; that he reflexively courted fame and the famous; and that the mysterious Woody Allen was not really so mysterious to him?
Ostensibly the memoir of an acclaimed cartoonist, “Backing Into Forward” is a portrait of a certain kind of New York during a specific era: the cultural and political foment of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.
Last week, also in the Times, Michiko Kakutani wrote:
“Backing into Forward” provides the reader with a sharply evocative portrait of the author’s youth in the Bronx, where he says he grew up a terrified, cowardly child, who “sidestepped arguments, fled confrontations, pedaled away from fistfights.” And the book proves just as nimble at limning the literary world of Manhattan, where this “wry, self-effacing, hard-hitting lefty” soon made himself at home, and realized he could “hold my own with Alfred Kazin, Dwight MacDonald, Lillian Hellman, Kenneth Tynan, Robert Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, Philip Rahv,” to drop just a few household intellectual names.
Perhaps funniest of all is Mr. Feiffer’s self-deprecating, self-pitying account of his Catch-22-like stint in the Army during the Korean war: after faking a breakdown, he says, he managed to get himself appointed to the Signal Corps Publications Agency, where he spent all of his free time working on “Munro,” a long cartoon narrative about a 4-year-old boy who is drafted — a project, he now recalls, that “was to determine the direction of my work and my life over the next 50 years.”
To what does Mr. Feiffer, 81, attribute his long and varied career? His success, he writes in these pages, came from “lucking into the zeitgeist,” from the happy coincidence that the personal subjects of his Voice cartoons — anxiety, confusion, anger — resonated perfectly with the concerns of his audience: young urban hipsters, alienated by the repressive mores of the cold war years and unmoored by the tumult of the counterculture decades.
I’ve admired Feiffer’s work all my life without being a huge fan. But this book looks like a fun read.