Head on over to Rolling Stone and check out Brian Hiatt’s excellent look at Bowie’s final years.
[Photo Via: Cos]
Head on over to Rolling Stone and check out Brian Hiatt’s excellent look at Bowie’s final years.
[Photo Via: Cos]
Our pal John Schulian‘s first novel, A Better Goodbye, was published late last week. Looking for something pulpy and nasty, look no further friends. This noir will keep you entertained and turning the pages. I recently chatted with John about writing his first novel. Dig:
Bronx Banter: Chico said, “Why a duck?” So I ask you: Why a novel?
John Schulian: Why not? A novel seemed like a logical progression for me. I’ve written for newspapers and magazines, I’ve written scripts in Hollywood, I’ve taught writing, I even wrote a couple of country songs after seeing four songwriters talk about their craft at Nashville’s Bluebird Café. Not surprisingly, nothing came of my songs, but I still loved the experience. It was just that a novel was much more my speed. When I had an idea for one and the time to write, it seemed like the most natural thing in the world.
You have to remember that I come from a generation where a novel was the Holy Grail for writers. Now, of course, non-fiction outsells fiction and screenplays have become the leading form for storytellers. But I was brought up on novels. My parents read me Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson. I discovered the Hardy Boys and John R. Tunis’s baseball novels on my own when I was in junior high. I played high school football with a bunch of upperclassmen who introduced me to the idea that a jock didn’t have to be ashamed if he liked books, especially books by J.D. Salinger. I confess that I bought Updike’s Rabbit, Run because I thought it was about a basketball. Okay, so I wasn’t the most sophisticated kid in the world. It didn’t stop me from losing myself in other novels, even those my English teachers assigned, like 1984 and To Kill a Mockingbird. The habit of a lifetime was formed in those years. I became a committed reader.
When I began writing professionally, when putting words on paper put food on my table, it was inevitable that I would think about writing a novel. I was always looking for a way to use fictional devices in my journalism. I went out to cover stories, whether they were championship prizefights or political corruption trials, in hopes of finding scenes that would capture the moment and perhaps speak to some larger truth. I wanted to hear what people were saying to each other, the dialogue that grows out of triumph or tragedy or whatever else they might be experiencing. I wanted to see how those scenes revealed the character of the people living them. I wanted the drama of real life.
It wasn’t until I was a newspaper sports columnist, primarily in Chicago, briefly in Philadelphia, that I enjoyed the freedom to take that approach as far as I could. And people noticed. Or maybe I should say other sports writers noticed. So did the good woman I was married to then. But I ignored their encouragement to write a novel. I liked being a sports columnist – the big events, the great old ballparks, the man-on-the-move datelines, the company of other writers, even the daily wrestling match with the language. The job consumed me, and on top of it, I was usually freelancing a magazine piece on the side. That didn’t leave a lot of time for tackling what I considered the greatest challenge for a writer – a novel.
Everywhere I looked in journalism back then, novelists were emerging. Dan Jenkins made the most noise with his bestselling Semi-Tough. Then someone recommended Bud Shrake, Jenkins’ running mate from Sports Illustrated, and I gobbled up two of his novels, Strange Peaces and Blessed McGill. It seemed inevitable that Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, among newspaper columnists, would make waves in fiction. But first place in that category belonged to Pete Dexter, a stable mate of mine at the Philadelphia Daily News, who wrote a terrific first novel called God’s Pocket and then knocked the book world on its ass with Paris Trout. The surprise in all this was a copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times – a quiet, unpretentious guy named Charles Dickinson who was writing wry, heartfelt novels about small-town America that got him compared to Sherwood Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. The big names at the paper were Mike Royko and Roger Ebert, and I did all right, too, but in one very important category, Charles Dickinson was ahead of us.
I suspected that John Ed Bradley was, too, the first time I ever read a story of his in the Washington Post. He was writing about his days as a tri-captain on Louisiana State’s football team, describing a night when he and his best friend, the team’s quarterback, were drinking beer as they sat on a hill overlooking the campus, talking about their dreams and what lay ahead of them. It wasn’t sports writing John Ed put before readers that morning; it was the work of someone who had novels in him.
He has written a bunch of them by now, along with an achingly beautiful memoir called It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, and he has become a friend as well. It was in the latter capacity that he encouraged me to write a novel. That must have been thirty years ago, but I’ve never forgotten his encouragement, or that of others who said the same thing. I have to tell you, though, it’s one thing to get all puffed up because people think you possess that kind of talent and quite another to jump off the cliff, the way Butch and Sundance did. But on a January night more years ago than I care to remember, I finally sat down and wrote the first words of what became my novel, A Better Goodbye: “Too bad Barry wasn’t local. Suki would have told him her real name if he was.” I figured I didn’t have anything to lose. The fall would probably kill me.
BB: Okay, then. Why now?
JS: I needed something to keep me off the street. Besides, I convinced myself I was still writing well, and some ideas were taking shape in my head. I thought I better seize the moment. There didn’t seem to be anything left for me in TV. I’d done too much of it that was either bad or barely middlebrow. To make things worse, the rattlesnake who turned out to be my last Hollywood agent kept putting me up for science fiction shows I wouldn’t have watched with a gun at my head. Years later, when I saw Justified – part Western, part cop show, and an impeccable take on Elmore Leonard’s sensibility – I started drooling. But by then I was long gone from the TV wars.
I’m now 70, in case anyone is keeping score at home. It’s an age when you realize how precious time is. I may keel over dead before I finish this sentence, or I may live another thirty years. However much time I have left, I want to put it to good use and enjoy myself in the process. I loathe golf, which seems to seduce a lot of geezers. (Go ahead and kick your ball out of the rough, fellas. I’ll never tell.) The thought of traveling the world makes my blood run cold – I had my fill of airports, airplanes and hotel rooms when I was working on newspapers. I’d much rather be at my desk at home, trying to coax words out of my computer.
I have many friends who are wonderful writers yet hate the thought of writing, but I love it. I’ve been that way since I was a kid sketching out my own newspaper and movie ideas in the privacy of my bedroom. Now I suppose you can say I’ve come full circle. For the past ten or twelve years, I’ve only done things that appeal to me, writing essays and book reviews, putting together two collections of my sports writing, editing anthologies of other peoples’ work, writing and rewriting my novel and a handful of short stories, and trying like a madman to get my novel published in a world that is less kind to fiction with every passing day. Somehow I’ve succeeded in a modest way. I can call myself a novelist. And you know what? It tickles the hell out of me.
BB: Why a noir novel?
JS: Noir felt accessible, comfortable even though comfort obviously isn’t the point of it. As long as I had my hands on something by Elmore Leonard or Daniel Woodrell, to name just two of my guiding lights, I could survive any airplane flight and every hour-and-a-half wait at the doctor’s. They were masterful storytellers, but they seemed most interested in their characters, the way they thought and moved and talked. God, did they love talk, particularly Leonard, who built book after book on dialogue that carried him to the bestseller list and a place among the best crime novelists ever.
He did not, however, invent noir dialogue. That had been done decades before by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and a host of writers now on the verge of being forgotten, people like Cornell Woolrich and Patricia Highsmith and Chester Himes. Then film noir put that brand of smart talk in the mouths of actors who became synonymous with it, from Bogart to Mitchum to Ida Lupino. I’ve always been a sucker for those noir movies out of the late 40s and early 50s where gunmen lurk in the shadows and danger floats in on clouds of cigarette smoke. But what really got me was a moment like the one in Larceny when Shelley Winters, as a con man’s tootsie, tells a potential boy toy, “You kiss like you’re paying off an election bet.” Just as memorable was Yvonne De Carlo playing Burt Lancaster for a sap in Criss Cross. Even when the armored car heist she’s lured him into goes sideways and they know they’re going to die, he’s making cow eyes at her. “I never wanted the money,” he says. “I just wanted you.”
L.A. has always been ripe with stories like those, so perhaps it’s only natural that this native son feels a sense of pride in local sex, treachery, desperation and murder. Film noir may once have fed on such indelicacies, but more and more it belongs to the past no matter how great Chinatown and L.A. Confidential were. It is left to the city’s great contemporary noir writers – Michael Connelly, James Ellroy, Walter Mosley, Richard Lange and all the rest – to make the most of its image as a luscious piece of fruit that has fallen from the tree and lies rotting in the relentless sunshine.
I’m under some of the same influences they are, but I made little use of the city’s underbelly until I started thinking about writing a novel. Now, no matter where I am in L.A., I don’t have to drive far to show you what I’m talking about. I weave along city streets so pocked and neglected they wouldn’t be out of place in the most shell-shocked regions of Syria and Afghanistan. I pass handsome apartment complexes and think of the tricks that got turned in them and the building managers who may have played blind in exchange for sex. I follow reports of the violence that’s always waiting to happen in every corner of the city, secure in the knowledge that it wasn’t O.J. Simpson who proved the famous and near famous can be as bloody as the poor and gang-ridden.
There was once an actor named Tom Neal – the star of the classic cheapo noir Detour – who went into eclipse and ended up working as a landscaper until he put a bullet from a .45 in his estranged wife’s head.
When I hear a story like that, it’s hard to imagine writing anything but noir.
BB: Did you outline the story before you started writing or make it up as you went along?
JS: Before I started writing my novel, I would have told you I needed an outline. How could I possibly work without a net on something so big, right? Outlines were always part of my process in journalism, whether I was on a newspaper deadline and roughed one out in three or four minutes or had a day or two to figure out how to structure a magazine piece. In Hollywood, an outline is practically mandatory in both TV and movie writing because nobody wants to leave anything to chance. There are still storytelling disasters, obviously – I’ve been guilty of more than a few myself – but the people in charge like the idea of having an outline so they can hand it to the next writer if the first one bites the dust.
So did I outline A Better Goodbye?
I thought of it, of course. But then I started writing, and soon enough I had a plan of attack in my head: I wouldn’t stop until I knew where I was going to pick up the next day. The first thing I’d do when I sat down every morning was to read what I’d written the day before. I’d make changes, sometimes lots of them, but sooner or later I’d move into the new day’s work with a full head of steam.
I had a notion of where I was going all along, but I wanted to keep things flexible so I could change direction or take side trips, like one where Onus DuPree Jr., my prize sociopath, goes pet shopping at a pit bull fight. Likewise, with an outline, I might not have been as willing to introduce a character I hadn’t thought of before. I wanted the book to be picaresque; I wanted readers to meet characters they weren’t expecting when they least expected them. Admittedly, these characters didn’t always advance the story, but they helped draw a picture of the world where A Better Goodbye takes place. Other times, they complicated things. I’m thinking in particular of a highly pissed-off neighbor lady who pops up in the middle of a scene where DuPree and his partner in crime, Scott Crandall, are hunting for Nick Pafko and Jenny Yee, two lost souls who are trying to save themselves. Maybe everything should have been streamlined at this point of the book, but that’s not the way life works, and I didn’t think my story should work that way, either.
BB: Who was the first character you dreamed up?
JS: The fighter, naturally. With me, it’s always the fighter. I guess it’s because I wrote so much boxing when I worked in newspapers. As soon as I came to Hollywood and people learned about my background, they wanted me to write about fighters. I did it for Miami Vice and Midnight Caller, a dramedy called Hooperman, and an aborted attempt to bring back The Untouchables. And I had my own ideas, too. My two best scripts focused on fighters, a TV pilot called The Ring and a screenplay called American Original, which was based on a W.C. Heinz magazine piece about a hard-punching, hard-living little Texan named Lew Jenkins. Neither went anywhere, but that didn’t change my mind about fighters as characters.
The fighter in The Ring was Nick Pafko, a young middleweight out of a blue-collar neighborhood in Chicago, with a father who has a major gambling problem, a stand-up mother who’s ready to leave the old man, a kid brother in and out of trouble with the law, and a big sister who graduated college and yearns to leave the old ’hood behind. It’s not a coincidence that the fighter in A Better Goodbye is also named Nick Pafko. Of course I’ve given him a life far different than the one he would have had if The Ring had made it onto the air and run for five seasons.
That Nick would have become a world champion, married a good woman, fathered a couple of kids, succumbed to temptations that cost him his title, and somehow pieced his life back together as he regained the championship. The Nick in the novel didn’t come close to any of that. He was on his way to realizing his dream when he mortally injured the man he was fighting in what should have been nothing more than a steppingstone bout. You fight an old warhorse, you learn some lessons, and you get out of there with a win. Simple, right? Not when Nick blows up at his opponent’s dirty tricks and the referee freezes. What happens then is tragedy all the way around. No winners, only losers.
Nick tried to fight again after that, but he couldn’t do it. In that regard, he was like a fine young fighter from L.A. named Gabriel Ruelas, who never fought again after killing a man in the ring. I wanted Nick to carry a burden so heavy it made it hard for him to take one step after another. He couldn’t be like Sugar Ray Robinson or Emile Griffith, both of whom fought their way past such impossibly dark moments. Nick is a tough guy and, way down deep, a decent one. He can still make you laugh with a smart-assed remark, and something in him makes it impossible to back down to anyone even when they’re holding a gun. But beneath the emotional camouflage, there is a beaten man. What I tried to do was to tell the story of how he finds his way past that.
BB: Let’s talk about your female protagonist and how you learned about the massage industry. Did this entail you doing the full Gay Talese? Did ya manage a massage parlor?
JS: Fortunately, I never got that desperate when I was doing my research. Of course, when I cold-called some masseuses and said I was a writer who wanted to talk to them about their work, they instantly accused me of trying to get a freebie. Anyone who reads the book will soon realize that these girls get lots of strange requests – maybe exotic is a better word – so their reaction was understandable. But I really did need to talk to them because the massage business was as foreign to me as boxing was familiar.
All I knew about it in the beginning was that it had exploded. From the late 80s up past the millennium, the back pages of L.A. Weekly, the city’s smart and lively alternative newspaper, were jammed with page after page of massage ads. Some took up chunks of a page, with stock photos of pretty girls who had probably never been near a jack shack; others ran just two or three lines. But they all paid to advertise. Even if you’re like me and say jack, queen, king after you get to ten, you knew the Weekly and all the other publications where the sex trade did its advertising were making a pile of money.
Being an old newspaper guy, I thought there was a fascinating story waiting to be written about the massage industry, or maybe a TV station would put on its big boy pants and do a feature that went beyond ratings-week sleaze. It never happened. The only time massage operations got any ink or airtime was when the cops raided them during a local election campaign. There’s nothing safer for a politician to ad his name to than a crusade against sin. Naturally, as soon as the election was over, the pols and cops forgot those obliging ladies existed, and it was back to business as usual.
The growth of the Internet made business even better because now there were photos accompanying a lot of the ads on the rub-and-tug websites. Sometimes the photos were actually of the girls who had taken out the ads – well, either the girls or a prominent part of their anatomy.
And where did they ply their trade? They worked out of apartments that ranged from rancid to really nice as well as guesthouses and sometimes even single-family homes. Some were in neighborhoods that scared off clients who drove Porsches, and others had addresses that automatically made guys who needed their itch scratched think of money and class.
And who did these girls work for? They worked for people who knew their way around the business, veteran pimps and masseuses or straight-up hookers who had set up their own operations. But there were always newcomers like Scott Crandall, the pimp in my novel, who has figured out that his shot at Hollywood stardom is over and he needs to new source of income. It’s bosses like Scott – greedy, venal, always complaining, and way too eager to sample the merchandise – who unwittingly convince girls to go out on their own. Sometimes a girl will have the charisma to take a jack shack’s biggest earners with her when she sets up shop. More likely, she will fly solo so she can set her own schedule and make her own rules and regulations.
That’s what my female protagonist, Jenny Yee, tried to do until she realized that self-discipline wasn’t her strong suit. When we meet her, she’s calling herself Suki – stage names are as important as lingerie in the massage business – and working for a successful realtor with a couple other girls in a well maintained, otherwise tame high-rise in Sherman Oaks. Life is good there until it isn’t, and when it goes bad, it does so in a horrific way. You’d think the trauma would be enough to scare Jenny out of the business for keeps, but when she gets in a jam financially months later, she knows only one way to make money fast – massage. Her primary requirement is that her next stop has security. That’s why she goes to work for Scott, whose hired muscle is Nick Pafko. Now we have our two lost souls together. After that, it’s up to them to connect.
Okay, I hear you. That still doesn’t explain how I could write intimately about Jenny’s life in and out of the sex trade. I needed a masseuse who would tell me her story – the glamorous stuff, the unglamorous stuff, the weird stuff, the funny stuff, the sexy stuff. I mean, I could imagine my share of scenarios, but I really needed verisimilitude. I got it in the most roundabout way.
I knew a young woman who was going to UCLA, very smart, very straight, would sooner run with the bulls at Pamplona than do massage. But when I told her about my idea for a novel and how I was running out of patience in my masseuse who would sit down and talk about her secret life. Right away my friend said, “Oh, I know someone like that.” Did she ever.
My friend’s friend was Asian, bright, and cuter than the law allows. It didn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see why guys with disposable income were beating down her door. She was using the money she made to pay her way to UCLA, and one of the great factoids about her was that she got her first job as a masseuse through an ad in the campus newspaper. Best of all, though, she was a non-stop talker with a gift for anecdote. She spoke in whole paragraphs, not just in sentences. And she was funny, insightful and fully capable of, say, weaving her analysis of Catcher In the Rye in with her take on her clients. Not that she hated her clients – she genuinely liked many of them – but they were giving her an education beyond the one she was getting at UCLA. And she was making the most of it.
I met one other masseuse through my guide to the sex trade, a sweet, quiet Caucasian who blushingly provided me with telling details about things like pigsty bathrooms, over-amorous clients, and creepy security guards. But the second masseuse couldn’t have been more different from the Asian girl; she was shy, relatively inexperienced sexually and, I think, pretty much uncomfortable about touching naked strangers.
The Asian girl, on the other hand, looked at this strange life as a lark that not only paid for her education but bought her drugs and financed trips to Las Vegas and let her carry on at every rave she could get to. While it was all her friend could do to provide a happy ending to a massage, the Asian girl operated by a different set of rules entirely. She wouldn’t have sex with just any guy who walked through the door, the way some girls would. But if she liked someone the way she might if they’d met in a class or at a club, then she was perfectly comfortable getting intimate. A guy like that might come along once or twice a year – all right, maybe three times – but she wouldn’t keep two guys on the string at the same time because she wasn’t a ho. She was simply someone who enjoyed sex when the right guy came along. When you think about it, that didn’t make her much different than women who wouldn’t dream of doing massage. It was just that guys had to pay two hundred dollars to see her the first time, and probably many times after that, before their relationship ceased to be a business transaction.
If I had a daughter who followed the Asian girl’s lead, I’d be mortified, disappointed, crushed. I’d wonder where I went wrong as a parent and how I could convince her to consider a more traditional part-time job. But it wasn’t like she was being exploited by anyone. She had made a choice, and she never encountered anything nearly as horrific as does the character she inspired in my novel. She survived the useless boyfriends and angry husbands that are among the hazards of the trade, and she got her education. Then she walked away from the massage business. I still hear from her once in a while. She says she’s doing well in the real world. I’m not surprised. To tell the truth, I’m proud of her.
BB: Man, it seems as if your bad guy was a ton of fun to write.
JS: Some characters call for your heart and soul. Onus DuPree Jr., on the other hand, was undiluted id, a receptacle for every terrible thought I could conjure up, a tool for every act of violence I could imagine him contemplating. I loved all of my characters – well, maybe not Scott Crandall, who’s a shit weasel – but DuPree filled me with perverse joy.
He seized control of my imagination as soon as I came up with his name: Onus DuPree Jr. Names count for a lot in noir fiction, whether you’re talking about Dashiell Hamett’s Sam Spade or Elmore Leonard’s cold-blooded Bobby Shy. In DuPree’s case, I like to think it was the “junior” at the end of his name that sent him over the edge. He was trouble from the day he was born – his own mother said so – but he didn’t want to wear his old man’s name even if it once counted for something in L.A. He was dead set on making his own reputation. It just turned out that his reputation was as a full-blown sociopath who would settle for scaring the prunes out of someone’s grandma if he couldn’t rob someone or spill their blood.
I’d been carrying a character like DuPree around in my head for, I don’t know, fifteen or twenty years, ever since I read in the about a big-time athlete’s son who got in trouble with the law. He went to prison, and that was the last I heard of him until my agent’s assistant told me he’d played high school basketball with the kid. The kid was more than a superb athlete who excelled at every sport; he was a killing machine in street fights who took delight in really hurting anyone crazy enough to tangle with him.
I thought I’d done all I could with the DuPree character when I sold my novel, but one of my editors at Tyrus Books challenged me to come up with a new scene to introduce him. Originally, he’d been parked on the street behind Chuck Berry’s former home, waiting to rob a drug dealer who made house calls. The new intro is better because it shows DuPree on the move, strolling into a Sunset Strip club, calling someone who approaches him “a faggot,” hitting on another man’s woman, and leaving her boyfriend screaming in pain. That’s DuPree in a nutshell right there: fun, fun, fun.
BB: Well, yes, that brings us back to Scott. Seems to me he’s the one character you didn’t love. Or, let me re-phrase that: He was the one character you seemed to enjoy making an asshole.
JS: It’s not just that Scott is an asshole – it’s how big an asshole he is. He’s Mount Everest. He’s vain, needy, self-deluded, hypocritical, gluttonous, a liar, a sexual predator, and a wannabe bad guy, which may make him more dangerous than a legitimate bad guy like DuPree. And in case you forgot, he’s a pimp. He doesn’t care about anyone or anything except himself. It’s not an uncommon trait among actors, good and bad, but Scott wallows in it even though his career as a B-list TV star is in tatters. He’s ten years past the last decent role he’ll ever get and he’s too lazy to try to reinvent himself. It’s easier just to keep thinking he’s the second coming of Steve McQueen. But the truth is, he’s lucky to be the answer to a trivia question.
Some astute readers may think of Scott as my revenge on a certain backstabbing actor I once worked with. I can’t deny that Scott has a lot in common with that treacherous lug, but he was also inspired by an actor I’ve never met, a guy with a big, uncontrollable mouth and an insatiable appetite for pleasures of the flesh. This Rabelaisian thespian flamed out quickly and disappeared from sight, but wherever he is, I hope he knows that aging TV writers still talk about his exploits when they’re gathered around the campfire at night.
After seeing the way I abuse Scott in the name of art, the natural reaction may be to think I hate actors. Actually, I only hate certain actors. There are others I think the world of and consider myself lucky to have had them bring the words I wrote to life. Gary Cole was the North Star of my favorite TV gig, Midnight Caller, on and off camera, a wonderful actor who set the tone for the entire production with his unfailing professionalism. I didn’t have a happy experience on Reasonable Doubts, but I’d gladly go to war alongside Mark Harmon any time. (But not his co-star, Marlee Matlin, no, not ever.) Jonathan Banks, on Wiseguy, was the first actor I felt I was in tune with; my only regret is that I couldn’t repay him by getting a series we discussed – about a sports writer, no less – on the air so he could star in it. Jim Beaver was just beginning to realize what a fine character actor he could be when we crossed paths on Reasonable Doubts; it’s a thrill to see the great work he’s doing now and a pleasure to still call him a friend. Lest you think I lump all actresses with the aforementioned Ms. Matlin, allow me to pay tribute to the incredible Lucy Lawless, without whom Xena would never – I mean never – have entered the zeitgeist and I would still be out knocking on doors, begging for hack work.
Acting may seem glamorous when people are giving great performances or picking up awards or posing for the cover of Vanity Fair, but the reality is something else entirely. It hit me the first time I saw a casting session, with actors lining the hallway, some sitting, some standing or pacing, waiting for their three minutes in front of the producers, going over their lines and, for all I knew, praying they got the part they were up for because they might not work again all year. The anxiety was palpable, even painful. And I say that knowing they accept it as part of the career they’ve chosen – but, Jesus, seeing people who run the risk of rejection day in, day out really does something to you.
So I confess that even though Scott is a walking, talking sphincter, I couldn’t help feeling sorry when I sent him to a disastrous casting session. He encounters a bigger egomaniac than he is, realizes he doesn’t have a prayer of getting the part, and faces a battery of producers so busy eating lunch they probably wouldn’t bother to call 911 if he set himself on fire. Poor son of a bitch, right? For ten seconds, maybe. Then I went back to hating him. That’s how big an asshole he is.
BB: I think the book has sly humor throughout. The one recurring bit – and I don’t know if this was intentional or not – was that all the major characters seem to get stuck in L.A. traffic at one point or another. I thought that was a very good touch and very Angeleno.
JS: You just won yourself all the In-N-Out burgers you can eat. You found some humor in the book. I knew I put it there somewhere. At least I thought I did until I read my first reviews (one pro, one con) and saw that they both regarded the book as humorless. How, I wondered, could they say something like that if they paid any attention at all to the goofy thoughts that run through Scott’s head? Or to some of the tales the girls tell about their clients’ predilections? (The one involving chocolate cream pies still cracks me up every time I think about it.) Most of all, how could they miss the jokes about traffic? Traffic is the funniest thing in L.A. unless you’re stuck in it, and then the joke is on you, sucker.
The only time DuPree seems truly powerless is when he’s on his way to the showdown and he gets stuck on Olympic Boulevard at rush hour. And what does he do then? He starts thinking about what a great cross street Olympic was before all these cars started clogging it up. When he was a kid, you could take it to Westwood from downtown in something like twenty minutes. It’s the kind of thing you expect a stockbroker or a UPS driver to be thinking about. You don’t expect it from a prison-certified prince of darkness. But that’s life in L.A. Even sociopaths have to make concessions when they get behind the wheel.
BB: There are a lot of details – restaurants, bars, stores – that are specific to L.A. Did you consciously try to root your story in time and place?
JS: Your question takes me back to all the Southern writers I’ve read and admired – not just Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor and Eudora Welty, but the wonderful artists they passed the torch to, like Ron Rash, Tom Franklin, Clyde Edgerton, and those departed giants Larry Brown and Harry Crews. They wrote with a sense of place that made you see the kudzu enveloping whole houses, and smell the moonshine cooking, and hear Hank Williams and Bill Monroe on the Opry as you bounced down a rutted road in your daddy’s pick-up truck.
My life never generated anything quite like that, even when I was chasing down stories about cops and politicians and local characters as a general assignment reporter at the Baltimore Evening Sun. But Baltimore was as close as I came to understanding a city because I was out in one neighborhood or another almost every day, seeing how people lived and listening to how they talked and trying to get their stories down right. When I wrote about sports in Washington, D.C., Chicago and Philadelphia, I never had a chance to know them as well. I went to the ballparks, stadiums, arenas and gyms, and I went to the airports, and that was about it. I had a much higher profile than I’d had in Baltimore, but my experiences were limited to a finite number of venues.
By the time I returned to Los Angeles in 1986 – I was born here and left when I was thirteen – I was too busy trying to make the transition to screenwriting to worry about a sense of place. But I was still writing short essays for GQ about anything that came to mind, and my subjects tended to be local, like the city’s greasy spoons, the kind of shoes male Angelenos do and don’t wear, and McCabe’s Guitar Shop, where I both took lessons and saw everyone from Doc Watson to the young Lucinda Williams perform. So one day someone told me he liked the way I write about L.A. and it brought me up short. Do I write about L.A.? Well, yes, I guess I do.
I may have found my own sense of place unwittingly, and it may not be as vivid or deeply felt as that which Southerners possess, but at least it exists. In writing A Better Goodbye, I wanted to paint as vivid a picture as possible of the neighborhoods where the story took us even though I occasionally took liberties with place names. There is, for instance, no Paisano Groceries, where Nick gets held up in the parking lot, nor is every Latino name on Highland Park’s main drag accurate. But when the story shifted to downtown, I didn’t tinker with the name of the Pantry, L.A.’s legendary twenty-four-hour-a-day steak house. Why jump between the real and the imagined? Let’s call it poetic license. It sounds so much nicer than creative indecision.
The year I chose was 2003 because we were still feeling the reverberations of 9/11. It’s one of the reasons Nick gets laid off as a baggage handler at LAX, and he’s soon behind on his rent and desperate to keep a roof over his head. He lives on Beloit Avenue, which was then on the other side of a tumbledown wire fence from the 405 Freeway and was then a stretch of modest apartment buildings. Perhaps the most modest of all was the oleander-shrouded hovel where I lodged Nick in a shoebox one-bedroom apartment. Today, if you drive on Beloit, you’ll see handsome new apartment buildings on one side of the street and a tall brick wall to muffle the freeway noise on the other.
A different version of gentrification has come to Highland Park. In the days I’m writing about, there were still warring street gangs there and the neighborhood was considered, rightly, a blue-collar Latino stronghold. Back then, only young couples long on pioneer spirit rolled the dice and bought old homes in need of renovation. Now it’s L.A.’s new hot neighborhood and every day is a symphony featuring hammers and power saws. Everyone calls it progress except the residents who were displaced.
BB: You can see Elmore Leonard’s influence in this book. Was that something you were aware of when you were writing it?
JS: Every writer is a product of his influences. You take your life experiences and all the novels, short stories and, in my case, great journalism you have read and admired, and you throw everything in a blender and see what kind of a mess you have. Then you start weeding out the things that don’t work for you, and you begin saying things your way. Sooner or later your voice emerges. In Leonard’s case, I’m sure he read Zane Gray, Louis L’Amour and Max Short before he started writing Western novels in his own particular way. When he turned to crime fiction, his influences were as varied as George V. Higgins, whose novels were borne by pitch-perfect hard-guy dialogue, and the legendary sports writer W.C. Heinz and the otherwise forgotten Richard Bissell.
What I tried to guard against in A Better Goodbye was mimicking Leonard’s writing style. He can be very seductive that way. If you read his books closely, you’ll see that he constructed his sentences so distinctively that only a fool would try to imitate him. Diagram one sometime – you’ll see what I mean. Where Leonard’s influence does show the most, I think, is in the way I set up the story, with Nick and Jenny trying to outwit DuPree and Scott and none of them being what I’d call brilliant, even Jenny, whose smarts come from books, not the streets or the thug life. And, of course, Onus DuPree Jr.’s name is most definitely an homage to Leonard, whose cool bad guys always had a cool monicker.
But the story I told is much darker than what Leonard made his specialty. There was usually an almost genial quality to a lot of his crime novels; if his characters weren’t in on the joke, then the joke was on them. Scott, the actor turned pimp, is the only character in my novel who gets that kind of treatment. Leonard, on the other hand, could fill a book with characters like him. It’s one of about a million reasons why Leonard’s crime novels went down so smoothly. There is, for example, a moment in Unknown Man #89, which is one of my favorites, when the chief villain tells his henchman to throw some poor sap out a hotel-room window. The henchman says something like, “How far down you want him to go?” And the villain says, “Oh, all the way. Might as well.” That’s quintessential Leonard – I laugh every time I think of it.
A Better Goodbye became truly my own when I diverged from his influence by making Nick more haunted and complicated that any Leonard hero I can recall. I wasn’t writing a mystery; I was doing a character piece that hewed as close to literary fiction as it did to noir. To light my path, I turned to James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss and any number of James Lee Burke’s crime novels. But most of all, there was Fat City, Leonard Gardner’s classic boxing novel Fat City. Gardner’s characters existed in a bleak, unforgiving world, and that was the kind of world I wanted to inflict on Nick and Jenny. They were lost souls just trying to live another day in a city that chews up people like them.
Life is rarely that flinty and elemental for Elmore Leonard’s characters; they’re too busy trying to scam each other. My characters don’t know the meaning of scam; they’re forced to confront whatever life throws at them no matter how grave a danger they face. Like Nick says when someone threatens to kill him: “What if I told you don’t care?”
BB: You once told me that when you’re writing for the screen, you want to get into a scene as late as possible and get out as soon as possible, to get right to the heart of the action. Did you use the same approach with your novel?
JS: I think novels call for a different approach, at least some of the time. On the screen, whether you’re writing a one-hour episode of TV or a two-and-a-half hour movie, time is of the essence. As audiences have become increasingly sophisticated, writers don’t need to fool around with, say, an airplane landing in New York to show that the hero is there now. More important, screenwriting has become increasingly elliptical. Just think of all the scenes in The Wire that were probably only a half-page long, with maybe a line or two of dialogue, and yet they were as beautifully written as they were economical.
Novels are a different proposition, or so it seems to me as both a first-time novelist and an unschooled one. All I really know about novels is that I wrote one and was fortunate enough to get it published. Having had that experience, I reveled in the luxury of time that novels provide. Or maybe it’s the illusion of time. Whatever, you’re not writing in the middle of the page the way you are with a screenplay. You’re writing margin to margin, which gives you room to explore the inner life of characters. You can have a character driving to a conference on gun control while he’s thinking about an incident with a gun he was involved in twenty years earlier. You don’t have the same ability to jump around in time that way in screenwriting unless you do a flashback, and flashbacks weren’t considered cool when I worked in Hollywood. Neither, in a lot of cases, was backstory. People were always lavishing praise on movies where the characters had no backstory to speak of. It was an approach that could work brilliantly on the screen (Eastwood’s Spaghetti Westerns), and sometimes on the page, too (the Parker novels that Donald Westlake wrote as Richard Stark). But I still prefer the idea of finding out something about the characters I’m being asked to invest in emotionally.
In A Better Goodbye, Nick, Jenny, Scott and DuPree all come at the reader in roundabout fashion. Each of them has an introductory chapter that lets us know who they are and what they’re about. I hope I didn’t abuse the privilege, but I wanted them to have room to breathe. It was an approach I went back to again and again over the course of the book. But I changed pace in other scenes, making them short and punchy because that added to their impact and kept the story moving. That’s where the point of entry in a scene comes into play. You start at the top and start whittling away what Elmore Leonard called the things nobody reads. Once they’re out of the way, you can get down to what the scene is about.
BB: So, a noir for your first novel begs the natural follow-up question: What’s next?
JS: Another novel. I want to see if lightning can strike the same writer twice. But my next one won’t be noir or anything close to it. The setting is Los Angeles once again, but this time it will be the L.A. where I spent my childhood in the late 1940s and early 50s. The story is about someone who lived a fascinating life without realizing it until it was behind him. I’ve been thinking about this one for the past few years, trying to figure out a structure to hang things on, and I think I’ve finally come up with something that works. Lately I’ve started hearing my characters talk, and I’d like to know them better. The only way to do that is to write. So, if you’ll excuse me…
Dig this excellent Vox piece by Dennis Perkins on the death of the video store (and you can substitute record store or even bookstore here):
In the last days of the store, daily life at the store got pretty intense. Longtime customers were bereft. We tried to comfort them, explaining how our owner had ensured that our whole collection would soon be available at the public library — for free, even! It didn’t help much. Almost to a one, they had the same reply: “But you won’t be there to help us.”
That was flattering and sad, and ultimately all we could do was agree: Yeah, we wouldn’t be there. There were tears and gifts and genuine concern (not unfounded) about what my coworkers and I would do to survive, a phenomenon both touching and illustrative of how identified we were with the role we played in their lives. A great video store is built on relationships, in some cases relationships that had gone on for years. Our customers were losing the people who’d helped shape their movie taste, who’d steered them toward things we knew they’d like and away from things they didn’t know they’d hate. We were losing the people that we, in our small way, had been able to help. We were all grieving the loss.
Over the years, we’d come to know our customers’ tastes, their pet peeves, and their soft spots. Our experience and movie expertise helped us make informed, intuitive leaps to find and fulfill entertainment needs they didn’t even always know they had. I’ve had parents hug me for introducing their kids to Miyazaki and The Iron Giant. Nice old ladies have baked me cookies for starting them off on The Wire. People knew they could come in with the vaguest description — “This guy has an eye patch, and I think there’s a mariachi band” — and we’d figure out they were looking for Cutter’s Way. Other times, they’d take a recommendation for Walking and Talking and come back saying, “Just give me everything Nicole Holofcener’s ever done.” If someone asked me for a great comedy, my first question was invariably, “What’s one comedy you’ve seen that you think is hilarious?” I’ve spent 20 minutes refining exactly how scary was too scary when picking out a horror movie. It’s a skill set you develop, a sensitivity to just the right vibrations of interest and aversion.
[Photo Via: Carey Martell]
I’ve been reading through Joy Ride, John Lahr’s recent anthology of theater criticism and personality profiles. In the introduction, he has this to say about his editor at The New Yorker, Deborah Treisman:
But, short or long, the mind-meld never lost its thrill. On the edited page, you are still you, but somehow brighter, clearer, smoother, almost glamorous. You words dip and swing with their proper music; your hard-won meanings land with their intended clout. No wonder the relationship feels so intimate and joyous. You are being given the greatest of gifts: to be your best self in print.
This is so true and when you’re lucky enough to work with an editor like this it is something to be savored. I love that Lahr was generous enough to point this out.
[Photo Credit: Graham Turner]
If you enjoy long non-fiction writing may I suggest The Sunday Long Read, a carefully-curated weekly newsletter by Don Van Natta and Jacob Feldman.
The latest included a link to Scott Price’s recent SI profile of Brian Cashman.
Never had a basement, never had an attic, only an apartment where I forever had static.
Check out this terrific 2-part NPR interview with Extra P.
[Photo Via: Mass Appeal]
Nice chat with the Wood Man over at Vanity Fair:
Sam Fragoso: You’re more prolific than most people.
Woody Allen: But prolific is a thing that’s not a big deal. It’s not the quantity of the stuff you do; it’s the quality. A guy like James Joyce will do just a couple of things, but they resonate way beyond anything I’ve ever done or ever could dream of doing.
Would you say your quality, in spots, dipped because of the quantity?
It always [has]. When you start out to make a film, you have very big expectations and sometimes you come close. When I did Match Point, I felt I came very close. But you never get that thing that you want. You always set out to make Citizen Kane or to make The Bicycle Thief and it doesn’t happen. You can’t set out to make something great head-on; you just have to make films and hope you get lucky.
Have you considered scaling back, making a film every few years?
It wouldn’t help. It’s not that I feel, “Oh, if I had more time or more money, I could make this better.” It’s coming to terms with the shortcomings in one’s own gift and one’s own personality.
What are your major shortcomings?
I’m lazy and an imperfectionist. Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese will work on the details until midnight and sweat it out, whereas for me, come 6 o’clock, I want to go home, I want to have dinner, I want to watch the ballgame. Filmmaking is not [the] end-all be-all of my existence. Another shortcoming is that I don’t have the intellect or the depth or the natural gift. The greatness is not in me. When you see scenes in [Akira] Kurosawa films … you know he’s a madman on the set. There would be 100 horses and everything had to be perfect. He was crazy. I don’t have any of that.
Thought you couldn’t get enough of Joe Gould. Here’s a good piece by Jill Lepore in the week’s New Yorker.
[Photo Credit: Culver Pictures]
Thanks to the essential weekly newsletter, The Sunday Long Read (compiled with taste and care by Don Van Natta Jr. and Jacob Feldman), I found Alex Bilmes’ excellent British Esquire interview with Paul McCartney:
ESQ: Was fame all it was cracked up to be, when you found it?
PM: It sort of was really, yeah. Because part of what it’s cracked up to be is difficult as well as great. They’d warned that. I remember making a very conscious choice: “OK, we’re getting really famous now, you’ve got to decide, whether or not to go for it.” For some reason Marilyn Monroe came into my mind. Like: this could be horrible. It was actually after a trip to Greece. We weren’t famous in Greece, and I’d hung out with the hotel band and was chatting to them: “I’m in a band, too, you know? We’re called The Beatles.” And I got a glazed look from them. I thought, “This is OK, if the fame gets too much we can always come to Greece.” Then, of course, the next year it was like, “Oh, no, you’re famous in Greece, too. Oh, God.” And I remember thinking, “Do you want to do this or don’t you?” And it was, “I like it too much to stop.”
ESQ: Some people struggle greatly with being famous. It screws them up. You seem to have taken to fame with a certain amount of ease. You embraced it.
PM: I think to some degree that’s true. What happens is, if your life goes wrong, like with the breakup of The Beatles, then fame is a nightmare because you can’t escape it, and you’ve created it. That’s when the difficulty kicks in. But what you’re saying is, some people it kicks in anyway, even if they’re doing all right.
ESQ: They can’t handle the attention.
PM: I don’t mind that. I have a joke with my daughter Mary: sometimes I won’t be in a great mood and we’ll go somewhere and the people will be all over me and she’ll turn to Nancy and say, “He likes a bit of adulation. It cheers him up,” and the thing is, yep, that is true. All my life I’ve been trying to win a school prize or trying to do OK in an exam or trying to get a good job. I’ve always been trying to do something where people go: you’re good. When you get it, it seems a shame to me to go, oh, shit. To me it’s like, this is what I wanted. I do like it, I must say. The attention’s never really bothered me. I’ve always thought, “OK, you’re famous, you’ve chosen that path. You can’t blame anyone else.” As long as you’re enjoying it that’s good. And when it goes wrong you’re just going to have to deal with it.
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Here’s a treat for you. From our pal Mark Jacobson comes a 1990 Esquire profile on Jackie Mason. Originally titled “Enough with the Resurrections, Already!” the story appears here with the author’s permission.
As the stretch limo barrels through the bleak winter light up Route 17, Jackie Mason knifes his stubby fingers through the climate-modulated air. “You must be some kind of putz! That is the most idiotic thing I’ve heard in thirty years!” Jackie assails. “Why do you think if a Jewish girl has a big nose she immediately cuts it off? An Italian girl or a gentile from Wyoming, if she has a little extra nose, she won’t slice it off in a second! You think it’s an accident that Jewish girls have more nose jobs?”
“Maybe it’s a generational thing,” I meekly riposte.
Mason rolls his milk-blue eyes. “One jerk-off remark after another! Oh… because you’re so young and I’m so old, I don’t know what I’m talking about? Schmuck! My whole life is chasing twenty-five-year-old girls!” Mason appeals to the others in the pseudoplush vehicle. “You! What do you think?” he queries the radio announcer. “How about you?” he polls the squirrelly insurance purveyor. Assent is immediate, unanimous: To banish a Jewish girl from Bloomingdale’s makeup counter is tantamount to plunging a nail file into her heart. Jackie is right, I am wrong. Mason raises his puff palms to the ceiling. “See!” Case closed. Then he crams a cracker into his mouth, follows it with a grape, and he’s ready for the next topic of discussion.
That’s how it is with Jackie. If you are exhibiting putzlike behavior, entertaining a schmuck concept pertaining to, say, the quality of an Italian restaurant or the relative hand speed of certain prizefighters, or—God forbid—revealing the pathetic liberal tendencies of a typical Jew wussy regarding personages like Jesse Jackson, Jackie is more than willing to sever these woeful afflictions from your person with his howitzering wit. He’s not crazy about the color of your tie either. He doesn’t have to know you very well to dispense these opinions; Jackie’s a gnomish Übermensch, his commentary is universal, available and applicable to all. Once, he buttonholed Strom Thurmond in the Senate dining room and spared the antique former segregationist no quarter on the subject of “underage women.” But Jackie would have done the same to a bum in the street. Populist to the core, he plays no favorites.
The first time you meet him, perhaps backstage, after a show, his shirt off, loose white skin on his tiny, vaguely shaped chest filmed with sweat, Jackie rotates his globular head on an invisible neck, rocks back on his heels, looks you up and down. Are you for me or against me? is the question. The answer is: Who cares? You can be friend for life and he’ll still call you up in the middle of the night to tell you what garbage your dreams are.
With Jackie, there’s always something mies going on. A tumult. People he’s not talking to. Bridges left burned and blown apart like the one over the River Kwai. Today he’s calling one deli owner a “little Hitler” because he wouldn’t give him an extra pickle; tomorrow he’ll be saying another proprietor is a “Mussolini” because he gave him too many pickles. Forget the third place, he’s suing them, or are they suing him? Edgy self-destruction is a recurring theme in Jackie’s remarkable career. How many other entertainment figures have managed, within the space a single decade, to be banished from the big-time airwaves for allegedly giving Ed Sullivan the finger on live national television and to be shot at for repeated public razzing of Frank Sinatra, in Vegas no less. In Miami Beach, a large man warned him to lay off Frank, then broke his nose and crushed his cheekbones. But did that stop Jackie from claiming, in his act, that Ol’ Blue Eyes put his teeth in a glass before he mounted Mia Farrow? You don’t know Jackie.
That Jackie! Can’t accuse him of ducking anyone. Fools may rush in, but they eat Jackie’s dust. He’s around sixty now, but time hasn’t dulled his boyish impulsiveness one bit. This fact was made clear in the 1989 New York mayoral election. Suddenly back from show-biz oblivion, a homegrown Prince of the City due to his Tony Award-winning one-man show, The World According to Me—which he will reprise in October as Jackie Mason: Brand New—Jackie proceeded to embroil himself in much tsores. Acting as Republican Rudolph Giuliani’s “honorary campaign manager,” he was quoted as calling eventual winner David Dinkins, who is black, “a fancy schvartzer with a moustache.” Closely following the racially motivated murder of a black teenager in the nearly all-white section of Bensonhurst, l’affaire du schvartzer dominated the tabloid pages for weeks, sparking much contention, scholarly and otherwise, as to the exact connotation of the Yiddish word (which means literally, black, but is often used in a far more pejorative sense). Under fire, Giuliani, a stern but tongue-tied former D.A., courted jocular Jackie in hopes of winning the pivotal Jewish voting block, unceremoniously jettisoned the comic from his campaign.
Several weeks after this, episode, Jackie’s TV show, Chicken Soup, his supposed “breakthrough” into every gentile’s living room, was canceled. Did the schvartzer business kill the program? inquiring minds wanted to know. To paraphrase the old Yiddish joke, it didn’t help. But really, the show was a turkey, incongruously paired opposite the bulky British earth mother Lynn Redgrave, Jackie tried to affect a schmaltz-dripped Mr. Rogers, all the while kvetching he “hated every moment” of his supposed “breakthrough,” that working on the series was like “being in a gulag.”
* * * * *
“No-good Nazi bastards!” Jackie Mason blurts, nonsequiturously, as the limo whizzes past familiar signposts: LIBERTY. MONTICELLO. SOUTH FALLSBURG. We’re headed for the Pines Hotel. Not too long ago, along with Grossinger’s, the Concord, the Nevele, and dozens of others, the Pines was one of the top-line Alhambras of the Borscht Belt, that idyll-with-pastrami summer world that city-choked Jews built ninety miles from New York, in the Catskill Mountains. Now, however, Grossinger’s is gone, bulldozed for condos. Many others met similar fates. To make it these days, several of the remaining Catskill hotels try to represent themselves as swinging-singles spots, using ads with blond (gentile) bathing beauties as come-ons.
As he will, Jackie blames his coreligionists for the demise of “the mountains.” “They think of the Catskills and go: ‘Too Jewish.’ So they say there’s nothing to do there. They go to an island instead. ‘I went to an island,’ they brag, ‘it was so wonderful, there was nothing to do.’ In the mountains nothing is a calamity, but on an island it’s paradise.” Then, with an unexpected exhale of resignation, Jackie looks out the tinted window. It’s “off-season,” true, but South Fallsburg has the mournful look of one of those towns forgotten now that it’s moved off the main road. “What a dump this place has become,” Jackie reflects.
When he first started as a comic back in the late 1950s, Jackie spent summers in “the Jewish Alps,” doing his fledgling act amid indifferent stints as “social director,” a thankless task he describes as “trying to get Jews out of lawn chairs, an impossibility.” Then, later, after the Sullivan “finger” incident, when mainstream club bookers and television producers wouldn’t touch him due to his reputation as “a filthy comic,” Mason returned. In the goyim-inflected world of the cathode ray, he was an outcast, a pariah. But in “the mountains,” he was welcome. He played everywhere. Jews would always laugh at his famous routines, like the one about the doctors (“Crooks, every last one of them! If they’re not, why are they wearing a mask? And gloves? To hide the fingerprints! You ever wonder why you can’t read the prescription? It’s a code, for the pharmacist. It says, ‘I got my money, you get yours!’”).When he said his family was wrecked in the stock-market crash—“A broker jumped out the window, fell on my father’s pushcart”—he got howls.
As the limo pulls into the Pines driveway, there’s a stir. Maybe the hotel isn’t what it used to be, maybe the legendarily copious food now tastes as if it were hijacked from a dozen airplanes, and the “nightclub” looks like a tatty high school auditorium done up for a Las Vegas night; none of that matters. Tonight there’s an electricity, like the time Eddie Fisher first came up on stage, or Jerry Lewis or a hundred others nervy enough to push themselves to the front of the line and say, “Look at me, not him.” Tonight you could close your eyes and believe you saw Marjorie Morningstar flit across the linoleum dance floor. Tonight is special. Jackie Mason is headlining!
And they come, the “regulars,” faces from a hundred bar mitzvahs, from a thousand photos snapped on Grand Concourse, or in Brooklyn, on Eastern Parkway, before those great boulevards “changed” and people speaking Spanish and playing loud radios took over the lobbies and subway stations. A liver-marked man wearing white shoes says he met Jackie in Atlantic City, a red-rinsed lady remembers him from Eden Roc in Miami. “I saw your act at the Concord before you were anyone,” says one person. “I saw you at Grossinger’s even before that,” another one injects in the spirit of vicious oneupmanship. “At Raleigh’s in 1965!” “In Chicago in 1977!” Then come the pictures. Children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren are pushed under Jackie’s bulbous nose.
“Never fails,” Jackie grouches, later, about the picture pushers. “They’re on me, like a pogrom. Do they think I want to look at the two-year-old kid, naked, upside down on a rug? Who is this two-year-old to me? You got a picture of an eighteen-year-old girl, show me that!” But Jackie doesn’t say that to the picture pushers. He smiles, signs autographs, chats, tumles. Suddenly there’s another Jackie, a gracious, accommodating man emerging from beneath the bluster. It is not an act. True, Jackie remains ready to attack at any moment, tell anyone they are a putz, a moron, a scumbag. But not these people. These people love Jackie Mason. And, down deep, he loves them. After all, he eats what they eat, remembers what they remember, thinks what they think. And they’re happy he’s here, because now, at least for tonight, things will be as they once were.
* * * * *
A few days later, over blintzes in a New York coffee shop, I bring up my reminiscences of the Ed Sullivan incident. Reflexively, Jackie’s hackles rise, his gaze congeals to a bale. This is no surprise. Even though Jackie’s sworn version of the celebrated “You got a finger for me, I’ve got a finger for you” incident has been “proven” to be accurate (on a Barbara Walters 20/20 segment no less—from the tape you can see Mason was mad at Sullivan, but at no time did he extend a middle finger), it is clear the comedian hasn’t completely distanced himself from the most paroxysmal moment of his tempestuous career. “I blame the Jews,” Jackie blurts, two and a half decades later. “The next day every Jew said they saw me do a filthy gesture. There was no filthy gesture. But it made them happy to see a big man wiped out.”
Leaving aside the subtext of this archetypal TV moment—that is, while it would have been impossible to misconstrue someone like Bob Hope, or George Jessel, or even some patent “wild man” like Don Rickles giving the all-powerful Ed Sullivan the finger, the notion of a pushy mocky like Jackie Mason doing it was perfectly believable—I decide to take another tack. “I bet the Sullivan thing was your biggest break at least in the long run.”
That gets Jackie going. His doughy face blushes, his fireplug body rises like a blocky hovercraft above the blintzes, and he’s pacing around the deli. Elderly waiters carrying cups of hot coffee are forced to perform Pirouettes to dodge the bantam star. “Schmuck! How could something that loused up my career for twenty-five years be my biggest break? What kind of morbid bastard are you?”
Actually, I was only trying to help. As Jackie has said, “A Jew assumes every question is answerable, except he’s just not smart enough to know what that answer is.” For Jackie, at least since his “overnight success” on Broadway, the question has been, “Why now? Why, after doing the same thing I’ve been doing for thirty years, should I be a hit?”
Consider, for instance, the historical perspective: 1956, after all, when Jackie Mason first began telling jokes for money at the Pearl Lake Hotel, in Parksville, New York, was another time altogether. Wood-encased Philcos had begun to figure in the furniture scheme of Bronx apartments alongside the plastic-covered sofas, but the Tube hadn’t yet centerpieced itself as the arbiter of American social life. Many of the great Jewish comics, like George Burns, Jack Benny, and Groucho Marx, had already crossed over, regimmicking their well-honed personas to accommodate the new medium. Others, like Milton Berle, Ernie Kovacs, and Sid Caesar, with their most prominent writers, people like Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, were more instrumental in orchestrating the coming idea of a nationwide spectacle. Then there were the stand-ups, tightly wound hand wringers mutated from the line of traditional badchanim, or jesters, the self-deprecating shtetl merrymaker who had been a staple of Jewish cultural life since the Middle Ages. The comic problem confronting these new talkers was unique. On one hand, they worked in the shadow of the Holocaust and tended toward terminally paranoid, postbomb nihilism; on the other, they were living in America, where, for the first time, it seemed, a Jew didn’t have to keep his bags packed, ready to flee in the middle of the night. In America, a Julius Garfinkle might be a John Garfield; a Bernie Schwarz, Tony Curtis. And there was no reason a Yid couldn’t come springing out the suburban screen door like any Ozzie or Harriet. Amid this vertigo of social mobility, however, many Jews, at least those unable to shake a sense of differentness, found it difficult to separate the (Franz) Kafkaesque from the (Norman) Rockwellesque. Doom behind, assimilation ahead: The existential positioning proved endlessly seductive to the bundled anxieties of this new breed of badchanim. Filtering their impressions through the semisubversive urban bohemianism of the time, they couldn’t wait to tell you all about it.
Of these “candy store” comics (many of them actually hung out in candy stores, most prominently Hanson’s in New York), the stand-ups sought to lay claim to various territory. Shelley Berman was the cerebral neurotic, Mort Sahl the urbane political commentator, Buddy Hackett the eye-rolling buffoon, Woody Allen the psychoanalyzed nebbish-cum-bon-vivant. Then there was Lenny Bruce, who put a new spin on hip by attempting, among other things, the de-demonization of ten-letter words like cocksucker through constant repetition.
Jackie Mason was by far the most “Jewish” of these performers. Although much of his material was standard for the day—gibes at the Kennedys, astronaut jokes, et cetera—looking as he looked, talking as he talked, there was nothing else he could be.
Jackie was the most Jewish of Jewish comics because he was the most Jewish to start with. To fans, the saga is familiar: how Eli Maza, once an eminent rabbi of Minsk, in the Polish-Russian Pale, fled the cossack death squads and wound up, with a surrealness peculiar to the refugee’s journey, in Sheyboygan, Wisconsin, which is where Jackie, then Jacob, the youngest of six children, was born. The elder Maza’s idiosyncratic dream of establishing an enduring Orthodox Jewish congregation on the Midwest Tundra soon faded, and the family moved to the corner of Rutgers and Madison streets on New York’s Lower East Side. It was a lot like Poland on the Lower East Side in those days: “At least a Jew can be a Jew here,” Jackie’s father declared. It was a foregone conclusion that each of the four Maza sons would study in the Yeshiva and become great scholars of the Talmud. For Gabe, Joseph, and Bernie, it was easy. Jackie had other ideas. The only Maza child born in America, Jackie was a wholly different species of ethnic. He felt himself on the threshold of a great new font of information and emotion, a place with streets and smells all its own. This was somewhere to walk around in, to look forward to a future in, not the ephemeral product of a dark and mystic fever, where unfathomable codes could only be kept alive in the brooding minds of men without a country. It is some super-Yiddish amalgam of Golden Boy and The Jazz Singer, the sound of Jackie’s father’s voice thundering through the steamy, soot-caked tenement in the shadow of the Manhattan Bridge, screaming, “Learn! Study!” and Jackie going through the motions, reading the foreign scrolls, but all he wanted to do was buddy-up with sleekly dressed left-hookers like AI “Bummy” Davis and wisecrack with the cigarette-smoking neighborhood k’nakers.
“Every day my father would scream what an ignoramus I was,” Jackie recalls. “My brothers were so much more brilliant than me, he told me. How could I ever come up to them?” After the steady torrent of boom-box enunciation, Jackie becomes nearly inaudible when he talks about how he first became a cantor, and then a rabbi, just as his three brothers did. He led congregations in properly incongruous locales such as Latrobe, Pennsylvania—Arnold Palmer’s hometown—and Weldon, North Carolina. Jackie provides scant details on these episodes. “The past doesn’t interest me,” he says, looking away. “As for trying to remember everything that ever happened to a person, I see it as sick vanity that leads nowhere.” Not that any of this is a deep dark secret. There’s never been a Jackie Mason press kit that omitted the rabbi angle; you can be walking down the street with Jackie or sitting in a restaurant, and all of a sudden, apropos of nothing, he’ll break out in a hosanna. But this is something Jackie has yet to commit to easy shtick. “I did it all to make my father happy, and it was a very painful thing for me, because it was a complete fake. I wasn’t that person, I was someone else.”
He thought he was a star. He knew he was a star: Even at the Pearl Lake Hotel, moonlighting from his busboy job to open for third-rate tumlers who’d exhaust their mother-in-law gags in the first five minutes and subsist on humiliating members of the audience after that, Jackie was certain he was “one of the funniest Jews in the world.” He resigned the rabbinate, changed his name to Jackie Mason, told jokes full time. From then on, everything clicked. He played the big rooms, made the Jack Paar show, became Ed Sullivan’s favorite comic. Until that night….
His agent, friends, family told him to be patient, it would blow over. Soon enough he’d be back in the top clubs, back on the Tonight show. It didn’t happen that way. Even after Sullivan, who screamed he’d make sure the comic “never got on television again,” publicly apologized and asked Jackie back on his show, it didn’t blow over. Like Jackie says, the story was just too sweet; who wanted to believe Jackie Mason didn’t give Ed Sullivan the finger? Then it was into the late Sixties, a completely different dynamic was afoot, and the immigrant’s drama that Mason personified seemed faintly embarrassing, irrelevant.
He didn’t go broke. Recalling his “dead years,” Jackie says, “People would wonder if I was lying in a gutter, rattling a cup, when I was making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” But it wasn’t enough. He felt ostracized, an outcast once again. Forever branded as “too Jewish,” he longed to foist his rubber face upon the gentiles, to make them look at him. There were failed Broadway plays, misguided traveling road shows, abortive low-budget movies. The Stoolie, directed by pre-Rocky John Avildsen, a grimy allegory of a local loser, was Jackie’s art picture. It won obscure awards at brand-X film festivals, but, sans jokes, confused the fans who came to laugh, and was met with indifference by everyone else. Most of Jackie’s time in those days was spent trying to induce rich Jews to back his reentry into the big time. Some did not really have money, their own at least. Jackie knew he was walking the nether side, but that didn’t matter. Once, when he was down in Miami playing the Saxony Hotel, Jackie contacted Meyer Lansky, whose son-in-law Mason once utilized as a valet. He asked the myth-shrouded mob genius permission to play his life in a “fictionalized” feature film. Jackie produced the script. Lansky objected to a scene in which his character’s wife gives birth to a child with a clubfoot, then turns to the gangster and says, “This is God’s punishment for your sins,” prompting him to hit her. The film was never made. In 1976, Jackie, with his own money, rented out a decaying boxing arena in Queens, planning to showcase a Vegas-style revue. On opening night it rained. The roof leaked. Umbrellas were opened, but it didn’t help—the sound system didn’t work, no one could hear anything anyhow.
* * * * *
There is a passage in Jackie’s intermittently affecting “autobiography,” Jackie, Oy! in which Mason describes his rabbi father walking down a street on the Lower East Side. “I saw this tragic figure,” Jackie writes, “bent with loneliness, unable to earn enough to feed his family, always with secondhand food in his pocket and secondhand items on his back, taking what charity he could get. Someone gave him a dollar; someone gave him a candle. This tragic figure was my father.” Now Jackie says, “My father lived for an idea. The Talmud was everything to him. It was his life.” Hearing that makes you wonder how Jackie would feel if he saw himself coming out of the New York Deli, walking down 57th Street, wearing not secondhand garments but his usual expensive double-breasted suits and Dior ties. Indeed, there is a melancholy irony in the fact that forty-five years later, Jackie, in a very real way, has filled the role his father used to play for the fresh-from-steerage multitudes. Implicit in Eli Maza’s tirade for his youngest son to “learn” was the notion that he was the heir to a specialized, highly perishable kind of knowledge. Under constant assault from Nazis, cossacks, the relentless churn of the melting pot, and sheer forgetting, what Rabbi Maza knew was a link to another, deeper realm; people needed what he knew, needed to know he knew it. That’s how it is with Jackie, for, as with his father, it seems as if he exists for no other purpose but to deliver his message. Jackie’s message is the Joke.
You take away the Joke and Jackie ceases to exist. He makes a fortune, but doesn’t seem to care very much about money, except in the sense some “sick, phony fuck” might attempt to shyster him out of a nickel. In keeping with the ghetto legacy, he owns no property and doesn’t drive a car. He maintains very little of his former religious life. Aside from an aversion to shrimp (he can’t stand the idea of a fish with feet), he’s not kosher and doesn’t keep the sabbath. He is still close with his family, but says they’ve never really “understood” his life. His brothers—Bernie, the rabbi from Queens, and Joseph, a mohel who, people say, has circumcised half of north Jersey—come to his shows, but Jackie wonders if they “get it.” His manager, the ubiquitous and worshipful Jyll Rosenfeld, acts as his interface with most of the day-to-day humdrum. She picks out almost all his clothes and chose the furniture in the small, spare apartment Jackie has lived in for several years. Once, people say, there was a romantic attachment between the two, but now that’s over. Jackie’s never been married and almost certainly never will be; he’s not interested in children. This is one Jew, at least, who doesn’t seem to care if his line stops here and now. Sure, Jackie will give out his phone number to any blond shiksa under thirty, but as far as he’s concerned the real sex—National Enquirer—hyped paternity suits aside—is to land in front of a crowd and, in his typically embattled phrase, “fight for laughs.”
Laughs he gets. Jackie will lambaste you and call you a limp-wristed putz should you insinuate he is an artist. But of course that is what he is. In his knockabout style: he is a peerless master. Watching him get ready for a show is a trip. He sits in the corner of the room and davens. Knitting his blunt-end fingers through his reddish hair (my mother swears it used to be black), singing in muffled cantonal cadence, he might a well be leading a High Holy Day ceremony, but instead he’s going over a routine about how Leona Helmsley didn’t pay her taxes. Like a hoarding cabalist, he keeps everything in his head. Searching for rhythm—always rhythm—Jackie scans decades of ad libs, offhand remarks, set routines; he’s never said a line he doesn’t remember. You never know when it might come in handy. If something got screams in Vegas ten years ago, no reason it shouldn’t again. But you’ve got to move, stay current. Sure, people like the old favorites, but tell a Jew too many jokes he’s heard before, he’ll be demanding a discount, a refund, an extra ticket for his brother-in-law. So throw in some Donald Trump stuff, a riff about food fads—whatever turns up on CNN. This “neutral” material doesn’t work as well as the mighty Jew-gentile dichotomies, but it’s the flow that counts, the overall onslaught. Jackie will invent a joke on his way up the steps to the stage, juxtapose it to something he’s done for thirty-five years, and wham. Then the urge begins, the rising wave of a life’s work. The little arms gyrate, pumping like a cross between Pete Townshend’s windmill chord and a Navy semaphorist; Yiddishisms bat out the bilingual counterpoint, all of them whack-rolled home with loud, guttural shouts of “Eh? What! You won’t laugh, putz? Then take this! That!” It’s as if he’s on Goring’s neck, gnashing through the windpipe, demanding the laugh before the final gasp.
* * * * *
The package is undeniable, especially if you happen to be a Jew of a certain age. Although Jackie, who is strangely giant in England will often rate the effectiveness of a show by how much the gentiles laugh, he knows it’s the Jews who keep him in business. “I suppose you could say I represent something special to people,” he says, “that my comedy has an element of something that is more personal or more meaningful, more of a thing to them because of their background, or what their family represents, their history. It’s not just an appreciation for my jokes, but a real love in their hearts. You don’t know what you mean to my mother!… My father was saying your jokes when he passed away. It’s like they look at me and they see something in themselves they’re afraid they’re going to lose, or maybe they’ve already lost. I feel almost a desperation in their love for me.”
Because of Sullivan, he got frozen out of the culture, and while everything else got homogenized, he stayed the way he was, a Jew in amber. The personal diaspora he experienced after the Sullivan incident was really his salvation, I expound, his exile the key to his comeback. For even if it’s quite possible that the “finger” scene was an accident waiting to happen, that the Jackie Mason who defied his imposing father couldn’t wait to assault—and be crushed by an authority figure like Big Ed Sullivan, you can still imagine Jackie’s career going a very different way. It’s conceivable that, accent and all, he’d have been offered some lame Chicken Soup-type show in 1968, or 1974, and, with its success, been domesticated into a Hebrew version of Jimmie Walker, or a haimish Freddie Prinze. Jackie could have crossed over into a realm of mass cuddliness; who knows, he might have gone all the way to canonization as a Beloved Entertainer, in the manner of his great idol, Jack Benny. But that’s not what happened. He was kept out, branded “filthy” and/or “too Jewish,” barred from the trend of the past two and a half decades. In many ways, you can say, he stayed as he was in 1960, that in him you can still sense the same unresolved identity/assimilation conflict that made the stand-ups of his generation so compelling. Now, long after Lenny Bruce (who made himself into the half-mad Jewish Lear, reading his indictments from the stage) fell onto a bathroom floor with a needle in his arm, years past the time dozens of lounge-rat Shecky Greenes and Alan Kings have dissipated whatever marginal emotional force they once possessed, Jackie Mason remains to tell thee, full of spite and bile perhaps, but still a link to a brawnier, more expansive time, a living ethnosaur.
Truly, Jackie is one of a kind. This doesn’t mean that in terms of raw talent he exceeds Robin Williams or Steve Martin, or that you can’t find bigger laughs elsewhere. It’s just that Jackie has something the hundred haircut-intensive comics on HBO specials whose only background appears to be Saturday-morning television can never match, no matter how facile or “outrageous” they may be. How “outrageous” are they anyway? Would Andrew “Dice” Clay ever give Arsenio Hall the finger, even if half his act puts down blacks? Is he that ballsy, ready to put his real shit on the line? No way. We’re all brothers in the Business, bro. Indeed, next to Jackie, the work of Rodney Dangerfield, Mason’s great, hated rival (“a low-class bigmouth who can’t wait to louse me up on every street corner”), is reduced to a hilarious but ultimately gimmick-ridden and dispassionate series of one-liners. That’s because Jackie Mason is from somewhere. A specific somewhere—when he went to Israel, they didn’t buy the act, he wasn’t their kind of Jew. Jackie comes out of a singular, fleeting American experience. In this day and age, that is something to covet, even desperately.
* * * * *
That, more or less, is the good news. But it doesn’t stop there, for every ethnosaur has his flip side. What I mean is, after four or five nights in a row of hanging with Jackie and the gang, you can feel things begin to go blooey. In fact, you can feel yourself traveling…through another dimension…back to…a Brooklyn apartment with dark wood furniture, and there you are, standing with your older relatives, looking out a seventh-story window, down to a body below, a man sprawled across the asphalt, blood seeping from his ruined head…and you know…everyone’s wondering: Was it a Jew?
Jew-Jew-Jew: It’s such a Jewish thing. That’s how it is with Jackie. Sit with him and his crew of walk-around guys—the New jersey theater owner, the Long Island real estate magnate, the trumpet player who makes “real human voices” come out of his horn—and count how many times the word Jew comes up. You’ll hit triple figures before the second course. “Them and Us” is the theme. You try to dismiss the self-referentiality as typical of the exile to say every ethnic group does the same thing. But it wears you down. It freaks you out.
For many, much of the uneasiness they feel when confronted by Jackie Mason is exacerbated by the comedian’s recent status as a Public Hebrew. Since his comeback, Jackie, never one to know his place, has rebelled against the confining definition of “entertainer.” Now he’s a “spokesman.” In this mode, Jackie has become something of a regular on the Washington lecture-brunch-Bible-reading-schmooze circuit. He’s done fundraisers for senators like Rudy Bauschwitz of Minnesota and Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania. He pals around with Howard Metzenbaum. Frank Lautenberg, AI D’Amato, and Paul Simon are also friends. Given this mixed crew, Jackie’s own political views tend toward the eclectic. Although he now privately says he’s against settlement on the West Bank (Israel is the only issue he won’t touch onstage—the reaction of his core audience scares even him), he’s been an on-and-off supporter of the lunatic Meir Kahane, a vociferous racist. And even though Jackie spent a large portion of his World According to Me show knocking the Reagan administration, his “scrapbook” contains a note from Oliver North thanking Mason for inviting him to the comic’s Kennedy Center show. North had to decline, he said, because “as you know, I have been quite busy with the sentencing process.” When asked if it bothers him that several pols might see him as nothing more than a “house Jew” to worm money and votes, much in the fashion that Nixon used to drag Wilt Chamberlain around to show his “strength” in the black community, Jackie shrugs. “Politics is my hobby,” he says. “I like to see how these people operate. If they’re using me, I’m using them.”
Anyway, it’s municipal affairs that are really Jackie’s passion. New York is his town: A semiserious mayoral candidate in 1973, he likes to “participate in the life of the city.” He has written several columns for the Times op-ed page, most recently about his trip to Eastern Europe. Jackie saw no advantage in American freedom of the press, since “everyone in New York is afraid to go out to buy the paper.” It was the 1989 mayoral race in which Jackie really made a difference, though. In fact, some analysts are of the opinion that without Jackie’s now-infamous “fancy schvartzer” reference, the Republican Giuliani, who wound up losing by less than 3 percent in a town where Democrats represent more than 75 percent of registered voters, would have won. Bill Lynch, David Dinkins’s campaign manager and now a city deputy mayor, first attempts to downplay the effect of Mason’s comments, then offers a smile and allows, “You could say it was a turning point in the election.”
Others are less politic: They say it was the turning point, that Jackie’s crack and the uproar following it went a long way toward destroying Giuliani’s carefully constructed image as an unbiased crime fighter to whom color did not matter.
Mason’s schvartzer gaffe played right into the corrosive tension between the black and Jewish communities in New York; for many it was the perfect companion piece to Jesse Jackson’s similarly alienating “Hymietown” reference in the 1984 presidential campaign—both men casually uttered the fateful phrases to “friendly” newsmen and then claimed they never imagined the depth of the offense that would be taken. The unfortunately coiffed Giuliani could have avoided the whole snafu, however, if only he and his equally asleep-at-the-switch advisers had played a tape of Mason’s memorable performance at the 1988 Grammy Awards. Jackie managed to stop the show cold by telling jokes about blacks breaking into cars and white people lying on the beach attempting to turn black. Taken one at a time, none of the lines were particularly objectionable, but the sheer weight of them, one after another, told to a mixed, moderately hip crowd a lot more interested in Terence Trent D’Arby than Jackie Mason made for the kind of slow death only a truly bombing comic can generate.
Jackie will tell you he’s not a racist. He’ll say he didn’t mean anything by the schvartzer comment, that it only means black and what else do you call a black but black. He’ll even make you laugh trying to convince you of his innocence. When he starts in on the “Giuliani tsimmes,” describing how everyone was arguing about what he meant—“Did he say schvartza? Did he say schvartzo? Where did this word come from? Did it come from Russia? From Pittsburgh?”—it’s almost impossible to maintain a disapproving look. Much of his counterattack is launched against his Jewish accusers, the same “snooty intellectuals” Jackie has always felt saw him as “too Jewish,” a “vulgar sort of embarrassment who deals only in stereotypes.” For Mason, who has long claimed that the same types who sneer at Jerry Lewis will go crazy over the exact joke told by Woody Allen, this is a class issue, pure and simple, and he responds to it in his usual combative fashion. After the schvartzer incident, during a show at the Public Theatre, Jackie called Elie Wiesel, the famous Holocaust historian and a prominent Mason detractor, “a putz.” That really shook them up; in certain circles, giving Ed Sullivan the finger, even labeling David Dinkins a schvartzer, is one thing, but calling Elie Wiesel a putz is a whole other kettle of gefilte.
But you can tell, Jackie just doesn’t get it. To this day he insists the schvartzer comment was a joke, that he’s a comedian, nothing else. Despite the racially tense situation in the city and the presence of Roger Ailes, who invented Willie Horton for George Bush, as Giuliani’s media consultant, Jackie refuses to entertain the idea that the context in which his remark was made had anything to do with the reaction to it. It’s all unfair, he rails, another sandbag job like the Sullivan thing. Why don’t they talk about all the money he’s given to the NAACP, or write how he went to Selma in the 1960s? A day later, he’ll be riding in a limo through the South Bronx, telling you even if he was received at the Grammys “like Hitler at a bar mitzvah,” it had nothing to do with the content of what he said. “I stunk, that’s all. It wasn’t funny. I just looked at all those black faces and I froze. I lost my place, so I stunk.” Then, after swearing he’s played black places and “gotten screams” with the same material, he looks out the window and exclaims, “Look at how they live!” A couple of days after that, at Madison Square Garden to receive a special commendation as the “Mayor of Broadway,” as part of a special wrestling show the cops were putting on for handicapped children, Jackie bounds into the ring, looks out into the crowd of primarily minority kids in wheelchairs, lords his hands over his head like a champ, and shouts, “Only Jew in the house.”
That’s the wrench of being with Jackie. Everything you like about him is inextricably tangled with stuff you hate, things you wish got left at the door. And for me, that’s a deep thing, because if Jackie’s great value as a comic is being from somewhere, I’m from that same somewhere, to a large extent. Besides, I know that my grandmother, a Jew who was smuggled out of Romania in a potato sack by her father just ahead of the coming pogrom, would likely agree with Jackie Mason about most things. If she were alive today, she’d be threatened by blacks and others just the way he is. I’m sure of it. Once she lived at the corner of Franklin Avenue and Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. It was the greatest of treats to get to stay with her. My grandfather took me to baseball games at Ebbets Field. Carl Erskine pitched a no-hitter on my birthday one year. But then they tore down Ebbets Field, my grandfather died, and my grandmother couldn’t live on Eastern Parkway anymore or work in the Kameo children’s store, she was an old lady and all around her were young black people who made her afraid. I loved her, but it killed me, hearing her say things about blacks and Latinos, to know her fear was on the verge of something worse, and how all-consuming it was.
That’s why a guy like Jackie Mason can mess you up. He’s so much like those people I used to see on Passover, eating those flavorless crackers, speaking in foreign tongues. He’s a vicarious trip back to that evanescent shadow world, except he won’t allow you to bask in the unsullied nostalgic haze. He’s constantly shoving real darkness into your face. One minute he’s telling you Nelson Mandela is “a schmuck,” lambasting Tutu. The next you’re in a taxi buzzing down to Ratner’s, the ancient, faded dairy restaurant, and suddenly three hundred people are rising as one, screaming “Jackie! Jackie!” the matzo brei on the house, everyone telling jokes, and you’re thinking: This is fabulous. This is the Runyonesque New York I love, not the place worn to the nub by the yuppies and a grind of poverty and race hatred. And you know, it’s a problem, one of those conundrums Jackie claims a Jew must have the answer to except he’s not smart enough to think of it.
I tell Jackie this, and he just starts screaming. As far as he’s concerned, I’m just another one of those liberal-putz, self-hating, bleeding-heart Jews who don’t know which side their bread is buttered on. Giving “everything” away to the blacks is tonight’s topic. Jackie’s against it. “When’s the last time a Jew ever asked a black for a handout?” he demands. “Has a black ever given a Jew a quarter?”
“There are other people in the world besides Jews and blacks,” I counter.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he screams back. There is no winning. You have two alternatives: You either keep arguing, keep playing the game, or you tell him he’s pathetic and you can’t stomach his chauvinist bile, that it’s exactly the sort of shit your parents brought you up to understand as pernicious, evil. Then you can walk out, leaving him with the check.
Faced with that choice…I dunno…I stay. Maybe I stay because we’re having this fight in Kiev, a little hangout on the Lower East Side, and it’s 4:00 in the morning, and the place is packed with blacks and Latinos, and weirdos of all types, and one of them, a guy wearing a dress, with a hundred hospital bracelets around his wrist, is leaning over our table, and he smells like hell, but Jackie keeps talking to him, asking tender questions about the guy’s ravaged life. He does this, he says, because face-to-face, Jackie Mason might scream and yell at you, but he doesn’t have the heart to turn his back.
And maybe I stay because a few nights later we’re in a car, going to a synagogue in Queens. For weeks Jackie’s been “practicing” the new jokes he plans to use when he returns to Broadway in the fall. A shul is as good a place as any to practice, he says. A week before, he was down in Atlantic City, where he gets as much as $65,000 a show. But tonight, everything is free. The temple, you can tell, is not exactly flush. The president, who picks us up, is still wearing his car service chauffeur’s uniform. Jackie doesn’t care, $65,000 or nothing, it’s all the same to him, as long as he’s standing in front of an audience, “fighting for laughs.” Not that he’s pleased when we get to the shul. The neighborhood is “on the cusp,” the temple doesn’t even have enough money to buy the rabbi a house. Most of the richer congregation members have long ago moved to Florida. “Old Jews,” Jackie grouses as we get out of the car, “I can’t stand these old Jews. They don’t get the jokes, if they do they’re offended. What a waste of time this is!” He keeps complaining even as the rabbi, a small man in his seventies, comes over to shake his hand. Usually, the rabbi says, they have trouble getting a minyan, but tonight is different. Jackie Mason is here! Tonight, as many as fifty people might show up.
Then, it’s the same as always. Stooped, gray-haired men and women approach, bearing photos of grandchildren, great-grandchildren. “I’ve seen you before,” a woman says. “Everyone’s seen him before,” chides her husband. “Oy gevalt,” Jackie says. But then you can tell: He’s nervous. Getting ready to stand up in front of these broken-down Jews, in this broken-down temple, Jackie Mason, international sensation, is nervous. Soon, however, he’s in front of the tabernacle, wearing a yarmulke, telling his jokes, mixing the old ones with the new. “I’d like you to know this is the longest a Jew has ever sat still without a piece of cake,” Jackie says. “You have to watch out for Jews on cake. A Jew on cake is more dangerous than a gentile on crack any day.” Now Jackie’s happy. His fight plan is working; they like him. He sees the opening, so he pours it on, brings out the doctor routine, follows it with his number about Jews suing everyone. “A Jew wakes up in the morning and thinks, Who can I sue?”
When he’s on, there’s no mercy. You’ve got to give it up. I give it up. When we got to the temple, I realized I’d been there before, with my grandmother, after she’d moved away from Brooklyn. The temple’s right around the corner from where she used to live. She’d go there every once in a while and pray. I figure if she was sitting in that audience, she might be tough, because she was never an easy laugh, but eventually Jackie would get to her. He’d make her laugh. Should I do less?
I’m sure there are great lyricists out there today, but when you look at mainstream hip-hop, lyricism is gone. There are some artists out there that think they’re great storytellers, but they’re not. Nowadays there are certain things I don’t hear anymore from rappers: I haven’t heard the word “MC” in so long; I haven’t heard the word “lyrical.” A lot of rappers think they’re hardcore or say they’re from the streets and there’s that thing where they always say, “I live what I rhyme about, I rhyme about what I live.” But you don’t always have to do that. Because for me it’s not about telling the story — it’s about weaving the tale.
[Photo Credit: Frank Hoensch/Getty Images
I didn’t read Judy Blume when I was growing up but my twin sister sure did. I have a clear memory of her worn paperback covers for Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, and Blubber.
I like this passage:
“I’m a storyteller — you know what I mean — an inventor of people,” Blume said. “And their relationships. It’s not that I love the words — that’s not the kind of writer I am. So I’m not” — she made a furious scribbling motion with her right hand — “I’m not a great writer. But maybe I’m a really good storyteller.”
All writers are not created equal.
A producer who last year was toying with the idea of making a television series featuring my private detective Lew Archer asked me over lunch at Perino’s if Archer was based on any actual person. “Yes,” I said. “Myself.” He gave me a semi-pitying Hollywood look. I tried to explain that while I had known some excellent detectives and watched them work, Archer was created from the inside out. I wasn’t Archer, exactly, but Archer was me.
The conversation went downhill from there, as if I had made a damaging admission. But I believe most detective-story writers would give the same answer. A close paternal or fraternal relationship between writer and detective is a marked peculiarity of the form. Throughout its history, from Poe to Chandler and beyond, the detective hero has represented his creator and carried his values into action in society.
Many of Orwell’s books and his uniformly excellent essays feature, to one degree or another, passages extolling the quiet glories of nature: conscious respites from the grimmer landscapes of the author’s political explorations. For every bleak London slum or vile kitchen of a French restaurant, a prim, beloved garden. For every deadening trip into the suffocating dark of a coal mine, a journal entry hailing the beauty and the bounty of fruit trees Orwell planted with his own hands.
But his loveliest, longest, and, for those unfamiliar with this side of Orwell, his most unexpected hymn to nature’s wonders is a 1946 essay published under the misleadingly humdrum title “Some Thoughts on the Common Toad.” Here, in 1,600 words, all of the very best characteristics of Orwell’s essays are in evidence: his talent for launching, deftly and without preamble, into his theme; his matter-of-fact eloquence; his avoidance of cant; his empathy for the underdog; his wry humor; his reporter’s eye for the telling detail; his delight in elementary beauty.
Above all, however, the essay’s great strength and abiding charm reside in the evident pleasure Orwell takes not only in nature, but in sharing that appreciation with the reader. More so than in most of the man’s writings, one senses Orwell genuinely enjoying himself while crafting this particular piece.
“We live in a cluttered culture, a culture of information in which even our computers can’t tell us what’s worth knowing and what is merely cultural scrap. In such a society, we don’t have the experience of contemplative space, of the time or mood to engage a book of poetry or even read a novel. Who can achieve the unconscious-conscious state of the reader when everything is stimulation, everything is movement and information?”