Seems to me that if you want to make it as a writer, sometimes it’s good to have a story of your own, in addition to the one you’re peddling. Backstory sells, you see. I’m thinking, for example, of the legend of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, whose mother took the manuscript to well-known writer Walker Percy, leading to the debut novelist winning the Pulitzer Prize twelve years after his death.
A far less melancholy reversal of backstory can be found with the recent novel Bowl Of Cherries, by Millard Kaufman.
According to the book summary and further preliminary internet snooping, Millard Kaufman is a 91-year-old debut novelist who served in World War 2, co-created the near-sighted Mr. Magoo, and wrote the screenplay for classic movies like Bad Day At Black Rock. (If you haven’t seen Bad Day At Black Rock yet, please do both of us a favor: Finish reading this entry, then go rent, and watch, Bad Day At Black Rock. You will be made very happy.)
Yes, 91 years old and still writing strong. It’s not being patronizing to remark that the knowledge of the author’s age does in this case enhance the reading experience. This would have been a fun book without knowing such information, or if it had come from a much younger author, but knowing that it came from a nonagenarian is dazzling.
Kaufman writes with joy and energy. The enthusiasm is palpable; the words cascade onto the page, and bounce up against the narrative, giving the whole enterprise a happy momentum. The book is also thrillingly filthy. I had to look up nearly as many sexual expletives as ten-dollar vocabulary words while reading this book. I should hope to be at least half this naughty (and perceptive) when and if I reach that advanced age.
Anyway here’s the story, encapsulated: Fourteen-year-old boy genius Judd Breslau is kicked out of Yale and sent to work for an eccentric professor, who puts Judd to work, alongside a much older group of assistants, on a secretive project. While there, he falls in love with the professor’s beautiful daughter, which sends him on a several-year journey of increasing trouble, as is often an occupational hazard of falling in love with beautiful girls. Eventually, by a series of events best left to the reader’s own discovery, Judd winds up awaiting execution in an Iraqi prison constructed from excrement. And that’s where the narration begins, and from whence it backtracks.
It’s done with the lightest of touches, with satire and good humor, but it’s there, where the novel bumps up against current world events that the author’s own backstory seems to inform the writing style. Directly and indirectly, Bowl Of Cherries evinces the sadness that would have to be felt by any person who has lived long enough to experience both the bombing of
Now, that said: What does the title “Bowl Of Cherries” mean? I haven’t figured that one out yet, but I do so love that title. On a basic level, I’m reminded of that idea last expressed by Drew Barrymore’s character in Donnie Darko, that there are phrases like “cellar door” which are among the most agreeable and pleasant in the entire language. “Bowl Of Cherries” is a phrase like that for me. Closing the book and seeing that title on the front is the metaphorical cherry-on-top of the effect of reading it.
So there’s the rave. One might fairly ask, after all that praise: Is this a perfect first novel? No, the middle passages are just a little less intriguing than the front and rear, and the review quotes on the jacket oversell the adventure angle. (It would be misleading and/or out-of-context to sum up this comparatively modest picaresque as “Catcher In The Rye Meets Die Hard”.) The majority of the adventurousness lies not in the depicted events but in the writing itself.
One might also ask: Why mention this book on a movie website? No great reason – there’s no inevitably-disappointing movie adaptation upcoming, as far as I know, and the story has little to do with the author’s aforementioned work for film and television. But it’s a book well worth your time, so I thought I’d use this chance to do my part to modestly lift its profile and to recommend it sincerely.
For more information, and similarly warm reviews, go to http://www.mcsweeneys.net/books/bowlofcherries/.