I can hear the detractors rolling their eyes already: leave it to the cutesy tongue-in-cheekers at McSweeney’s to publish a debut novel by a 90-year-old man. You can put it on the shelf next to the book by Amy Fusselman that won a contest allegedly looking for a book about “electrical engineering on boats,” The novel Lemon which had 10,000 unique hand-drawn front covers, and the issue of the quarterly designed to look like a pile of junk mail. Either this outside-the-box thing is terribly exciting or painfully precious, depending on how cynical you’ve become and how long it’s been since your college graduation.
So Millard Kaufman might be a 90-year-old debut novelist, but that doesn’t mean he wasn’t already an acclaimed, accomplished writer. Kaufman had a long screenwriting career and was nominated for Oscars twice. He co-created Mr. Magoo. And although he didn’t actually write it, he was given screen credit as the writer of the seminal, unmatched Noir film Gun Crazy, as cover for the blacklisted Dalton Trumbo. I watched one of Kaufman’s films this week, Bad Day At Black Rock, which garnered Oscar nominations for both Kaufman and star Spencer Tracy. A train stops in a dusty desert town, a mysterious man disembarks, and begins asking uncomfortable questions to the leathery, tightlipped locals. They are all hiding something, and eventually the truth comes out: in the heightened emotional climate of the days following Pearl Harbor, a mob killed and torched the home of a Japanese-American rancher. “We were drunk,” one of the guilt-stricken participants confesses. “Patriotic drunk.”
Kaufman is a great chronicler of the hangover that follows a binge of Patriotic Drunk. And that is the subject of his goofy, rollicking, absurdist, bad-dream carnival ride of a novel, Bowl Of Cherries. You might expect a gentleman of his age and accomplishment to write something that takes place during his own glory years, or something transparently autobiographical. No way, not here. Bowl Of Cherries is the tale of teenage Judd Breslau. Abandoned first by his angry professor father and then by his poet mother, Judd is packed off to Yale, where he’s been given a scholarship he doesn’t deserve. Judd is quickly kicked out when he fails to distinguish himself as a scholar. His dissertation is “full of seepage.” (He’s more interested in finding uses for great-sounding words than in actual meaning.) “A host of favorite terms bounces around my mind, derived from half a dozen legitimate languages, melded into a kind of lobotomized esperanto so piss-elegant they self-destructed on the tongue into parody.”
Judd stumbles across a bathrobe-wearing benign kook named Phillips Chatterton, who has some crazy notions about the pyramids and sound waves. He offers Judd a place to live if he’ll help with Chatterton’s “research,” playing a tuba at a block of wood in the hopes that it will levitate. Judd accepts for one reason only: Nutty old Chatterton has a beautiful daughter, Valerie, and Judd figures that once he can get rid of her pesky boyfriend, he’ll have a shot.
Parsing the plot would be a fool’s errand. When we first meet Judd, he’s trapped in a prison in the Iraqi province of Assama, “a flat depression in the shape of a chicken.” How he came to be there, and whether he will escape his fate (“ganching,” a method of execution by which one is thrown out of a tower onto sharp stakes) is what drives the engine of the book. I will say that Judd ends up in Assama in the employ of a contractor called Resource Analysis and Technology (RAT), a subsidiary of Ultra Global Husbandry (UGH), engaging in various shenanigans involving the secret ingredient of an inexhaustible building substance, and covertly providing nuclear materials to the American-friendly local tribal chief. My favorite scene is one in which Judd and the director of RAT meet with the President of our United States. “Frowning or grinning, he spoke in that bourbon-and-branch baritone, renowned for his state of the union speeches, his justly famous jokes with journalists, his congratulatory messages to winners of the World Series, the Super Bowl, and the Westminster Dog Show. I felt the weight of the man’s magic.” While referring to the province variously as “Assara,” “Assoko” and “Asexual,” the unnamed President shoots baskets into a hoop hidden behind the Great Seal of the United States.
When writers of a certain age try rendering the Kids Of Today, often they run into trouble, dating themselves with incorrect slang and less than up-to-date cultural references. Kaufman avoids this by focusing on the things that the Kids Of Today have in common with the kids of any day: aimlessness about the future, sexual jealousy, problems getting along with their parents. Though it’s supposed to be 2003, the slang of the young characters’ speech is peppered with 1940’s-isms. (“Suddenly Miss Goody-Shoes had transmogrified before my eyes into Mistress Dolly Drop Drawers.”) But since the whole book is an absurdist funhouse it doesn’t feel at all out of place. A few anachronisms creep in, as when Judd is sent out to purchase a specialty porn movie and returns with a reel of film, purchased from a brick-and-mortar movie studio. Doesn’t Kaufman know that these days any young porn starlet worth her salt could run her entire empire without leaving her dorm room?
Which brings me to the other problem. Kaufman seems to have a notion, shared by Tom Wolfe (as displayed in Wolfe’s recent college campus novel I Am Charlotte Simmons) that all young women of the 21st century are routinely expected to have sex with anyone, at any time, at the slightest provocation. Three major characters in Bowl Of Cherries are girls in their late teens/early twenties, and all three of them are prodigious sexual athletes, who spend most of their time allowing themselves to be groped and sullied by various unworthy male paws, without blinking an eye. (I mean come on, everyone knows that was the SIXTIES.) There’s something Hugh Hefner-esque in the portrayals of the girls which I could have done without. But I digress.
Quibbles aside, Kaufman is a hell of a writer. If the world is fair, Bowl Of Cherries will go down as one of the great satiric treatments of the current ongoing conflict. At different points I heard echoes of Catch-22, Dr. Strangelove, M*A*S*H, even in some weird way, Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children: in each case, a realistic portrayal of war doesn’t even begin to get to the root of it, you have to paint, in garish colors, the whole absurd cartoony circus that allows us to justify something as hideous as war. Kaufman is a veteran, both of actual combat and its Hollywood version. One thing he knows for sure is that you can’t stay Patriotic Drunk forever. At some point you sober up.