“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and Nextbook.org’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!
How did Phillip Roth and Bruce Jay Friedman, who both began as comedic, self-effacing writers, end up with such completely different literary legacies? That’s the question Meg Wolitzer asked in 2006, when one of Friedman’s later books, Sexual Pensées, was published. It’s a question worth revisiting in light of Friedman’s soon-to-be-released memoir, Lucky Bruce.
Friedman, perhaps best known to the masses as the writer of Splash, the lovable 1984 film starring Darryl Hannah as a mermaid and Tom Hanks as the human in love with her, also wrote the short story upon which The Heartbreak Kid was based; another book of Friedman’s was adapted into the Steve Martin comedy The Lonely Guy; and so on. Yet despite far more commercial success and high-profile billings, Friedman remains the lesser-known writer of the two in the canon of post-war Jewish male writers in America.
Wolitzer has several theories, including Roth’s heroic sheer output as well as his political awareness, and including also the stigma that no doubt attaches to Friedman in literary circles over the perception (or reality) that he “went Hollywood.” But most persuasively of all, Wolitzer argues: “Utimately it’s the actual nature of Friedman’s fiction that has affected his standing—at least in comparison to someone like Roth’s. Over the years, Friedman has stayed “funny,” while Roth, mostly, has not.”
Read Funny Guys Finish Last, by Meg Wolitzer
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.