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About the Author
Bruce Jay Friedman lives in New York City. A novelist, short story writer, playwright, memoirist, and screenwriter, he is the author of nineteen books, including Stern (1962), A Mother’s Kisses (1964), The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life (1978), and Lucky Bruce: A Literary Memoir (2011). His best-known works of stage and screen include the off-Broadway hit Steambath (1970) and the screenplays for Stir Crazy (1980) and Splash (1984), the latter of which received an Academy Award nomination. As editor of the anthology Black Humor (1965), Friedman helped popularize the distinctive literary style of that name in the United States and is widely regarded as one of its finest practitioners. According to the New York Times, his prose is “a pure pleasure machine.”
Read an Excerpt
It was a lovely house, seated in the middle of what once had been a pear orchard, and yet it had seemed way out on a limb, a giddy place to live, so far from the protection of Stern's city. Mr. Iavone, the real- estate agent who had taken Stern and his wife to the house, said, "If you like this one, it's going to be a matter of kesh. Tell me how much kesh you can raise and I'll see what I can do." Mr. Iavone was a grim, short-tempered man who had been showing them selections all day, and when they finally drove up to this one, Stern felt under obligation to buy some house, any house, since Mr. Iavone had spent so much time with them. Golden children began to spill out of it, and the one that caught Stern's attention was a blinking woman-child with sunny face and plump body tumbling out of tight clothes. Stern, had his life depended on it, would not have been able to tell whether she was a woman or a child. Iavone, in an aside to Stern, told him that the girl- woman was the reason the Spensers were selling the house, that she had taken to doing uncontrollable things in cars with high-school boys, bringing shame to Mr. Spenser, her father, who was in data systems.
The house had many rooms, a dizzying number to Stern, for whom the number of rooms was all-important. As a child he had graded the wealth of people by the number of rooms in which they lived. He himself had been brought up in three in the city and fancied people who lived in four were so much more splendid than himself.
But now he was considering a house with a wild and guilty number of rooms, enough to put a triumphant and emphatic end to his three-room status. Perhaps, Stern thought, one should do this more gradually. A three-room fellow should ease up to six, then eight, and, only at that point, up to the unlimited class. Perhaps when a three-roomer moved suddenly into an unlimited affair he would each day faint with delirium.
While Stern examined the house, Mr. Iavone sat at the piano and played selections from Chopin, gracefully swaying back and forth on the stool, his fingers, which had seemed to be real-estate ones, now suddenly full of stubby culture. (Later, Stern heard that Mr. Iavone always went to the piano for prospective buyers to show he did not drive a hard bargain. Actually, his favorite relaxation was boccie.)
Mr. Spenser, a man with purple lips and stiff neck, who seemed to Stern as though he belonged to a company that offered many benefits, walked around the house with Stern, clearing his throat a lot and talking about escrow. Stern listened, with a dignified look on his face, but did not really hear Mr. Spenser. Escrow was something that other people knew about, like stocks and bonds. "I don't want to hear about stocks," Stern's mother had once said. "It's not for our kind. Not with the way your father makes a living. There's blood on every dollar." Stern was sure now that if he stopped everything and took a fourteen- year course in escrow, he would still be unable to get the hang of it because it wasn't for his kind. Still, he felt very dignified walking around a house with a data systems man and talking about escrow. Mrs. Spenser invited Stern and his wife and child into the kitchen and brought out a jar of jam.
"Did you make that in this house?" Stern asked.
"Yes," said Mrs. Spenser, a skeletal woman Stern imagined had been worn down by her husband's dignified but fetishistic lovemaking requests.
"This is quite a house," said Stern.
The price was $27,000. Someone had told Stern always to bid $5,000 under the asking price, and, adding on $1,000 to be nice, he said, "How about $23,000?" Mr. Spenser muttered something about expediting the escrow and then said OK. Stern's heart sank. He had been willing to go to $25,000, and his face got numb, and then he began to tingle the way he once had after taking a one-penny sharpener from the five-and- ten and then waiting by the counter, unable to move, to get his Dutch Rubbing from the store owner. Getting the house as low as he had, he felt a great tenderness for Mr. Spenser; he wanted to throw his arms around the stiff-necked man, who probably knew nothing of Broadway plays with Cyril Ritchard, and say, "You fool. I just got two thousand dollars from you. How much could you get paid by your company, which probably gives you plenty of benefits but only meek Protestant salaries? Don't you know that just because a man says one price doesn't mean that's all he'll pay? You've got to hold on to those two thousands, because even though you're a churchgoer you've got a glandular daughter who'll always be doing things in cars and forcing you to move to other neighborhoods, pretending you're moving because of oil burners or escrow."
Mr. Iavone left the piano and said to Stern, "I see we have nice people on both sides. Would you like to leave some kesh now?"
"I want someone to see the house," said Stern.
"But you've already talked price," said Mr. Iavone. He grabbed his coat and slammed the top of the piano. "You bring people out, you're a gentleman with them, you spend the day," he said, "and you wind up holding the bag. You think they're nice people. ... I closed three million dollars' worth of homes last year."
"I've always lived in apartments and I want someone I know to look it over. Then I'll buy it," said Stern, but Iavone slammed shut the front door. Mr. Spenser cleared his throat, and Stern was certain that the next day he would tell the other data systems people in his company about the tall, soft man who had come out, talked price, and then left without buying, the first time this had ever happened in the history of American house-buying.
"I think I'm just going to take it without doing any inspecting," said Stern. "Sometimes it's better that way." Mr. Spenser called back Iavone, who came in and said, "I knew there were nice people on both sides. If we can get the kesh settled, we'll be on our way." There was much handshaking all around, and Iavone played a jubilant march on the piano.
The closing was held several weeks later in the office of Mr. Spenser's attorney, a polite man whose barren office had only one small file in it. Stern felt a wave of pity for this attorney whose entire law practice could be squeezed into that little file cabinet. He wanted to say to him, "Stop being so polite. Be more aggressive and you'll have larger cabinets." Stern's own attorney was Saul Fleer, an immaculate man with clean fingers, who took out a little pad when he met Stern at the station and, writing, said, "The train was eighty-nine cents. I enter every penny right in here." Stern and Fleer had cokes, Fleer paying for his own and then writing "$.05" on the pad.
At the closing, Mr. Spenser and his wife sat upright, close together, their arms locked as though they were about to defend a frontier home together. Their marriage was a serious one; this was a serious, adult matter; and at such times they locked arms, sat upright, and faced things together. They blended in with their polite lawyer, and Stern had the feeling they paid him in jellies.
Stern thought Fleer drove too hard a bargain and cringed down in his seat each time Fleer, pointing a clean finger at legal papers, shouted at the Spensers' attorney, "You can get away with this out here. If I had you back in the city, you wouldn't try anything like this." Stern wanted to tell Fleer not to yell at the man, that he had only a small file.
On the matter of who should pay a certain fifty dollars, Fleer said, "I'd like to see you try a trick like this in the city."
Iavone said, "You put a gun right to my head. I have three million dollars' worth of closings a year, and this is the first time I've ever had a gun put to my head."
He walked out of the room, and, after a while, the Spensers, arms still locked, rose grimly and followed him, as though their property had been erased by an Indian raid. Their attorney, smiling politely, walked out, too. Stern wanted to be with them on the side of politeness and marital arm- linking and not have an attorney who waved fingers at people and was from the city.
"Do I have the house?" he asked.
"You saw what happened," said Fleer, stuffing papers into a briefcase, his face colored with anger. "They're strong out here. I'd like to get them in the city." Then Stern, because he didn't want Iavone to fall under his yearly three million, because the polite lawyer's tiny file touched him, and because he felt vaguely un-American, whispered, "I'll pay the fifty." Fleer said, "Aagh," and threw up his hands in disgust. Stern went to the staircase and, in a cracked voice, hollered, "Mr. Iavone." The papers were signed, and immediately afterward Iavone began calling him "Stern" instead of "Mr. Stern." At the end of the closing Mr. Spenser handed over the key, and Stern, who had always lived in the city, suddenly became frightened about being away from it. He wondered with a chill whether he really did want to live "out here."
Later that afternoon, he drove to the house with his wife and child and, as if to certify his possession of it in his own nonlegal way, Stern, in suit and tie, rolled from one end of the wide lawn to the other while his wife and child shrieked with joy. The boy had large eyes and a strange, flaring nose, and his looks changed; in the bright sun he seemed pathetically ugly, but then, coming swiftly out of a sleep, or by lamplight, hearing stories, his face seemed tender and lovely. Stern, standing on the lawn now, made up a game right on the spot called "Up in the Sky" in which he took his child under the armpits and swung him first between his legs and then up in the sky as far as he would go. On the way down once, the boy said, "Throw me up high enough to see God."
"How does he know about God?" Stern asked, a little chilled because he wasn't sure yet what God things to tell the child and hadn't counted on it coming up so early.
"A little girl on Sapphire Street where we used to live," said Stern's wife.
"God can beat up a gorilla," said the little boy as Stern flung him skyward. Stern threw him up again and again, once with viciousness, as though he really did want to lose him in the sky so that he would not have to figure out what to tell him about God.
A stab got Stern in the bottom of his wide, soft back then and he dropped to his knees and said, "Everyone on the giraffe." His wife and child got on, Stern becoming excited by the heat of her crotch. He went across the lawn carrying them, but there was a strained frivolity about the game. He wanted someone to see him, and when a car drove by, he smiled thinly, as if to say, "We're homeowners. See how much fun we always have and how we fit in." But when the one car had passed, there was no one left to show off for; in the distance there was a bleak, lonely, deserted estate, where once a man named Bagby had each Sunday skidded through the snow in a horse-drawn sleigh, entertaining his grandchildren. Stern went inside his house and walked from room to room, giving each one a number and hollering it out aloud as he stood in the center of each. "I always wanted a lot of rooms," he said, clasping his long-nosed, great-eyed wife to him. "Now look how many I've got,"
After moving in officially several days later, Stern hired a trio of Italian gardeners to prepare the elaborate shrubs for summer — two old, cackling, slow-moving ones and a fragrant and temperamental young man who spoke no English but had worked on the gardens of Italian nobility. The old men made straight borders along their flower beds, but the young man did his in curlicues, standing off after each twirl and making indications of roundness in the air with his hands. Their price was three dollars an hour, and as they moved along Stern began to worry that they weren't working fast enough. He saw the shrub preparation costing him $800, leaving him no money for furniture. Stern wanted to tell the young man to stop doing the time-consuming curlicued borders and to do straight ones like the old men to keep the bill down. But he was afraid to say anything to a handsome young man who had worked on the grounds of Italian nobility. Stern watched the gardeners from inside the house, ducking behind a curtain so they wouldn't see him. He hoped they would hurry and perspired as the dollars ticked away in multiples of three. The old men rested on their rakes now, poking each other and cackling obscenely at the handsome young man as he made his temperamental curlicues. Then Stern lost sight of the young man and imagined that his long-nosed, great-eyed wife had inhaled his fragrance and dragged him with a sudden frenzy into the garage, her fingers digging through his black and oily young Italian hair, loving it so much more than Stern's thinning affair, which fell out now at the touch of a comb.
But the young gardener was making tiny paths in the backyard rock garden, and when he and the two cacklers were paid and had left, Stern called his family together and said, "We've got paths. I'm a guy with paths." Even though they were narrow and largely decorative, Stern insisted his wife and child walk in and out of the paths with him, the whole child and half his wife not really fitting and spilling over onto the grass.
That night, Stern gathered his wife and son to him and they sat on the front steps of the house, Stern feeling the stone cold against his wide, soft legs, bare in Bermuda shorts. They watched it get dark, felt the air get dewy and unbalancing. "This is the best time," he said, as though he had lived ten thousand nights in houses, analyzing all the various hours of the day for quality before settling upon this one as the best. The night made him feel less jittery and isolated. Whatever bad was out there would wait until the next day. He had his boy on his lap and his wife's hips against him and he was sitting on stone steps. He might have been in the city with a thousand families all around him, ten minutes from his mother's three rooms. As he sat on the stone, a fire truck screamed to a halt before his house and a man in a fireman's uniform raced across his lawn to the steps. The man was small and had low hips with powerfully thick legs. Stern, walking through meat sections at supermarkets, had always wondered who bought the pork butts and ham hocks, strange cuts of meat Stern would never consider. It seemed to Stern that this man was probably someone who ate them, and, instead of making him undernourished, their gristle and waste went to his legs and perversely made him wiry and powerful.
"We're having a firemen's ball," the man said. "Do you want to go? The twentieth of this month."
Stern smiled in what he thought was home-owning folksiness and said, "We can't make it that night. I'm sorry."
The fireman wheeled on his trunklike legs and ran apishly back to the truck.
"You were wrong," his wife said. "Everyone buys tickets. Nobody really goes. You just give them the money."
Stern, in Bermudas, ran across the lawn, shouting, "I'll take two after all," but the truck had already screamed off, and Stern heard a voice yell "Shit" into the night.
"My first thing in this town," said Stern, "and I've got an enemy." He put his great, soft body on the stoop against his wife's hips, not at all comforted by the night now, and imagined his house with all its rooms burning to the ground, his child's hair aflame, while thick- legged firemen, deliberately sluggish, turned weak water jets on the roof, far short of the mark.
The Spensers had failed to tell Stern to spray the area, and, a month after he moved in, a caterpillar army came and attacked the grounds. When Stern first saw the insects, he said, "I'm going to get them," and went out to the lawn and began to flick them off the shrubs and then step on them when they were on the ground. But there were huge wet clumps of them on everything, and he called the spray company. "It's too early to get after them," the man said. "If you get at them too early, you just waste your spray. You've got to wait till they're sitting up perky ." Stern waited a day and then called again; another voice answered and told him, "It's too late. You missed the right time. They're in there solid now."
"The other man in your place said to wait," Stern said.
"I'll rap you in the teeth you get smart," the voice screamed. "I'll come right over there and get you. You want to make trouble, I'll give you trouble all right."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Stern"
Copyright © 1962 Bruce Jay Friedman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I read this one because it is supposedly John Kennedy Toole's "favorite modern novel". This is some smooth, beautiful writing in the same class as "Catcher in the Rye" and "Confederacy of Dunces".
This is a world class comedic novel, an absolute MUST READ. Brutal and vicious, Friedman paints a portrait of the anxieties of suburban life, pushing the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. I think that in today's politically correct world, some people may feel confused by the humor. An example of this comes when Stern tosses around the idea of killing his child, eventually deciding against it but relishing the fantasy. None of these anecdotes are meant to be taken seriously, as Friedman is using Stern as a caricature while also poking fun at middle class America. Anyway, do not pass on the opportunity to read this novel; it's as good as it gets!!
I purchased this book because I had read that it was very very funny. I was so looking forward to reading it but was disappointed. I didn't get it.