His ‘Bowl’ runneth over lately
One could be forgiven for thinking that “Bowl of Cherries,” the debut novel from 90-year-old author Millard Kaufman, might be another clever gimmick from the folks at McSweeney’s, who have been accused of preciousness. Several paragraphs in, however, the impression begins to build that Kaufman, nominated for two screenwriting Oscars in the 1950s, is not part of some attention-getting scheme but rather a wildly imaginative and funny writer. McSweeney’s, the book’s publisher, appears to have found an ageless author who is ripe for a new audience.
The zany tale of a 14-year-old brainiac whose bad judgment lands him in an Iraqi prison awaiting his execution, “Bowl of Cherries” feels almost like a Wes Anderson film, with its twisted family dynamics, romantic obsessions and wholly improbable story line delivered in a deadpan voice simmering with mirth. Not surprisingly, three film companies are interested in optioning the book, and invitations to parties and to appear on Conan O’Brien’s and Jay Leno’s shows are flooding in.
But Kaufman, who stays at home most of the time because of a heart condition, is no hipster. He’d never heard of McSweeney’s until Nina Weiner, the editor of his one other book, the 1999 nonfiction “Plots and Characters: A Screenwriter on Screenwriting,” suggested the publishing house founded by Dave Eggers. Kaufman said that when he told his son (also a writer) who was interested in the book, “he nearly fell down!”
McSweeney’s turned out to be the only publisher Kaufman dealt with, and he found the overall experience “highly gratifying,” especially compared with the movie industry.
“In the picture business,” said Kaufman, who co-created the character of Mr. Magoo and was under contract to MGM for 13 years, “if a man buys a book, he owns it, in the sense that he can change it any which way he wants. The attitude in many cases gives writers the feeling that these guys who know nothing about writing would do it themselves if they didn’t have more important things to do.”
At 86, Kaufman became one of the oldest members of the Writers Guild to get a major screenwriting assignment, but when that project fell through he found himself at a crossroads. “I decided, knowing that nobody my age gets work in movies, and that I had to do something, otherwise I’d get into terrible trouble, that I would try writing a novel. It always kind of interested me, but as long as I was busy I never got around to doing it.”
Sitting in the airy Brentwood home he shares with his wife of 65 years, Kaufman was distinctly unprecious about his writing process. He told a story about seeing W. Somerset Maugham lecture at UCLA: In response to a question about novel writing, Maugham told the crowd, “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately nobody knows what they are.”
“I thought, well, under circumstances like that, how can I lose?”
“I don’t know what I’m writing until I see it on paper,” Kaufman admitted, “and that was the case here. I wanted to get it down and take a look at it and see what direction it could go. And there were a number of directions I could have gone, and I went in all of them.” Of his protagonist, Judd Breslau, he noted, “There wouldn’t be very much about this guy of particular interest if he were anywhere from 35 to 55. So I made him 14, so all these things that happened to him seemed kind of interesting perhaps.”
“Bowl of Cherries” bounces along from the jail cell in Iraq to a think tank in Baltimore where we meet the object of Judd’s lust, a kooky Egyptologist’s daughter; then to Denver, followed by a porn studio under the Brooklyn Bridge called Climax Productions. All the while characters with absurd names such as the Rev. Lipgloss, Dr. Guthrie Armbruster and Daphne Titsworth appear; President Bush even makes a cameo.
The Iraqi province of Assama, however, a chicken-shaped region where the buildings are constructed from human excrement, is purely fictional, much to the surprise of several established journalists who wanted to know how much time Kaufman spent in Iraq.
“It’s amusing but it’s also slightly awkward,” said the author, whose main source of information was the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Like most writers, Kaufman is an avid reader; he calls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” a “masterpiece” and said he rereads it once a year. His highest praise, however, goes to Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” “I think it’s the best novel ever written in the English language,” he said. “Dickens is unbelievable -- his choice of the apposite word and his humor -- and it’s so interesting because he’s so good at writing but he made such a mess of his own life.”
Kaufman is clearly not at risk of doing that, with a loving family and a new artistic outlet bringing him greater recognition than ever before. His wife, Lorraine, was the first person who read “Bowl of Cherries,” and she will be the first to read her husband’s second novel, which he is hard at work on but is reluctant to talk about, “because I’m not sure what it’s gonna be.”
Regardless of plots or characters, though, Kaufman has been at it long enough that he has complete faith in the fruitful act of writing itself. “You just put one word after another,” he said, nodding his head. “If you do it long enough, you got some pages.”
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