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Bowl of Cherries: It's Never Too Late to Write That Novel

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When a novelist first publishes relatively late in life, one wants to applaud his or her persistence, as well as the fact that the writer retains the stamina to turn out a sustained piece of work. One also hopes for the best, wanting to believe that the publisher recognized quality and not just a curiosity when accepting the manuscript. Of course, with examples like Penelope Fitzgerald and Harriet Doerr to pave the way, one has certain expectations of older writers.

Millard Kaufman, the 90-year-old, Oscar-nominated (Bad Day at Black Rock) screenwriter, turns those expectations on their head. Like the women referenced above, he’s written a novel, Bowl of Cherries, that could only have been created by a seasoned adult who has learned (and not) from experience. Unlike the ladies, however, Kaufman writes from the first-person perspective of a Yale-dropout teenage smartypants who pursues his ladylove around the world in a concatenation of hapless encounters that eventually lead him to an obscure and imaginary province of Iraq.

Squarely in the picaresque tradition, Bowl of Cherries takes the reader on the journey of its antihero, Judd Breslau, in engaging, crisp language and snappy dialogue that sustains interest throughout his often-absurd adventures. Here’s one paragraph that still has me laughing:

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She was a handsome woman, my mother. If you like largeness, you’d call her statuesque. She looked like Amy Lowell, but there the comparison ended; unlike Lowell my mother was silent (although she sighed loudly and often), she never swore, she did not smoke cigars, and she could not write her way out of a net brassiere. But she did pack a lot of brisket.

Its engaging shtick notwithstanding, Kaufman’s work also offers its author’s considered opinions about American politics, American anti-Semitism, and a kitchen sink’s worth of other topics. In short, it took a lifetime to pile up this much information to spill in a novel. Kaufman's vocabulary is mighty, although he wields it gently, tossing in nouns like "kleptocrats" and verbs like "fossick" offhandedly. It's all in character with the precocious 14-year-old narrator, Kaufman explained recently after reading from Bowl of Cherries at Dutton's. Some critics have complained about all the big words, Kaufman said, but he thinks they're just annoyed that they had to consult the dictionary for once.

When I asked how he amassed such a vast vocabulary, Kaufman told an anecdote - his usual way (if you've been reading all the press) of responding to a question. "My friend Arthur Laurents," he said (somehow when a 90-year-old mentions the librettist of West Side Story, it doesn't seem like namedropping), "used to read a book at bedtime. I decided that I would read the dictionary before I went to sleep at night."

Kaufman's zany, brainy tale is gleeful, high-quality fun, an original work that calls to mind other serious, sad, yet funny adventures from Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat to the best of Charles Portis. Kaufman doesn't discount a vast range of influences, either. "If I didn't read," he said, "I'd have not too much to steal from."