Violencia!: A Musical Novel
Bruce Jay Friedman is the reigning don of the ironic comic novel, a man of whom The New York Times has written, "His writing is so funny -- and deceptively effortless -- critics often liken it to a stand-up comedy routine." Now he triumphantly returns to the form with Violencia!, a crackling satire of show-business pomposity, flimflam, and dreck in the spirit of Mel Brooks's The Producers. Paul Gurney is a struggling civilian clerk working the desk at a major New York homicide precinct who runs a department newsletter, The Homicider, that covers the goings-on at the precinct, dispenses advice, and disseminates interoffice gossip. But Gurney is newly divorced and dissatisfied, and abruptly decides to retire from the force, not knowing exactly what he'll do next. When he meets a shady Broadway impresario who wants to create a stage musical from his newsletter, he soon finds himself plunging headlong into the world of actors, agents, singers, songwriters, hacks, hams, and con artists. As the show Violencia! moves from rounds of financing from suspect sources to questionable casting calls to a disastrous out-of-town opening (at each stage getting progressively -- and hilariously -- worse and worse), Gurney enjoys the high living, romantic flings, and glamour of the entertainment industry. But he also comes to realize that show people aren't that different from other people he already knows: the thugs, lowlifes, and cutthroats he's encountered during his career on the homicide squad. Packed with unforgettably reprehensible characters, unimaginably turgid lyrics, and unimpeachably funny dialogue, Bruce Jay Friedman's Violencia! is a sidesplitting farce about the dark underbelly of the Great White Way.
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I'm not sure if I'm supposed to know the author Bruce Jay Friedman. Friedman, now in his 80s, over decades has written a bunch of novels I never read, some off-broadway plays I never heard of, and the screenplays for movies made in the 1980s I couldn't care less about, e.g. Stir Crazy, Doctor Detroit, Splash. If Friedman is a famous author I gather it's because he's supposed to be a master wit in hysterical fiction. Hysterical is a pretty good word for describing the mania of Violencia! A retired police precinct clerk is recruited to write the libretto for Violencia!, a Broadway musical based on gritty experiences observed in the crime fighting world. Despite knowing nothing about writing a musical and being a rather ordinary man, the clerk unwittingly becomes a swiveling node for the novel's cast of neurotic producers, composers and theatre actors. They all see the dull clerk as an embassy for their vanities, character flaws, and harebrained ideas about art and audience. Violencia! follows the attempt to put on a big musical from it's distasteful concept, to dishonest financing scheme, to pointless and vulgar production numbers, and then to calamitous road tryouts. The novel is intended as a satire on the affectations of backstage Broadway. Situations and characters in this book are clever I have to admit, but satirical comedy like this too often proceeds plausibility: the fatigued composer returns energized after vacationing in less than a day's travel from New York to PuertacVallarta, no-nothing producers with hundreds-thousands of dollars at stake insist that Violencia!'s success is held in suspense by the script's call for use of the word "doody." This style of writing allows for comical leaps in logic and abandoned story detail. Friedman's novel is creative but I also find the storytelling a little lazy considering it's something he's been doing for decades. This may be a good light read for someone in the mood for lampoonery; I take my comedy much more serious.