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Bowl of Cherriesby Millard Kaufman
Synopses & Reviews
Kicked out of Yale at age 14, Judd Breslau falls in with Phillips Chatterton, a bathrobe-wearing Egyptologist working out of a dilapidated home laboratory. There, young Valerie Chatterton quickly leads Breslau away from his research and into, in order: the attic, a Colorado equestrian ranch, a porn studio beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, and a jail cell in southern Iraq, where we find him awaiting his own execution while the war rages on in the north. Written by a 90-year-old debut novelist, ex-Marine, two-time Oscar nominee, and co-creator of Mr. Magoo, Bowl of Cherries rivals the liveliest comic novels for sheer gleeful inventiveness. This is a book of astounding breadth and sharp consequence, containing all the joy, derangement, terror, and doubt of adolescence and modern times.
"Nonagenarian Kaufman — twice nominated for screenwriting Oscars in the 1950s and a cocreator of Mr. Magoo — makes his fiction debut with this irresistible comic novel, a bawdy, original coming-of-age tale. Kaufman brings bright, resourceful Judd Breslau to vivid life, giving him a striving nature that always leads to trouble. After dropping out of Yale at 14, Judd moves into the crumbling mansion of nut-job Egyptologist Phillips Chatterton, where he joins a phalanx of oddball thinkers working on a quixotic project to redesign human society. A fringe benefit is Chatterton's daughter, Valerie, over whom Judd goes ga-ga. Both Judd and Valerie end up in New York, where Judd interviews with a shady corporation seeking a revolting economic opportunity in war-torn Iraq. So it's off to the hilariously backwards Coproliabad, where Judd runs afoul of the new sheikh, who wants Valerie for his queen. In fact, Judd, awaiting execution, narrates the whole book from a fetid jail cell. Kaufman's screwball sensibility, relish for language, gleeful vulgarism and deep sympathy for his characters make this novel an unprecedented joyride. Whether it's due to his being alive for 90 years or not, Kaufman's book is shot through with worldly wit and a keen sense of the humor in human foibles." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Once you reach a certain age, the appearance of yet another brilliant novel by someone barely old enough to vote is deeply irritating. It's akin to that moment when you realize while brushing your teeth before bed: 'By the time Byron was my age, he'd been dead for 10 years.' Well, buck up. Here's a shot of adrenaline for middle-aged hopes, and it comes, of all places, from McSweeney's,... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) that insufferably youthful publishing company in San Francisco run by Dave Eggers. Their lead title this fall is 'Bowl of Cherries,' a smart, zany comedy by a first-time novelist who's 90 years old. A few film buffs may recognize the name Millard Kaufman — he was nominated for two screenwriting Oscars in the 1950s ('Take the High Ground!' and 'Bad Day at Black Rock') — but everybody knows Mr. Magoo, the nearsighted cartoon klutz he created with John Hubley in 1949. Now, almost 60 years later, Kaufman is back with another hapless hero who wanders around falling into mischief. Judd Breslau is an impossibly brilliant 14-year-old boy who's trying to finish his doctorate in English literature. When his father disappears and his mother waltzes off to Colorado to work for a poetry magazine that publishes her 'dilapidated rhymes,' Judd is left to fend for himself. And so begins one of the strangest journeys in American fiction, which, after all, specializes in the strange journeys of teenage boys. Judd tells us his chaotic life story from a prison cell in Assama, a backwater province of Iraq, far south of where American soldiers are prosecuting their war on terror. He's waiting to be executed by ganching — flung from a tower onto bamboo spikes — a prospect that, he admits, 'scrambles the circuitry, sunders my peace of mind, and plays hob with my nervous system.' Nevertheless, he's writing this tale of how he came to die in Assama, rumored to have once been the site of the Garden of Eden. Now it's the only place on Earth where the inhabitants construct all their buildings from human excrement ('evacuative biodegradables,' for marketing purposes). That weird incongruity between highbrow/lowbrow humor is only part of what makes 'Bowl of Cherries' so irresistible. Kaufman's comic imagination, his ability to mix things scatological and historical, political and philosophical, reminds one of those young'uns Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller. The ridiculous slapstick in Assama is straight from Woody Allen's 'Don't Drink the Water,' and a cameo appearance by a goofy President Bush will take you back to 'Dr. Strangelove.' But Kaufman seems to have more heart than those '60s satirists; his precocious young hero pulls on our sympathies even as he trudges on through absurdity. Judd's journey to the Assama prison begins months earlier when he's asked to leave Yale. Disappointed at first, he soon realizes it's a relief, 'an end to abstruse striving, to dogmatic bluster, Talmudic dissection, to the fractured assignment of Meaning and Levels to a phrase, a clause, a guiltless comma which the author, pinned like a butterfly on a board, probably never intended ... an end to the inkhorn vocabulary of literary scholarship that was like a throat disease.' Suffering a 'premature midlife crisis,' he takes a job at a crazy think tank in Baltimore, run by an Egyptologist who's on the verge of discovering how the pharaohs used sound waves to teleport limestone blocks to build the pyramids. For months, Judd is instructed to sit in his room thinking about suicide and playing a tuba while watching for any indications of levitation. He might have considered his new career a waste of time except that in this madhouse he spots Valerie, the director's 'achingly beautiful' daughter, and falls instantly, irrevocably in love. The rest of the story, which rambles through a farm in Colorado and a porn studio in New York before finally arriving in the once Edenic hellhole of modern-day Assama, is driven largely by Judd's efforts to win Valerie's affections. Over and over, powerful men use her to get Judd to help them pursue their schemes of world domination. In many ways Valerie seems an odd match for the young genius. When he tells her that her 'home looks far from salubrious,' she asks, 'Where's Salubrious?' Completely smitten, Judd can see only that 'she has an uncluttered mind,' to which her father counters, 'There's nothing in it.' But this is no ordinary boy. Planning his assault on Valerie's heart, he thinks, 'We'll begin with the disarming bond of friendship, the epicene sedative which would give way imperceptibly to stronger medicine, a steamy philter to enflame her with a passion as ardent as mine.' I'm a little rusty on what 15-year-olds do to get girls, but unless they're trying to woo the SAT prep coach, I doubt any of them relies on 'epicene sedatives' or 'steamy philters.' I can't remember when a novel kept me so chained to the dictionary (asseverate? steatopygous? chalcedonic?). More than just comic pretension, though, Judd's vocabulary is all part of the story's explosive richness, its constant disruption of our expectations. As the Iraq War grinds on in the north and insane men introduce nuclear fuel to help modernize Assama, everything points toward an apocalyptic finish. Judd finally sees the men who have used him for what they are: 'puppets of their own passion,' proclaiming their 'service of mankind. A ringing dedication, shrill, clear, and dangerously self-deceptive.' And yet Kaufman turns away from the cynical finale that easily could have finished 'Bowl of Cherries.' Maybe something about surviving 90 years of disastrous human history has given him the courage to scrape out a little hope. Yes, there's a mushroom cloud — all of Judd's bosses have learned to stop worrying and love the bomb — but that's not enough to keep this young man down. Or Kaufman. He's reportedly working away on a second novel. Please, nobody distract him. Ron Charles is a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World. He can be reached at charlesr(at symbol)washpost.com." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The ninety year old's inquisitiveness and tenacity shine brightly within the novel, in which he weaves words more impressively than a spider spins a web....Kaufman's writing summons the ghosts of Vladimir Nabokov and Franz Kafka." Rocky Mountain Chronicle
About the Author
Kaufman is a successful screenwriter/producer with Academy Award nominations for his screenplays. In addition, he is the creator of Mr. Magoo and has taught screenwriting at USC, UCLA, and the Sundance Institute.
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