Thursday, March 5, 2009

From the Library: "Bowl Of Cherries" and a chat with Millard Kaufman

For a great many reasons, Millard Kaufman is an anachronism. For one, he doesn't have email, and for two, he thinks most movies today are "made for kids." At 90 years old, he stands as a noteworthy exception to our youth-obsessed society, and may force us coin a phrase at the opposite extreme of "child prodigy." With his debut novel Bowl of Cherries, Kaufman might be considered the antithesis of writers like Keats (whose entire oeuvre was written before his death at age 25) or Jonathan Safran Foer (who, in his mid-20s, published a highly successful first novel). "I'm a late bloomer, I guess," Kaufman said via telephone with PDXWD. "[Movie] producers are looking for writers as young as possible nowadays," said the Mr. Magoo co-creator who worked in film until the age of 86, "and I'm not as young as possible."

But why a novel? And why now? Like the book, Kaufman says, "It’s about existence. How do I do it? How do I keep going?"

This inquisitiveness and tenacity shine throughout the book. Slightly reminiscent of Sartre's "The Wall," Bowl of Cherries is the story of Judd Breslau (a 14-year-old genius, ironically enough), kicked out of his graduate program at Yale and, after a series of wildly unlikely events, thrown into an Iraqi prison to await his execution. Nowhere in the tale does Kaufman relax his sharp wit or penchant for lucid observation. As Judd ponders adolescent beauty alongside imminent death, Kaufman's writing summons the ghosts of Nabokov and Kafka. Judd globetrots in seek of his first and only love, Valerie, but finds himself in the shadow of a multi-armed political and intellectual beast, a conflict that Kaufman says is rooted in both human temptation and the mysteries of the world. "How the hell did the Egyptians build the pyramids?" he asked us rhetorically. "Umm, we're not sure, we're just book reviewers" we told him. "Exactly! No one seems to know!" he responded. "And why did Thomas Chatterton, a little-known English writer, commit suicide at such a young age? But above all," he went on, "what are humans supposed to do with their excrement?"

We left that last question alone. And needless to say, these conundrums are not easily answered, but, as Kaufman says, "Nothing is impossible. We have been through many terrible losses and defeats and each time we have survived," which explains why, as Bowl of Cherries progresses, Judd's past and future converge, as does world history. The cyclical, parallel motifs Kaufman uses suture together not only the threads of the plot, but his outlook on the plight of our world. "I'm not necessarily optimistic, but we'll manage, we'll get through this, too. We will not be defeated that easily."

Fruit, especially a bowl of cherries, is tempting, both allegorically and literally. The bowl of cherries in the novel, though, packs a wickedly subtle surprise, and like the book itself can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Fraught though it is with existential futility, the floor of Bowl of Cherries never falls through to hopelessness. "Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we fail—but we just have to keep plodding," Kaufman said, a statement that goes far to answer why he decided to write a book while most of his peers are watching The Price is Right reruns and drinking fiber in a glass of water.

Already at work on his second novel, Kaufman seems, if nothing else, intent on proving that younger isn't always better. At the end of our conversation he even asked us if we wanted to go to lunch in San Francisco soon, which we unfortunately had to turn down as we are not currently in that city, a fact that seemed to slightly, though only temporarily, perplex Mr. Kaufman. "Well, maybe someday, then," he said. Yes, Millard, maybe someday.

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