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Bowl of Cherries: A Novel Paperback – October 1, 2008
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The Amazon Book Review
Author interviews, book reviews, editors picks, and more. Read it now
Equal parts Catcher in the Rye and Die Hard.” The New Yorker
Kaufman’s screwball sensibility, relish for language, gleeful vulgarism, and deep sympathy for his characters make this novel an unprecedented joyride.” Publishers Weekly
A smart, zany comedy . . . 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.” Ron Charles, Washington Post
Kaufman doesn't disappoint, and his narrative is infused with . . . wisdom and whimsy . . . Kaufman exudes a vitality that novelists half his age would envy.” Baltimore Magazine
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.” Rocky Mountain Chronicle
Bowl of Cherries reads like a picaresque Kurt Vonnegut farce narrated by Augie March . . . The descriptions of Judd's troubled upbringing and the world of higher education are as gorgeously blooming as his carnal adventures are funny . . . a knowing satire of the American lust for recognition at any cost.” Baltimore City Paper
A freewheeling comedy that careens from a Colorado horse ranch to an Iraqi prison to a porn studio underneath the Brooklyn Bridge . . . Bowl of Cherries is the work of a writer unshackled, finally able to use vocabulary and structure verboten in Hollywood.” Rolling Stone
When you read Bowl of Cherries, you will know that this writer is a reader . . . the modus operandi of this book is to find a way to laugh at anything . . . I haven’t had this kind of fun in a long time.” Michael Silverblatt, KCRW Bookworm
Make no mistake, Bowl of Cherries is crass, offensive and overblown, but its portrait of a world driven mad by greed and hucksterism, miracle cures and imperialist agendas stumbles smack into its share of worthy targets.” Jewish Daily Forward
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To have a little more fun and learn more about Kaufman (and even Mr. Magoo!), you can visit the NPR website and search for a bowl of cherries to find his Weekend Edition interview with Scott Simon.
Reviews for this novel are split right down the middle here on Amazon, so I want to set the record straight: Bowl of Cherries is a novel for writers. This is a novel that shows what wonder still survives in the English language. In our increasingly dumbed-down vernacular, here is a book that boldly unleashes a host of ten-dollar words without even recoursing to explaining them; how refreshing it is to be in the hands of an author who trusts in the intelligence of his readers.
The novel's narrated by Judd Breslau, a 14 year-old prodigy who attends Yale, his focus of study an obscure Romantic poet. In the course of his research he meets Phillips Chatterton, a crackpot who operates a rundown house of fellow crackpots. After a series of misadventures, Judd's kicked out of Yale and ends up in Chatterton's rundown house. His main reason for being there is Valerie, Chatterton's gorgeous, 16 year-old daughter, whom Judd swoons for at length. ("All else is trumpery," as he puts it.)
I would've been happy if the entire novel took place in Chatterton's house. The situation comes off like a funnier version of "Rattner's Star" by Don DeLillo, with an incredibly smart teenager holed up in a mansion full of quacks and kooks. Kaufman could've elaborated this into two hundred more pages easily, maybe even evolving it into a "Gormenghast"-like tale with inner rivalries and treacheries and plottings.
And he does this, to some extent, but once Judd's gotten as close to Valerie as possible, he takes his leave and moves on into the world. This leads into an enjoyable sequence of events, with Judd working at a horse ranch, getting a job as an obituary writer, and finally visiting a porn studio (beneath the Golden Gate Bridge). There he meets Valerie again, and after another set of misadventures, Judd and Valerie end up in Assama, Iraq, where the entire second half of the book takes place. And this is the main problem: the second half of this novel pales in comparison with the first.
I have found that with successive readings you don't mind the final half of the novel as much (probably because you're expecting it), but still, after the madcap adventures of the first half, you feel like you're stuck in a mudpit as you trudge through the seemingly-endless descriptions of Assama culture and architecture and customs. How I wanted Judd to flee back to Chatterton's manse! But we're in Iraq for the duration. Judd's old pal Abdul is now king of Assama, he's gotten hold of Valerie, and he tosses Judd in prison on cooked-up charges. It all leads to a rousing finale (probably what the NYTimes reviewer was thinking of with his lame "Catcher in the Rye meets Die Hard" tagline), with all the divergent plot threads coming together.
But it really is a trawl, getting through the second half. The book just comes to a standstill, and Kaufman is very much out of his element (he claimed in an interview that he placed the novel in Iraq because the country "seems to be in the news a lot lately"). It's only here that the overuse of adjectives and adverbs and ten-dollar words - sources of much discontent for other readers - serves to bother me, because they're not supporting anything - they're just there to be there, and the story itself withers away. Things do pick up eventually, with the appearance of a previously-mysterious character, all of it culminating in an apocalyptic finale which seems out of place, until one remembers said mysterious character's fascination with the Adam and Eve story in Genesis.
There are kernels of absolute wisdom buried throughout the text , which is to be expected from a 90-year-old novelist. Kaufman even includes a few sly digs at his own advanced age via his teenaged narrator. But I do feel that some of the dialog falls flat. Young characters talk like they're in the 1950s; I've never in my life heard a kid refer to his dad as "Pop," and I've yet to hear a knockout teenage girl refer to someone as "loopy." Judd himself comes off a bit too idealized; despite his braniac nature and misfit personality, he can still hold his own in fistfights and he can still get the girl. Also annoying is his constant complaining and his refusal to do anything; several times throughout this novel characters will ask Judd to help them with something, or to take part in some activity, and every single time he refuses. It gets to be redundant.
But these are minor inconveniences; the only really challenging part of this novel is the second half, which you might in fact enjoy more than I did. But I love this novel regardless, and I recommend it with enthusiasm.
Special note: Avoid the Grove Press softcover. As another reviewer mentioned, it's missing page 244 of the text. Just pick up the McSweeney's hardcover, which features the entire text and is better packaged to book.
One question I had throughout almost the entire book was why was the narrator even involved in the storyline of the book - he didn't seem to be necessary.
Aso at the end of the book, well, the book just sort of ended - we're dove.
Oh well. This semi-erudite comedy was a nice companion book to read alongside Salman Rushdie's The Enchantress of Florence. The books, believe it or not, have several similarities.