Vengeance, Comedy, and Suspense
By Miriam R. Kramer
Unfortunately we are seeing another round of shutdowns with the advent of this new Omicron variant, so many are canceling plans to travel or go out for entertainment. Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby; All About Me!: My Remarkable Life in Show Business by Mel Brooks; and The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz will take you away from home, but in quite different psychological directions.
S.A. Cosby has made a mark for himself with his provocative Southern noir prose. The latest, Razorblade Tears, is a fast-paced tale of guilt and vengeance in which an unlikely duo of two fathers and former felons, one Black and one white, join up to find out who killed their two sons, who are married to one another.
Ike Randolph and Buddy Lee’s relationships with their sons are fraught with tension and distance, since both are homophobes who have come close to disowning their children for the perceived crime of being gay. As both reckon with their individual pain and grief, they start examining their own discomfort with people who are “other,” whether they be gay, Black, or white. They begin to try clumsily to cross a color divide and use each other’s strengths to pursue the murderers.
Cosby creates a lively, modern twist to the classic theme of polar opposites who cross boundaries to value and bond with one another. He vividly brings to life these two men who have tried to put away the violent or murderous impulses that landed them in prison in order to create a life on the outside, only to find that they are forced to use these tools to punish their sons’ killers.
If I have a quibble, it is that Ike Randolph’s speech as a Black man seems more authentic than that of Buddy Lee, the alcoholic, trailer-living white father. Sometimes a reader also has to suspend belief at various plot twists. Otherwise, this bloody, moody, and sometimes introspective book offers more depth than an average suspense novel while blasting forward like a runaway train.
In a different vein, Mel Brooks’ professional memoir, All About Me! is a straightforward, buoyant piece of writing in which he traces his funnyman trajectory from childhood to today. At 95, he has much to relate.
Brooks started his life as Melvin Kaminsky in the outer boroughs, a kid destined, like his Jewish neighbors, to find work in the Garment District in Manhattan. Growing up he started drumming, which sharpened his sense of rhythm and timing, along with his appreciation for music. A poor student, he wanted to be in show business.
Drafted into the Army during World War II, Brooks eventually applied to be a part of Special Services, the branch which entertained other troops. There he began honing his comedy skills. He also spent time not as a stand-up comic, but in related jobs in the Borscht Belt.
Brooks eventually went on to become a writer for Sid Caesar’s highly popular variety show, Your Show of Shows, which in the early to mid-Fifties reached close to 60 million viewers on Saturday nights. There he met talented writers like Neil Simon and comedians such as Carl Reiner, who became his best friend for life.
After making his bones as a comedy writer in Sid Caesar’s pressure cooker, Mel eventually met his wife, the actor Anne Bancroft. Since this memoir is focused more narrowly on his professional life, he does not spend much time exploring personal relationships, other than calling someone a “dear friend” or describing how he collaborated with people and friends he valued dearly. Yet he does focus on Bancroft and their adoration of one another, in which she helped him overcome self-doubt, devoted herself to their son, Max, and earned an Oscar, two Tony Awards, and two Emmy Awards as a remarkable success in her own right until her death in 2005.
Along the way Brooks describes the genesis of the movie The Producers, in which he began to write music and lyrics. He also worked on the classic TV series Get Smart and met comedic friends and writers who helped create edgy, absurd, and widely loved vanguard comedies such as Blazing Saddles; Young Frankenstein; History of the World, Part 1; and Spaceballs, among others. Brooks also discusses the origins of the Broadway production of The Producers, which won a record twelve Tony Awards. Winning the Tony Award made him an EGOT, one of only 16 people who have achieved the honor of winning Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Awards, the Grand Slam of show business.
In the memoir Brooks employs a light touch and shows a relish for both his successes and the wonderful creative collaborations he has generated. He speaks little of flops, failures, or any personal crises, preferring to focus on the positive. This is a fun romp through the life of a veteran comedian, who like so many Jewish entertainers made his way from regional New York origins to changing mainstream comedy. If you are a biography and comedy aficionado, you will find this memoir endearing and uplifting.
The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, relates the story of Jacob Finch Bonner, an alienated writer who has diligently attained a prestigious writing degree and written one critically successful book noted by the New York Times. Unfortunately, he has followed up with flops and then run out of ideas.
To make ends meet, Jacob has left expensive Brooklyn and taken a job as a writing seminar teacher at a third-rate writing program in Vermont. He feels dull dread at facing yet another group of writers with mediocre abilities and ideas, not believing that anyone can teach someone else to write well.
When he meets the writers in his course, he encounters cocky Evan Parker, who is secretive about his work and confident that it will succeed commercially and critically. Evan believes that writing is all about plot, with the quality of the writing less important. He informs Jacob that he has a compelling and unique plot that avoids all the typical tropes of literature: one that will automatically hook the public, put his book on bestseller and Oprah’s Book Club lists, and get him a movie deal. Jacob finds his initial written chapter decently written but unremarkable, until Evan tells him the plot, a plot that makes Jacob furious with envy and sure that Evan will receive the acclaim he expects.
Three years go by, and Jacob’s writer’s block has continued, moving him even further away from his initial success. He has looked for Evan’s book but never seen it for sale. Then he finds out that Evan died without ever publishing it. With this knowledge Jacob takes a fateful step: using Evan’s plot to pen his own novel.
When Jacob’s book Crib is released, he soaks up the celebrity and success Evan predicted. Suddenly, however, he receives a series of e-mails calling him a thief for stealing the plot from Evan. His feelings of terror at being unveiled and perceived as a plagiarist by the world begin as the unknown writer’s secret campaign towards him intensifies.
The Plot ultimately describes the soul and practice of writing: mundane struggles to find an agent and a route to glory, what writers find satisfying in their craft, their envy of fellow authors’ triumphs, and their longing for readers to resonate with their work. Even a successful author often finds only a solitary, often lonely way of connecting with the world at large outside of public readings.
At the same time this novel is a propulsive, well-written thriller and a twisty plot inside another, easy to read yet also provocative in the questions it raises. Who owns a story? Is every tale based on another? Is a plot proprietary? Can people truly own their personal stories?
The tone of The Plot reminds me of the massive bestseller Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, clever, nasty, and cold with a similar build of tension. Yet it is also sympathetic to writers and their struggles. In the end this novel describes itself, and author Jean Hanff Korelitz lurks unseen outside the story, a writer pulling our puppet strings to her own ends.