The author of the book was 89 at the time of writing and it shows in his use of language. Instead of using 5 percent of the English language Kaufman probably used 10 percent or more. This is the first book that I have read in a long time where I needed to look up a few words. I also enjoyed the way he put words together. What I didn't really care for was the story itself. It made me think that the author was recalling what he wished teen sex life would be like, i.e. every girl you met that you liked was also big into sex and wasn't afraid to let you know. The story was so improbable that it made me wonder if Kaufman was trying to write the ultimate farce of academia, government mismanagement, and living a happy life. The book had its moments but unless you are into how an author uses the English language I would give this one a pass.
... not too sweet, and not too tart; but a delicious mouthful bursting with both. This novel reads as a fun, satirical frolic with plenty of unexpected twists. I found myself avidly enjoying each chapter like a ripe cherry on a late summer's eve. There is a plentitude of $5 words which can lead you off on fun tangents of exploration in your handy dictionary; or like I did, one can underline them and return like a squirrel to a nut for an autumn's eve of scholarly study. So it is that Kaufman indulges the reader with language that so very unfortunately is no longer enjoyed in these rat-race days of terse and abbreviated, instant-messaging intercourse. With such an eloquent use of vivid language, the lucid nonagenerian author dresses English in its Sunday best and parades it, as if to presage us, the younger readers, to rage, rage against the dying of the light and not allow our language to languish to the pathetic destitution of nothing more than mere pulp fiction and text messages. So, enjoy the show!
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.
(Note: I did not read this but bought the audio version...I imagine it was a good book until it was destroyed by this rendition.) I will never listen to another book narrated by Bronson Pinchot. He was just awful. I couldn't take it any more, left just before the ending (I assume Our Hero lives because it is, after all, in the first person). I bought this on the recommendation of a review in EW. Shame on whoever it was who said it was fabulous.
I've read this wonderful novel three times - first when it was published, again about half a year ago, and now this third time, and I've found that my enjoyment only increases with each reading. And sadly, it's with this latest reading that I've discovered Millard Kaufman passed away, on March 15, 2009, at 92 years of age. I was floored to read that he's survived by his wife...of 66 years! I mourn his passing, but still...that's one full life, so at least we can be assuaged by the fact that Kaufman left us a lot of great material. (Including a second novel, "Misadventure," which McSweeney's will publish in Fall of 2009. I've been unable to discover what this novel will be about, but you can be sure I'll be pre-ordering it.)
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.
People either love or hate this book. While I like Vonnegut, Catch-22, etc, this book is unique. And entertaining. Kaufman's word choice is fantastic (yeah. he uses big words. Get over it and learn something) and he has great characters (a zany egyptologist who only wears dirty bathrobes, for example) and absurdly comical locales (a porn studio, old mansion, etc), and the circumstances that get the main character to Iraq are great. Tried to explain this book to a friend and came off sounding like a crazy person. As others have said, the second half isn't as good but I was still more than willing to push through it and get to the end. Over all, I found this book entertaining, thought-provoking, and different.