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Never Too Late

At 90, Baltimore Native Millard Kaufman Finally Gets Around to Writing His Ribald First Novel

M. Wartella

By John Lingan | Posted 12/26/2007

It's difficult to discuss Millard Kaufman without simply listing the particulars of his biography: Born in Baltimore, Kaufman fought in Guadalcanal for the U.S. Marine Corps, fronted for Dalton Trumbo during the Hollywood blacklist, co-created Mr. Magoo in 1949, was twice nominated for screenwriting Oscars in the '50s, and won the Brussels World's Fair screenwriting award, for Raintree County, in 1958. He's since taught at his alma mater, the Johns Hopkins University, and the Sundance Institute, written a screenwriting guide, and now, at age 90, published his first novel, Bowl of Cherries, through McSweeney's.

Author bios are often mere journalistic filler, but in this case it lends poignancy to Kaufman's satirical aims to know a little about the man. Bowl of Cherries reads like a picaresque Kurt Vonnegut farce narrated by Augie March. Fourteen-year-old Judd Breslau recounts the escalating misadventures that eventually land him on death row in the fictional Iraqi province of Assama where, apropos of nothing, all the buildings are made of dried feces. Along the way he encounters all varieties of human hubris and ambition, only to conclude quietly that politics, academia, and the arts are products of the same narcissism. It's a message that feels appropriate coming from an older writer with Kaufman's experiences.

"Almost everything important that happens in a person's life is a surprise," Kaufman says by phone, claiming that his novelistic aspirations were delayed because he had such a fruitful and enjoyable Hollywood career. "I was constantly busy for so many years writing pictures."

A quote from W. Somerset Maugham--"There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are."--provided the necessary impetus. "I asked myself, `If there really aren't rules, then why the hell can't I write one?'" he says. Kaufman drew inspiration from the "herky-jerky" plots of Charles Dickens, whom he considers "the best writer in the English language," as well as from the ornate language of The Great Gatsby, which he claims to read once a year, adding, "More than one reviewer has compared my writing to Fitzgerald's--I nearly fell down when I read that." In conversation Kaufman is modest and gently profane in an Old Hollywood kind of way, equally comfortable admiring Shakespeare and admitting that "a lot of Hollywood pictures are just plain shit."

While the novel's action ranges from high academia to the Manhattan pornography industry, and while Judd is obviously quite intelligent and capable, his only real passion is for his peer Valerie Chatterton, particularly her stunning body. Bowl of Cherries is funniest when Kaufman indulges his Rabelaisian streak: Valerie first appears playing tennis, her "plangent breasts . . . uncontaminated by a bra, alive alive-o like two playful puppies under a thin blanket." Later, a scheming American businessman refers to Assama's architectural material as "evacuative biodegradables."

Judd's arcane vocabulary sounds suspiciously more like a word-drunk nonagenarian's than a teenager's, but the writing is still a hoot. The descriptions of Judd's troubled upbringing (in a house where "all was rampage") and the world of higher education (full of "varnished truths, petty dissections . . . the stale sad smell of school libraries") are as gorgeously blooming as his carnal adventures are funny. The novel is too long and its cast of calculating entrepreneurs too large, but it is a knowing satire of the American lust for recognition at any cost, and here is where Kaufman's résumé resonates.

Everyone in Bowl of Cherries is searching for their own brand of fame, be it the scientist who wants to use sound waves as an energy source, the dimwitted aspiring actor, or Judd's father, whose unrequited longing for professorial tenure drives him insane. This impulse never suits Judd, who, with the exception of his erotic longings, is mainly content to let life carry him where it will. The novel isn't so much about Judd's education as it is about his personal validation; he knows from the start that fame is a false idol, and he simply acquires the confidence to reject those who are "puppets of their own passion, whose goal [is] to look out on the lesser world from the cover of People magazine."

This sentiment is one thing from the mouth of a teenager, but it's far more convincing from the pen of a man whose 90 years have led him through the military, academia, and Hollywood. "Perhaps my experience was limited," Judd says. "But I'd never known a honcho who didn't feel that his all-consuming mission wasn't in the service of mankind. All of them saw themselves as God's partners, whether in the pursuit of peace or plenty, beauty or truth."

The Iraq setting and an overly cartoonish rendering of President Bush may lead some readers to think that Kaufman's book is political, but he claims that it's power, not nationality, that corrupts. "People who are in control like to throw their muscles around," he says in a surprisingly forgiving tone. Like his satire, Kaufman's personal attitude toward human wrongdoing feels more observational than barbed. "I never understood why people don't like it out here," he says of Los Angeles, his oft-satirized adopted home. "It's so friendly. Most of the criticism comes from people who had trouble finding success, I suppose."

Kaufman's own Hollywood success was early and consistent, and he never took that for granted. His first job, at United Productions of America, introduced him to legendary animator John Hubley. The two would later collaborate and invent Mr. Magoo. "Magoo was based on my uncle," Kaufman says. "We wanted to show a character who was convinced that his perception of the world was the only right one."

In this way, Mr. Magoo and Bowl of Cherries are of a piece. Even Bad Day at Black Rock, perhaps Kaufman's most famous screenplay, concerns a group of men who are willing to kill in order to suppress a damning secret. Kaufman claims that any thematic similarities between these three wildly different works are completely subconscious, although he's also fond of reciting another Maugham quote about novel writing: "Find your subject and stick to it like grim death." Possibly without even recognizing it, Kaufman has been sticking to the subject of human obstinacy over his long and inimitable career.

Of course, it's easy to be forgiving when reading a first novel by a man who has achieved so much and already exceeded the average life expectancy, but Kaufman's writing is incredibly sharp and his mistrust of authority is earned. Bowl of Cherries is an imperfect book but a fun and smart one, and thankfully Kaufman says he's already at work on its follow-up. "I've also got a lot more Dickens to read," he adds. "I still haven't read everything by the guy." It's enough to make a fellow reader feel old.

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