STUFFED IN the middle of my review copy of Ladies and Gentlemen--LENNY BRUCE!! I found a thick sheaf of slick xeroxed copies of reviews which the book had already received. Putting them aside, annoyed, I noticed a half-page of typescript, "About the Author." That seemed legit as preliminary reading. But the short biography-hype was culled from a self-advertising essay of Goldman's which I had read before: "Shuttling back and forth between Columbia University, where he was a lecturer, and Brooklyn, where he was one of the gang that ran with Lenny Bruce, Mr. Goldman developed early the split personality, one-half New York intellectual, one-half Brooklyn-Broadway wise guy. His critical career began, etc., etc."
Claiming to be two places at once--within ivied walls yet outside them as well, on the "streets" or on the "land" or wherever--denotes a kind of selfimage which inhabits a fantasy world belonging to undergraduates. A professional academic ought to have known better. You can't cruise Broadway all night or spit verbal napalm at the world from a fire escape in the Jewish ghetto and spend the rest of your time giving lectures and writing for learned and prestigious journals. You can try it, of course, but your experience in edge city, of bleakness and rancor and the humor they generate, becomes a shallow, vicarious one. That at least had been my impression of much of Goldman's earlier work. It was hamstrung in diction and conceptualization between two worlds. So I expected a misshapen book, claiming to be inside Lenny Bruce's soul on one page and attempting to deliver rounded critical assessments on the next. A monster hybrid, half Tom Wolfe, half Lionel Trilling. And I was reasonably close in surmising what Goldman would set out to do, but dead wrong about the shape of his new enterprise.
As a critic Goldman brilliantly conveys his reckoning of Bruce as a kind of artistic genius who falls outside of all high-brow categories. Bruce was a great stand-up comic, a vital master of the "spritz." But the "spritz" belongs in what is called "popular culture"; it is urban folk art. Bruce is an urban American primitive, a Jewish Leadbelly. And besides Goldman such folk art hasn't yet enlisted too many serious students. Goldman has staked out a new region that promises to be a "field of the future" among scholars and critics. Through his magazine articles and essays on jazz, rock and sick, black and Jewish comics, he has established himself as its intellectual squatter-in-residence. Goldman could have made Ladies and Gentlemen--LENNY BRUCE!! an occasion for laying down the definitive doctrines and canons not only on Bruce's art but on the whole cultural milieu in which it flourished.
Bruce's routines tapped the ghetto idiom and jazz slang of the fifties black jazz musicians with whom he gigged, scored junk and shot up. He mined the radio shows and grade B movies of the thirties and forties to forge his early mordant satires. Finally, Bruce found his most comprehensive metaphor for human experience in the hustling world of show business itself. As Goldman reconstructs and distills the creative process, Bruce's greatest work would invariably pose the question:
What if all the great people of this world...are simply the sort of crude, cynical shyster businessmen and degenerate hustlers that you find on Broadway, the New Jersey shingle business or out on the road pushing baby pictures...What if we get behind the scenes in the White House or St. Patrick's or the Vatican at Rome, we were to find precisely the same mixture of crass exploitation and petty cunning that you find when you walk into a theatrical agent's office in the Brill Building or 1590 Broadway?
GOLDMAN RANGES over and explores all these cultural "influences" with a superb critical imagination. But he examines them directly and concretely in terms that bespeak familiarity rather than scholarly distance. And he discovers them embedded in the day-to-day encounters and imaginative responses that made up Bruce's life. Bruce's life, his work and days, not the order or development of Goldman's critical ideas, provide the chapter-by-chapter organization of Ladies and Gentlemen. The book proceeds as a reconstruction of that life out of masses of interviews and recollections. It draws as well on Goldman's own encounters with Bruce's various benighted worlds.
Not only familiarity but self-knowledge and sympathetic imagination are among the ingredients of this outstanding biography and separate it from Goldman's earlier writing. Tracing the roots and reaches of Bruce's genius, he writes in a style charged with Bruce's own idiom and raging humor and amazingly achieves in print something approaching the same verbal energy. You cannot read his harrowing descriptions of Bruce's needle ravaged limbs or his raucously humorous passages describing Lenny's absurd, infantile and frequently brutal relationships without entering deeply into the man's experience.
Yes, Goldman does thrust us inside the soul of Lenny Bruce and of scores of people who nurtured, cared for, lionized or harassed and preyed on him. He does so without in the least sanctifying Bruce himself, and he renders dignity and wholeness to people whom Bruce scorned. Goldman employs the same narrative techniques and extremities of diction, the verbal overkill, that characterize a faulted New Journalism, but he uses them with a measure of critical judgment, detached reflection and craft that others lack.
In Ladies and Gentlemen--LENNY BRUCE!! Goldman the critic, the academic intellectual, and Goldman the New Journalist have come to terms. The book is neither hamstrung nor hybrid because Goldman no longer attempts to be in two places at once. Ladies and Gentlemen stands clearly outside academic style and respectability. It would hardly be more acceptable as a Columbia faculty product than Tropic of Cancer, yet it draws deeply on the intellectual breadth and critical skill Goldman acquired in his academic apprenticeship.