Narrated from a jail cell literally made of human shit in Nowhere, Iraq, Bowl of Cherries tells the story of Judd Breslau’s adolescence, from his expulsion from Yale at 14 (for his doctorate, no less) to his post as “researcher” for frumpled academic/nutjob Phillips Chatterton. This leads to travels to New York and ultimately Assama, a backward region of Iraq which has somehow escaped the horror of the war but is about to collide with Westernization in full force. Breslau awaits execution by the king of the region, and his story is filled with spite and bile, but of the most entertaining sorts. One can’t help but be delighted by proclamations of this boy genius such as, “What a vulgar way to die.”
Don’t be fooled: this is no simple coming-of-age novel. Breslau is no Holden Caulfield. His age—and its effect on his actions—is always apparent, but so is his intelligence and acerbic wit, making for a completely believable yet utterly sophisticated first-person narrator. At times Breslau conjures up (not merely refers to) the powerful intellectual voices of civilization. In one chapter, he’s positively Augustinian: “But Lord God Jesus, how we cling to the earth when we’re faced with the possibility of never seeing it again. Let the void swallow me up, but not yet.” Kaufman masterfully combines youthful anxiety, poetic exasperation, and crotchety cynicism into a single voice, wiser than all his comrades but just as lost.
After his brief stint at Yale, Breslau lives and works with Phillips Chatterton, leader of a research team which doesn’t believe in examining the past (lest it sully creativity) and is aiming toward proving the theory that the pyramids were built by harmonic resonance waves. Why does Breslau fall in with these crackpots? A girl, of course: Chatterton’s gorgeous and slightly older daughter, Valerie, not much on the book-smarts but nonetheless capable of igniting Breslau’s dormant hormones into a bizarre infatuation which leads to several conflicts with her Neanderthal boyfriend.
His passions draw him to a Colorado ranch—where he continues his sexual education—and then to New York, to reunite with Valerie and become entangled in a scheme to make millions. You see, for centuries the Assamans have made bricks from nothing more than feces and mud, yet their buildings have lasted completely untouched by time. This absurd quest for a new miracle building material brings Breslau and his confederacy of brilliant dunces into a remarkable third act, where Kaufman’s fantastic style is given meat as his themes finally come together.
Speaking of themes and Breslau’s sexual education, let’s talk sex. Normally I don’t think sex scenes are worth much mention in novels, but this one deserves exception. Breslau’s sexual experiences mirror all the anxiety and humor of his development, which is both grandiose and tritely adolescent. Kaufman takes the same obvious pleasure writing sex as he does anything else:
“It’s easy,” she said soothingly, “easier than trigonometry. So take it easy.” Her words, her trembling voice, then her hand on my limp sprout of spaghetti—that did it. Miraculously the cast flew off and my whole body became one blazing tumescent cock. With a deep anguished breath, I tumbled on her again and this time, bumblingly and with her help, I succeeded.
Now may be a good time to mention that Kaufman is 90 years old, a fact which, during scenes like these, made me giggle. It’s a testament to Kaufman’s character-sketching that we can delight in these scenes as much as we do—not because it shakes Breslau off his high intellectual horse so thoroughly, but because it edges him toward some measure of growth.
Surrounded by people all trapped in varying degrees of stasis, Breslau’s development is made all the more meaningful. His comrades are “motivated not by the love or the virtue of what they did but by a craving for celebrity, and so entrapped that they’d rather have been notorious than unknown.” Breslau’s growth is some of the only growth we see, due mostly (at the root) to his sexual [mis]adventures—and Kaufman nails it.
The only criticism I can offer of Bowl of Cherries is the amount of time it takes for things to happen. The novel winds up packing quite a punch with plenty of meaning for those who care to find it, but almost all of it is in the last third of the text. The first two acts can’t be called establishment proper because there’s too much variation in setting, and the plot of the third act seems to sprout from nowhere. More accurately, despite this not being your parents’ coming-of-age story—the novel takes the form of a bildungsroman, a character study of a young protagonist told almost entirely through progression of plot. At times, this can feel empty, because despite all that happens, it’s unclear if it’s of any consequence. Fortunately, Kaufman’s writing is addictive enough to keep the reader occupied and laughing, and when the action does kick in, it’s incredible. Despite this mild shortcoming, Bowl of Cherries is an absolute success, a blisteringly comic novel deserving the highest praise.