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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

‘Backing Into Forward’ With Humor and Chutzpah

Jules Feiffer describes his singular journey

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To hear Jules Feiffer tell it, he all but had to be talked into writing Backing Into Forward (Talese/Doubleday), one of the most entertaining memoirs you’re likely to read this (or any other) year. The prizewinning cartoonist and playwright, novelist, movie scriptwriter, children’s book author/illustrator and unabashed liberal gadfly has lived a life too large for a single book, and interesting enough to make a reader beg for more detail after every anecdote.

Raised in the Bronx by a demanding mother and a gentle yet unsuccessful father, Feiffer learned, fairly early on, that his wit and prodigious imagination were his greatest weapons against real and imagined roadblocks. By his own admissions, he had very little natural or acquired talents to offer. He was uncoordinated and wimpy, rendering him all but useless on the playgrounds and streets of the big city, where athleticism could take you a long way. As an aspiring cartoonist, he was inhibited by only marginal drawing and lettering skills. The opposite gender, to whom he was not only attracted but obsessed, presented mysteries that took him well into adulthood to solve.

Yet, as this book repeatedly shows, he could always rely on his mind for rescue and triumph, even if success was often a happy accident. This wise-cracking, storytelling Jewish kid from the Bronx and survivor of the Great Depression wrangled with his fears—and there were many—by somehow convincing, first himself and, later, editors and readers, that the difference between him and us was his inner voice and chutzpah, that he was bold or crazy enough to say what we were always thinking but were too cowardly or unable to say.

As a teenage kid with no experience in comics, he approached Will Eisner and landed a job, first as a gofer around the office but eventually as a collaborator on The Spirit, arguably the most influential work of graphic art in its time. A stint in the Army is related with both humor and outrage, giving the book and Feiffer definition.

The absurdity of military life zapped him, much the way it did Joseph Heller or Kurt Vonnegut, and affected his work from that point on. He took a job as a cartoonist—for no pay, no less—with The Village Voice, then in its early days, culminating in a 42-year relationship and a Pulitzer Prize, even though, as he confesses, he had no idea where he was going from one week to the next. Although he knew nothing about writing a play, he headed to Yaddo, the upstate New York artists’ colony, and came up with Little Murders, an initial flop that, in a later off-Broadway production, won him acclaim and an Obie. Little Murders introduced him professionally to Mike Nichols, the hot new kid in town, who, after directing The Graduate, filmed Feiffer’s screenplay for Carnal Knowledge, which introduced Feiffer to Jack Nicholson.

One way or another, Feiffer backed into an incredibly interesting life and met some fascinating people along the way. Feiffer maintains a loose, self-effacing, wise-cracking, name-dropping style throughout the book, smoothing out the sharper edges of ego, although he reserves a tough stance for those occasions when he writes about politics, whether the McCarthy and HUAC witch hunts or the most recent Republican administration. He’s proud to wear the label “liberal”—he scorns the now-popular “progressive”—and he’s not afraid to bare his fangs when he writes about the ways in which he has been disappointed or angered over the past half-century.

His analysis of our current political morass is both funny and poignant.

“Unlike Democrats, Republicans are seen as real men,” he writes. “John Kerry, who fought in Vietnam, is not a real man. Dick Cheney, who shot a best friend on a hunting trip and saw no reason to apologize, is a real man. It makes no difference that the Democrat is a war hero and the Republican is a draft dodger. Image is all, and real men don’t apologize. Republicans own the real-man image.”

Lavishly illustrated with samples of his work, Backing Into Forward rushes along so effortlessly that you realize, when you hit the end, that you want to know more. In the end, Feiffer reminds you of the class clown you knew in school, the guy who got you in trouble for laughing at the comments he made under his breath, the guy who used humor to convert rage into something you would never quite forget.

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