The End of the Halcyon Days
It is difficult to write about any cataclysmic event without first prefacing with a reference to our new benchmark in tragedy, September 11th. The truth of the matter is, we have many onerous where-were-you-when? dates in our country’s history. As the decades move forward, we revise our list of events, putting new horrific ones at the top. Every era of our history seems to have its benchmark. Our collective memory spans our living generations, witnessed by the date of the onset of World War I being replaced by the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma City bombing and the terrorist attack on New York City and Washington DC. Arguably, and tragically, as many events populate the list, each individual has their own set of top 10 dates that will live in personal infamy.
Jack Engelhard, in his book The Days of the Bitter End, puts one such date into cultural perspective. November 22, 1963. The day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, referred to as the day “America lost its innocence,” has been the standard bearer of tragedy for almost 40 years. Kennedy’s assassination began an era of change for this country. Out of the post-war economic boom into the struggle for civil rights and the bitter years of Viet Nam, Engelhard’s coming-of-age tale centers around Cliff Harris, a comedian who’s made the big time in the early ‘60s Greenwich Village scene by successfully imitating JFK. From the Ed Sullivan Show to sold-out live performances, the story follows Harris’s career as he rises from obscurity and then, with the death of JFK, he falls from grace.
But don’t be misled, the book is not depressing. Engelhard displays sheer genius as he describes Cliff Harris, the patrons of The Bitter End (a comedy/night club) and the residents of the infamous 1960s Greenwich Village scene. It may be pop culture fiction—the reader is thrown headfirst into the life of Lenny Bruce (one of the characters who populates The Bitter End)—but you believe the dialogue, you just “know” Engelhard was there.
Narrator Ben Jaffa, one of the main characters, is a Holocaust survivor. The story revolves around his experiences as well as Harris’s. Jaffa’s character is defined by the statement: “When asked mockingly by his nonconformist friends if he was a patriot, Ben said No, not a patriot, but grateful.” I found myself wondering how much of a role Engelhard’s personal experiences played in the character’s creation. (Engelhard, born in Toulouse, France, escaped to America with his family during the Nazi invasion.)
Engelhard told me, “You are correct that Ben Jaffa evolved as the narrator—and “evolved” is the key word. I never intended Ben to be me, but novels take on a life of their own. Ben’s “gratitude” to be an American (after his Holocaust experience) does reflect my own feelings. But Ben is still Ben. He is not the author.”
Invariably, a book of this nature is going to wander into a pop culture commentary. Believing “nothing NEW has come along since the Beatles,” Engelhard told me “the ‘60s made the indelible imprint that persists to this day - politically and culturally. Relations between men and women (women’s liberation, sexual liberation) relations between the races (protests that sparked civil rights legislation in 1964 and 1965) are very much a part of our lives today.”
I asked Engelhard about his personal connection to the 1960s Greenwich Village scene.
The Days of The Bitter End is (of course) a work of fiction. But fiction is supposed to be truer than truth. “Days” is a work of the imagination, but it is set against an historical backdrop. This did require research - research that came from books, and from my own experiences.
I was there in the ‘60s, in Greenwich Village and was indeed the doorman at the Bitter End for two summers (partly into the fall) 1964-1965 . . .
The interaction between characters are imagined, as is the dialog. I “knew” Lenny Bruce simply as one of the guys who hung out with us after-hours at the Hip Bagel. If he were around today he would not know my name, but might recognize me as—yeah, he was one of the cats that hung out.
But Lenny Bruce was not part of the Sullivan Street Irregulars. Neither was Cliff Harris. I made all that up. I think.
No stranger to cultural commentary, Engelhard is also known for his novel, Indecent Proposal. Re-released by ComteQ Communications, the original novel isn’t just about Demi Moore screwing Robert Redford for a million dollars, it’s a tale of two opposing cultures, an Arab vs. Jewish theme. Joshua Kane, a Jewish corporate speechwriter, and his wife Joan, make a devil’s pact with an oil-rich Arab to cover Joshua’s gambling losses. The new edition contains an introduction by Engelhard about how Hollywood tried to “hush” the Arab/Jewish theme. Which is not to say Engelhard was dissatisfied with the movie.
Books and movies are two different things and each must live and breathe and succeed singularly and apart. Plainly, here’s my take on adapting one artist’s medium to another. You can’t tell the other guy how you see your work. You see it your way, he sees it his way and it’s not for you to get all sensitive and touchy about changes. You’ve got your vision. He’s got his. Beethoven would not dare to tell Picasso how to pain his Fifth Symphony.
When it was first released, the New York Times Book Review reviewed Indecent Proposal, commenting: “The struggle between these two embraces a number of primal issues: the Jew versus significant-non-Jews, materialism versus spirituality, Israel versus the Arab countries, the past versus the future, and the religious world versus the secular one.” While you’re grabbing a copy of The Days of the Bitter End, get the latest edition of Indecent Proposal and read the real story.
But, back to The Days of the Bitter End. in response to my question, “The cultural dialogue seems to take the novel beyond its fictional context and into an essay on pop culture. It’s very powerful and you employ this type of ‘lecture’ through the book. What do you think are the most important lessons a reader can draw from this book?” Engelhard wrote:
To sum up, we are still living under the umbrella of the ‘60s. This is where today’s culture had its foundation. I must add, however, that when we I talk about the 60s we’re talking about a decade that had two different faces—comedy (first half), tragedy (second half). I tried to reflect that in the novel. I concentrated more on the first half because the period that SIGNALS a change is more dramatically appealing (to me) than the change itself—like James Jones From Here To Eternity. I mean How-Did-Things-So-Sweet-Get-So-Bitter was my question. (I happen to believe that a novel should ask more than it answers. Answers are for the reader. Questions are for the author. That’s the difference between Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Hemingway had the answers, Fitzgerald had the questions, and as of the moment Fitzgerald is outlasting Hemingway).
Each day that lives in infamy presents a new criteria for learning, an opportunity for reflection. No act of terrorism, no defining historical moment, stands alone. When the prize is the American dream, the fight can be both devastating and exhilarating.