Magazine article The New Yorker

FIRST AT NINETY; the Literary Life

Magazine article The New Yorker

FIRST AT NINETY; the Literary Life

Article excerpt

Millard Kaufman, a debut novelist whose book "Bowl of Cherries" comes out this month, has been described by his publisher, McSweeney's, as quite possibly "the best extant epic-comedic writer of his generation." This is high praise, and would be higher still were it not for the fact that there are few, if any, epic-comedic writers extant from Kaufman's generation. Kaufman, who turned ninety in March, is seventy-six years older than the hero of "Cherries," who, through a number of compelling, if implausible, twists of fate, winds up in prison in the fictional southern Iraqi town of Coproliabad, so named for its specialization in turning human excrement into a kind of cheap, durable concrete.

"People seem to me to have a number of basic problems, and one of them is, What do you do with human waste?" Kaufman said the other day. "So I thought, What would happen if somebody took this stuff and did something positive with it?" The novel, which is equal parts "Catcher in the Rye" and "Die Hard," is likely to offend Iraqis to the same degree that the work of Sacha Baron Cohen offends natives of Kazakhstan. "It seemed to me there was a lot of public interest in Iraq, which is why I set it there, but it could have been set in Oswego, New York, where I have also never been," Kaufman said.

Kaufman grew up in Baltimore. After graduating from Johns Hopkins, he moved to New York and became a copyboy at the Daily News for thirteen dollars and seventy cents a week. When the Second World War broke out, he enlisted in the Marines, with whom he participated in the campaign to win Guadalcanal and landed at Guam and Okinawa. "I weighed a hundred and eighty-two pounds when I went overseas, and when my wife met me afterward she didn't recognize me--I weighed a hundred and twenty-eight," Kaufman said. "I had dengue fever and malaria, and I didn't really feel like I could spend the heat of the summer or the cold of the winter in New York anymore."

He moved to California, where he took up screenwriting, winning an Oscar nomination in 1953 for a movie called "Take the High Ground." (He was nominated again two years later, for "Bad Day at Black Rock.") He lent his name to Dalton Trumbo, who had been blacklisted, for a movie called "Gun Crazy. …

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