In his movies, Andrew Bergman is a writer and director of zany hilarity, the kook who dreamed up the congregation of flying Elvises in Honeymoon in Vegas and who coaxed Marlon Brando into doing a parody of The Godfather (on ice skates, no less) in The Freshman. The unwitting reader who picks up this novel expecting more slapstick from Bergman is in for a surprise—a moving tale of one man’s struggle to overcome the shame and stigma of incest.
Robby Weisglass is the son of a refined German-Jewish couple who survived the Holocaust and escaped to “darkest Queens.” His mother is a dark force of nature, a volcano of smothering love and possessiveness. His sister, the oversexed underwear model Carol, seduces Robby when he is 12. Meantime, his father is a remote cipher, oblivious to the hothouse of dysfunction he lives in.
Robby’s sad story is told through a series of flashbacks that emerge during 20 years on the psychoanalyst’s couch. Bergman’s descriptions of the abuse are steamy and graphic, and his ability to conjure the extreme delights and fears of childhood is flawless. So is his rendering of the New York Jewish immigrant experience and the perpetual sense of being the outsider—a feeling that is heightened in the victimized young Robby. “Did my entire family live outside the bounds of civilized society, like a group of Tennessee hill people?” he asks. “These are German Jews I’m talking about; Freud, Marx, Einstein—the intellectual behemoths of the modern era—were my compatriots…Did we represent some mutant strain…some morally diseased stock?” Robby does extricate himself from the past, finding love and redemption in the arms of Rebecca, a fellow incest survivor. The ghosts of his childhood will never fully be put to rest, but he’s able to lay claim to a life of his own. (Donald I. Fine, $19.95)
Talking with…Andrew Bergman
Take One of One
Andrew Bergman knows that writing convincingly about a man of his own age and background who is an incest victim is to invite nosy questions. “It’s absolutely inevitable,” he says. “But I’m not that guy—that’s what fiction is.” Sleepless, he explains, uses incest as a metaphor for another tragedy—the Holocaust, and how it spawned “a whole generation of kids who grew up thinking their feelings were second level, and that they couldn’t compete with what had happened.”
Bergman’s maternal grandparents perished in the Holocaust, and their deaths cast a long, dark shadow over his childhood in Queens, N.Y. The son of a radio-and-TV columnist for the New York Daily News, and a homemaker mother, Bergman managed to put that behind him. After earning a Ph.D. in American history at the University of Wisconsin, he wrote a film treatment in 1971 that three years later would become Blazing Saddles. In addition to writing Fletch and Soap Dish, Bergman also directs; his latest movie, It Could Happen to You, opens this summer.
Bergman, 49, is grateful his life has unfolded like a Hollywood fable. “I married a terrific woman,” he says, referring to Louise, 48, a psychotherapist, “and I have two great kids. My life has had an enormously happy ending.” ∎ N.M.