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Praying for Rain by Jerome Weidman (Harper & Row, $18.95, 422 pp.)

September 21, 1986|Charles Champlin

I still have on my shelves the copies of Jerome Weidman's first three novels, the Harry Bogen stories "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" and "What's In It For Me?" and "I'll Never Go There Any More." I can still summon the pleasing shock of discovery on first reading them 40-odd years ago.

I had ordered them by mail from the Book of the Month Club, there being no good book store within 50 miles. My family and teachers would, I suspect, have been horrified to know the impolite and unsparing candor of the work I was reading.

The novels were hard R in a time when few novels went beyond a polite PG. But their pace, their characterizations, their brutally funny accuracy of dialogue, their capturing of a garment district-Broadway-New Jersey roadhouse milieu as foreign to me as Montparnasse were revelations, not only as reportage but as demonstrations of the further possibilities of the written word.

Weidman has subsequently published 19 more novels, seven collections of short stories, four books of essays, five plays and now a rich and revealing autobiography, "Praying for Rain."

He helped transpose "I Can Get It For Your Wholesale" into a musical that gave Barbra Streisand as Miss Marmelstein to a ready world. He has a Tony and part ownership of a Pulitzer Prize for "Fiorello!"

The stock finish of the autobiography is an account of working with George Abbott (now 97, then only 70) on "Fiorello!" It is another out-of-town tryout saga, asking the age-old question: What to do about the second act? But it is also a short, swift treasury of philosophical theatrical guidance from a master fixer.

Once a storyteller always a storyteller, you have to believe, although in his recent "Here Lies," Eric Ambler approached his own story with a reluctance near to aversion.

No such constraints inhibit Weidman. "Praying for Rain" is a succession of dramatically-wrought scenes and sequences, efficiently doubling as enlightenment and entertainment. An account of a perilous wartime voyage to England in a slow convoy ravaged by German U-boats is a thrilling narrative.

The names of some of the remembered figures, Weidman remarks, have been changed. But famous names are plentiful, including Somerset Maugham, who became a lifelong friend and mentor; Wolcott Gibbs, his editor for years at The New Yorker; John O'Hara, a font of sardonic good advice about the magazine; Robert E. Sherwood, who was Weidman's boss during his wartime service with the Office of War Information; Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett at home; and the disparate Max Schuster and Richard Simons, who were Simon & Schuster, his first publishers.

Weidman was living with his family in a crowded flat on the legendary Lower East Side of Manhattan and working as an office boy in a garment district accounting firm, specializing in bankruptcies, when it occurred to him to tell stories.

A character he calls Lindsay C. Trimingham, a publisher (The American Headlight) so broke he made house calls because he couldn't afford postage, mistakenly identified him as a writer when he wasn't, yet.

Weidman found that he was, and began to sell stories to The American Mercury and The New Yorker. He was still making $11 a week when "I Can Get It For You Wholesale" was published in 1937. His accountant boss, Monroe Geschwind, who read "Bleak House" during the lunch hour, proudly fired him, realizing he'd lost an office boy but gained another writer he could read.

The new author moved his family to the Bronx and kept writing. It's an autobiographical temptation to bathe the past in a rosy glow of forgiveness and acceptance. Weidman has, however, not forgotten the posturing pomposity of an early editor, for example, or the arrogance of a Hollywood emissary who tried to persuade Simon & Schuster to withdraw Weidman's first novel as anti-Semitic. It wasn't and S&S didn't, although the denouement was not quite so tidy as that.

Weidman paints a proud, sad, affectionate portrait of his immigrant mother, who never overcame her terror of feeling a stranger in a strange and alienating land.

The immigrant culture Weidman evokes from his childhood and early manhood (he was born in 1913) has begun to speak in other accents. But it will find later voices who, like Weidman, can celebrate the endurance of the workers (Weidman's father was one) in the sweatshop lofts, and their children who fought exhaustion in night school to get ahead.

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