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CRITIC AT LARGE

Author Too Familiar With '50'

October 01, 1987|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

NEW YORK — Avery Corman, who wrote "Oh, God!," "The Old Neighborhood" and "Kramer vs. Kramer," has recently published "50," from the birthday of the same name.

It is a sharp-edged but finally reassuring novel about a sports writer, lately divorced (against his own wishes) and hurtling toward 50 with frayed cuffs, cheap furniture and an imperiled job. The dating game has lost its charm and the sports magazine he works for has been bought by a Texas conglomerate that has devised a way of pretesting columns, market-wise, before they appear.

As it happens, Corman has never met a Deity who smoked cigars and talked like George Burns, never worked in an ad agency (like the protagonist of "The Old Neighborhood"), never fought over the custody of a child like Kramer, and has never been a sports writer or divorced.

But he is 51, and 50 he knows.

"Clearly there is something very powerful attached to the big decade birthdays," Corman says. "It's not a conspiracy as such, but you've got the fashion industry, the cosmetics industry, the movie industry all sending the message, 'Young is best.' That has to have an effect.

"But of course it's a lie. That's not best. Best has to do with however you live your life."

Still, Corman acknowledges with a sigh, the world does remind you that 50 is not 20. "You look around one day and the ballplayers are younger than you are. That's a big thing. The people in commercials are younger than you are. Even the yuppies are going to have to worry about that pretty soon. When they look at the soft-drink commercials, they don't see yuppies any more. The doctors are younger than you; that comes as a shock. Clergymen are younger than you."

But, Corman says valiantly, "Even if that's true, it doesn't mean you're washed up. The culture may be sending a message, but it's not true. There's more time.

"I think of it as a kind of opportunity, because if you are thinking about your own mortality, then you think about your achievements and how you measure yourself."

Corman was in the area a few weeks ago promoting "50," and strolled down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. "I thought to myself, 'It's like a theme park. It might be nice to have some of those items. I suppose it's a wonderful way to measure success. But someone will always have more items than you do. You'll always lose, and it's crazy to get caught up in that kind of aspiration in the first place.'

"And there'll always be someone making more money than you do, for doing things you don't think are worth doing. 'Make that money for that? ' "

Corman's sports writer, Doug Gardner, is re-evaluating his life under multiple pressures, tempted by some rich alternatives but concluding that he is at heart a writer who has even now not pushed himself to his best work.

Reactions to "50" have tended to be personal and visceral ("You wrote it for me"). "I think Doug Gardner stood for a lot of people who are going through that crisis. In a way, it's a larger version of the choices you face as a free-lance writer. What assignments do you take? What's selling out, what isn't?"

Corman grew up in an apartment on Grand Concourse in the Bronx, saw "Oklahoma!" at an impressionable age and decided he wanted to write for the musical theater. He had written songs at summer camp.

More practically, he studied at NYU and saw himself as an advertising copywriter; nobody else in the old neighborhood had done that. He learned why, he says: "There was virulent anti-Semitism in the ad business and here was I, a Jewish kid from the Bronx, trying to enter a very WASP world.

"I wandered into my 20s not really sure where I was going," Corman says. He worked in magazine promotion (but never for an ad agency), did free-lance articles and collaborated on a book, wrote plays and songs and, if he fantasized, fantasized "about writing Eydie Gorme's next hit."

One of his plays was optioned, although never produced. In 1970, at 35, he married and he realized that free-lance pieces were a shaky financial basis for family life. He had done a humor piece for a magazine in the form of an interview with God, and decided to try the idea at book length.

"Oh, God!" was published in 1971, but it sold poorly as a book. "Life was more of a struggle than ever because now I saw myself as a novelist." Eventually the movies bought it, which helped no little. "Until then, the rent money was in doubt."

He wrote "Kramer vs. Kramer," not initially as a novel about a custody fight but as a look at child-rearing from birth forward from the father's viewpoint. "The custody fight came later with the plotting."

Tri-Star has bought "50" for Sydney Pollack's company, and Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen's longtime collaborator, is working on the script. Corman thinks he has been well served by the movies, which, with whatever plot changes took place, have honored the intentions of the books. "It's all you can ask. I'm not happy with novelists who trash the movie versions; that's duplicitous."

Corman has begun a new novel. He writes in a small apartment three blocks from the building in which he lives. "It's a yuppie building," Corman says of his workplace, "and every morning these kids in their Reebok sneakers and their hair wet from the shower come rushing out to kill the world, and this 51-year-old man in a bush jacket walks in to go to work."

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