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Haunted by Memory : Among the last literary voices of Jewish New York, Henry Roth struggled with writer's block and Daniel Fuchs came West to Hollywood.

January 30, 1994|GABRIEL MILLER | Gabriel Miller is chairman of the English Dept. at Rutgers University and is writing a book about film director Martin Ritt

The death of Daniel Fuchs on July 26, 1993, received little attention in the press. Fuchs himself was partially responsible for maintaining his position on the periphery of literary reputation. Approached by a young admirer, he remained shy about providing information about himself, suggesting that his life and work did not merit the fuss and attention. When, belatedly, his work began to receive some notice from the scholarly community, he was privately pleased, but he still tried to keep his distance.

Fuchs was a writer's writer. John Updike recommended him for the National Academy of Arts and Letters and wrote an afterword to the paperback edition of his 1971 novel, "West of the Rockies." Mordecai Richler wrote in the New York Times Book Review: "Whenever Jewish writers of my generation come together to celebrate those books that really mattered to us when we were young, the novels that shaped us . . . somebody will unfailingly ask, 'Do you remember the Williamsburg Trilogy?' "

The three novels on which Fuchs' reputation primarily rests, "Summer in Williamsburg" (1934), "Homage to Blenholt" (1936), and "Low Company" (1937), were initially received with a lethal combination of fine reviews and poor sales. The experience soured him, and he left for Hollywood in 1937. RKO had bought his short story, "Crazy Over Pigeons," which was eventually made into "The Day the Bookies Wept," starring Joe Penner. Fuchs stayed on in Hollywood to become a successful screenwriter, writing the cult classic "Criss Cross," "Panic in the Streets," and "Hollow Triumph" and winning an Academy Award for the original story of "Love Me or Leave Me" in 1955.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 6, 1994 Home Edition Book Review Page 13 Book Review Desk 1 inches; 35 words Type of Material: Correction
In "Haunted by Memory" (Jan. 30) two of the books we identified as written by Daniel Fuchs are by another Daniel Fuchs. Only "Summer in Williamsburg" (Carroll & Graf) and "Homage to Blenholt" (Omnigraphics) are by the author discussed in the article.

Meanwhile, Fuchs published numerous short stories, many in The New Yorker and The Saturday Evening Post, as well as essays and reminiscences. The best of these were collected in "The Apathetic Bookie Joint" (1979), which also includes a masterful novella, "Triplicate," Fuchs' most openly autobiographical work and one of the most evocative stories ever written about Hollywood. He also wrote a Hollywood novel, "West of the Rockies" (1971).

The forsaking of art for commerce was in part responsible for the poverty of Fuchs' reputation. Ironically, Henry Roth, who also came of age in the 1930s and who published only one novel, "Call It Sleep" (his second is just being released; see Page 1 review), has fared better among critics and intellectuals. Fuchs was often amused at being confused with Roth by letter writers who wanted to know about his chicken farm. Roth was romanticized by critics as a genius suffering from writer's block, an eccentric who exiled himself rather than compromise his art. Fuchs, in contrast, opted to make a living rather than struggle on as a permanent substitute in the New York City public school system while writing at night and during summer breaks.

Unfortunately, he made his choice during a decade when commitment was all, and Hollywood was a dirty word. His contemporary, Clifford Odets, might agonize over the decision to sell out (and later write "The Big Knife" as an act of contrition), but Fuchs admitted no such qualms. In his autobiography, "A Margin of Hope," Irving Howe recalls being shamed by a letter from Fuchs, received after he had criticized in Commentary Fuchs' move to Hollywood. Fuchs explained that he had simply wanted to make his living as a writer, but his fiction had not paid the bills. Should he have starved his young family for the sake of art?

Fuchs was bothered by the "Whatever happened to you?" queries. At times he protested too much, claiming that he had, after all, kept on writing. But in spite of the stories and essays he managed to produce, his film work clearly did keep him from the sustained artistry he might have achieved--that potential realized in "Triplicate," which appeared after he had stopped writing for the movies.

Unlike other Easterners who went West, Fuchs considered writing for film difficult, and said so. He never condescended to the movies as others did, but respected its craft. Fuchs often wrote of the hard work and the grief that went into writing for the movies, the despair at not getting it right, "the mountains of failed screenplays on the shelf." He felt that it was the same with fiction writing: "You have the same record of misses, the bouts of wretchedness, the typed sheets of paper going flat in your hands." The central difference was that the studios paid you for unaccepted work, while publishers didn't.

The despair is an attitude bred in the tenements, like the isolation and the claustrophobia. In all of Fuchs' novels one feels the oppression, the perception of imprisonment in an airless cell. This sense is both physical, enforced by the atmosphere, and psychic. Escaping it made the spaciousness of California seem positively magical to a young man who longed to breathe freely:

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