Rick's Reviews > Backing Into Forward

Backing Into Forward by Jules Feiffer
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's review
Jul 01, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: non-fiction

Cartoonist, playwright, film writer, children’s book author, and activist, Feiffer has certainly had an interesting life, and he was friends or worked with a ton of fascinating folks, including William Stryon, Alfred Kazin, Alan Arkin, Mike Nichols, Gene McCarthy, Maurice Sendak, Kenneth Tynan, Will Eisner, Robert Lowell, Philip Roth, Woody Allen, Roger Rosenblatt, Joseph Heller, Lillian Hellman, Art Buchwald, Edward Sorel, and more. His older cousin grew up to be attorney Roy Cohn. Feiffer was an early contributor, and a defining one, to the Village Voice, an alternative news and cultural weekly in New York. To top it off, Feiffer is a graceful, at times self-effacing writer. So, this should be wonderful, right? Right. But it’s not, despite the fact that it’s an easy read.

The early parts are the more interesting, perhaps because Feiffer still has grudges to settle with mom, in particular, and his Communist sister, Mimi (though it’s not her politics that are his problem with her) so there is at least a narrative pulse. By the time he finds his way, professionally and socially, things get more superficial and the story less interesting. Names get dropped but relationships go undeveloped. Often you learn of friendships after the fact, as you do with Philip Roth and Woody Allen. In the latter’s case, you learn they had been friends so Feiffer can share an undocumented judgment (Allen fakes his shyness) and an unconvincing anecdote about Allen inconveniencing him and an elevator full of celebrities too big to remember in the Dakota. At such low moments, Feiffer is both chippy and uninteresting. Other than the irony of he and his politically opposite cousin’s familial relationship nothing comes of Roy Cohn’s appearances in the memoir. His views of Cohn could have been from any liberal-left individual of the time and you get the sense the only contact he had with cousin Roy was via hand-me-down clothes.

Backing into Forward is not an autobiography and it’s barely a memoir. It reads like an evening with Jules Feiffer responding spontaneously to random questions about his life. The reader gets off the top of the head responses without depth or self-reflection. If you’re a fan of Feiffer or New York in the time between the 1930s and 1960s it may be worth your while—and largely for the illustrations from influential cartoonists and his own work samples—but barely.

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