For writers from Betty Smith to Pete Hamill, growing up in Brooklyn has been a literary event in itself; for others, growing up Jewish is another virtual plot device. Having been born a Jew in Brooklyn, Arthur Langer, poet, playwright, theatrical producer and manager, is twice blessed, and the crowded memories of his youth are the highlights of these generally strong, though sometimes uneven, autobiographical sketches.
Langer introduces weird Uncle Max, his grandmother (“a harridan, a shrew, … a shrike”) and other members of his sometimes-dysfunctional family. He takes us to Ebbets Field before the war, where hordes of excited boys collected autographs from their baseball heroes, and through his adventurous school days at PS 161 and later at Boys High. Drafted from the streets of Brooklyn into World War II, Langer was first assigned to ferreting out venereal disease among the troops in Northern California and then served as a medical orderly in a military prison. After discharge, he attended the University of Vermont, visited Nelson Algren in Chicago as a fan, and fell in love with musical theater.
These postwar memories tend toward the disjointed – unconnected leaps through time and space, from travels through Europe to a murder in the Bronx to a school reunion at The Friars Club in Manhattan. Though none of these wanderings detract much from the strength of the narrative, when Langer focuses on Princess Lollapalooze, a one-person musical he wrote for and about a woman who entertained troops in the Pacific during the war, things become a bit more tangled. Mixing lyrics and narrative bridges from that show with episodes from his own life tends to confuse, as does limiting his wife of many years to merely an occasional walk-on.
Yet, despite such stumbles, Songs at Twilight is a well-told tale of a life well lived. It should appeal to those interested in the inner workings of the theatrical world, coming-of-age stories and, of course, Brooklyn.
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