The Man Who Cries I Am

Originally published on May 4, 1987 | New York Magazine | written by John Leonard

Reread Saul Bellow's short novel either before or after you watch Seize the Day on Great Performances (Friday, May 1; 9 to 10:30 P.M.; PBS). Pay particular attention to the last two pages of the book and the last two minutes of the television adaptation. A defeated Tommy Wilhelm finds himself at a funeral service for a stranger. Contemplating the dead body of a man he never knew, he cries. It's a sob out of King Lear or Oedipus Rex, except that Tommy isn't big enough to be a king.

How do you read it? Is it despair, or prescience, or a howling like a wolf from the city window? While you decide, you will likely stop asking whether Robin Williams is the right man to play the part of Tommy Wilhelm, because that's the wrong question. Robin Williams is as good as any actor could be, which is not quite good enough.

Tommy's cry, full of grief, is also comprehending. It seems to embrace, although just what, we don't yet know. This is an act of language. We tend to forget how much of Bellow's art is language, because he's always punching us out with ideas, even ideas he disdains.

Bellow's probably tired by now of hearing how intelligent he is, as if what we were really saying is that a little reckless stupidity is good for a novelist. He knows perfectly well that ideas are a noose for a novel; it must breathe through its prose. That's why he describes Tommy's cry without explaining it. That cry in the mouth and on the face of Robin Williams is loud and sloppy and blank. Literature has its advantages.

Seize the Day is Death of a Salesman with brains. Tommy's doctor father wants him to become a doctor, too, but Tommy feels he can't cut it. Instead, he hits the road, changes his name from Adler to Wilhelm, fails as a Hollywood actor, and ends up selling children's furniture. Things go moderately well for a while, until he leaves his wife and sons, loses his job, and returns to New York and the Hotel Gloriana on Broadway to look for work. He squanders the last of his money on a stock speculation he gets roped into by the loquacious and unspeakable Tamkin. Frantic, lonely, exhausted, bewildered, furious, and inarticulate, he wants only, as he says at one point, that God should "let me out of my thoughts." But God, like his father, can't stand failures.

With the Gloriana, full of coupon clippers and their sycophants, Bellow gives us a culture whose only language is money. A Marxist couldn't have painted a more disgusting picture. But Bellow, of course, is not about to blame any institution outside the family and Tommy himself for Tommy's desperation. Unlike Arthur Miller, he isn't in the business of liberal nostrums. This money culture has its own weight and logic, and Tommy fails according to its terms.

Ugly stuff. Robin Williams is for the most part up to it. His nervous comic energy reverses itself; looking inward, it corrodes instead of tickling. He is all pain, no smirk, eating his cigarettes, popping his pills. It is a claustrophobic performance, as it should be. We are crowded by his helplessness and hopelessness. And what, exactly, are his sins? Disappointing his father? Changing his name? Going to Hollywood? Wanting love? Not belonging? It is perhaps no wonder that Williams can't manage a cry that reconciles us to the thought of death. The wonder may be that Bellow managed it.

Joseph Wiseman, as the father, is a monster of greedy rectitude, a man so lacking in the ordinary emotions as to approach the sociopathic. And Jerry Stiller as the con man Tamkin astounds. Sure, he gets most of the good lines; Bellow loves these gangster-savants, these philosophers of fraudulence, certainly more than he cares for any of his bitchy witch-women. Katherine Borowitz and Glenne Headly have supporting roles; Tony Roberts has a bit part, and so have Jo Van Fleet and Eileen Heckart. Bellow himself shows up, they tell us in the credits, although I missed him. Attention has been paid to every detail of this meticulous production.

Except that we aren't liberated by the wolf howl.

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