The insights in this book about becoming a successful playwright make the book more than a five star work. I do not remember reading or hearing a better discussion of what comedy is and should be about.
The book also has many beautiful insights into how to be and have a wonderful spouse. Those scenes from a marriage are often well worth restaging in your life.
This book is a fascinating series of skits, sketches, and one liners masquerading as a memoir. Although Mr. Simon was (with difficulty) able to transcend his training as a gag and sketch writer to learn playwriting, he made little attempt to learn autobiography for this book. Instead, he fell back on his most natural way of communicating, the humorous story. That approach provides the reader with the unexpected bonus of many funny stories and good laughs.
The time period covered is Mr. Simon's life from age 30 to 46, with occasional visits to his earlier years. You will never read or watch a Neil Simon play in the same way after reading this memoir. You will find yourself in closer touch with the bittersweet parts of these comedies as a result . . . and with your own innermost self.
If you have seen or read Chapter Two, you already knew that Mr. Simon had lost his first wife to cancer at a young age. What I did not realize is what an overwhelmingly tragic event this was for him. The marriage had been a magnificent one for two people who were deeply devoted to and supportive of one another. In a sense, the comedy in this book is simply there to heighten your ability to appreciate the real subject, the tragic loss. The jokes are like the gravediggers' scene in Hamlet, to relieve the heaviness of the ultimate atmosphere.
Mr. Simon is very candid in this memoir. He describes having his brother help him hire a lady who rented by the hour for his first sexual experience, having once asked his wife for his freedom (and then changing his mind 5 minutes later as she calmly went along), and a lot of very bad business decisions. He also describes the psychological problems that could plague him and others on Broadway. He also describes things using the "f" word a lot that offends many people.
Perhaps the most revealing parts are the ways that he mines every memorable encounter in his life into a play. It is as though playwriting is his way to get control over his fear of life.
As a writer, I was riveted by his detailed description of how he came to write Come Blow Your Horn as his first play, and to learn his craft through many painful rewrites. No one would ever have gone through what he did if you knew what was coming. Mr. Simon's very great dislike of Hollywood was a powerful spur into playwriting that drove him relentlessly. In the process, he brilliantly describes the insights that others shared with him, and that he learned. He became addicted to having people read the material aloud, so that he could hear their reactions. As soon as that occurred, he could ruthlessly edit and rewrite material -- even "forgetting" what he had written originally to write something better rather than trying to fix flawed approaches. Apparently, Mr. Simon's genius is that he rewrites much better than he writes. Interesting.
After you finish enjoying this book and giving it a symbolic standing ovation, I suggest that you create a similar outline of your life as a memoir that focuses on your most formative period. How did you get where you are today (for better or worse)? What does that mean? How could someone (including you) learn from this experience?
Mr. Simon had few regrets in his life. The deepest one was not telling his younger daughter, Nancy, that her mother was dying. What are you holding back now that you will regret someday?
on 20 April 2003
Witty, funny and absolutely heart warming. With my more than limited knowledge to the world of drama, I had actually never heard of Neil before reading this book. Now, in retrospect, I see what a brilliant writer he is. What you get is a vivid narration of his passion for theatre, his ups n' downs and his love and loss of his wife Joan (whom, thanks to Neil's wonderful description, I could not help but fall in love with a bit myself). A thousand thanks to Neil Simon for sharing his story with us, looking forward to reading the 2nd part of his life story in "The Play Goes On".