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Forgotten authors No 23: Robert Klane

Christopher Fowler
Sunday 15 February 2009 01:00 GMT

So far, many of our neglected writers have been sensitive souls whose graceful prose has fallen from fashion. Robert Klane is the opposite: loud, lewd, offensive and hilarious, his books kicked black comedy back into style with a mix of taboo-busting farce and broad Jewish schtick.

Born in 1941, Klane has been described as "Max Shulman spiked heavily with the Marquis de Sade", but he also incited comparisons to Joseph Heller and JD Salinger. In his first novel, The Horse Is Dead, published in 1968, the hero Nemiroff works as a counsellor at Camp Winituck, which looks "like a poorly run concentration camp". Nemiroff's bullied childhood leaves him with a hatred of all children, and he soon declares war on his charges. By the time parents' day and the titular dead horse arrive, most barriers of good taste have fallen.

Klane's prose is as blunt as a chucked brick. He has no time for niceties, and recognises that the best dark comedy, like life, is painful, mean and short. Where's Poppa? (1970) may be the ultimate Jewish mother novel. Trapped at home with a senile parent, a dominated and sleep-deprived lawyer continually loses his cases and his girlfriends. His attempts to frighten his ancient mother to death must be nightly defeated by his guilt-laden brother, who runs a gauntlet of Central Park muggers in order to prevent matricide, and to halt the receipt of said mother into his own home. The film version, made with George Segal and Ruth Gordon, suffered a failure of nerve in the final furlong and avoided the novel's brilliantly ghastly Oedipal outcome.

Klane's third novel, Fire Sale, in which the owner of a failing department store plans to have it torched for the insurance money by hiring an arson-prone mental patient to do the job, was filmed with Alan Arkin and Sid Caesar.

The books are oddly endearing because they capture the sheer unfairness of life, particularly as it was lived in the early 1970s. Like great farceurs before him, Klane tackled sex, family, madness and death, roughly in that order.

Klane eventually made the switch into film and television, writing several episodes of M*A*S*H, an unproduced sequel to Grease entitled "Greasier", and making Weekend at Bernie's and its sequel, two mildly amusing films which, like Hitchcock's The Trouble With Harry, featured a deceased leading character. His books are now all out of print, but worth picking up if you stumble across them.

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