Enter David Duchovny’s (Half) Jewish New York, Through His New Novel
For both David Duchovny and the protagonist of his latest novel, “Bucky F*cking Dent” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) literary talent runs in the family. The “X-Files” actor and late-blooming musician is the descendant of several generations New York writers. The son of a Jewish father and a Scottish mother, he grew up in the East Village.
When I sat down with him at Barnes & Noble before a reading he gave last week, I asked, “What’s the most Jewish thing about you?”
“My sense of humor,” he said, without missing a beat.
Mr. Duchovny’s on-screen comic chops are well-known, from his early appearances on the late Garry Shandling’s “Larry Sander’s Show” to his starring role in “Californication.” But his incisive wit really shines on the page, where he paints scenes so hilarious they might make you spit out your coffee.
His first novel, “Holy Cow,” an allegory about industrial agriculture featuring a talking cow, a wise-cracking turkey, and a pig who travels to Israel to convert to Judaism (getting circumcised along the way) was released to critical acclaim last year.
“Bucky F*cking Dent” is a Phillip Roth-esque story of an estranged father and son set against the 1978 World Series between the Yankees and the Red Sox. It’s both uproariously funny and deeply moving. Ted Fulllilove is a struggling novelist who slings peanuts at Yankee stadium to support his meager existence. When he finds out that his father, Marty, is dying of lung cancer, he moves back into his Park Slope childhood home to take care of him – but mostly to learn how to love him again. The Bucky Dent of the title, a player for the Yankees, earned his moniker from Red Sox fans when the home run he hit ended up winning the Yankees the division title.
Duchovny’s late father, Amram Ducovny, worked for the American Jewish Committee in New York City and later for Brandeis University in Boston. Amram wrote a number of non-fiction books and published his first novel at 72. David’s grandfather, Moshe Ducovny, was a journalist who wrote about theater for this very publication. Even his step-grandfather (who entered his life after Moshe died when Mr. Duchovny was an infant) worked in the literary arts.(Amram and Moshe removed the “h” from the surname; David reinserted it.)
Duchovny, it turns out, is a bit of a mensch (albeit an extremely handsome, charming mensch). I spoke to him about growing up half-Jewish in New York City, and what it’s like to raise kids and make art here now.
Stefanie Iris Weiss: “Bucky F**cking Dent” beautifully captures how men communicate their emotions through sports. What is that about, and have you experienced it in your own life?
David Duchovny: I haven’t really experienced that much in my own life; it really wasn’t the man that my father was. We bonded more over playing sports than being fans of sports. Men need a proxy or a mouthpiece to help them speak their emotional truths. Through sports they can express love to one another – or violence or dominance or all these things. For men it’s much harder to express that in civilized society. We are less evolved as a species, you know. Bear with us.
I’m trying! I loved how much Yiddish there was in your first book, “Holy Cow.”
Animals would speak Yiddish because it’s the language of the oppressed. My father used to say that Yiddish was a wholly ironic language. (Please don’t send me letters saying Yiddish isn’t wholly ironic, I’m just repeating what my father said.) He said if you wanted to insult somebody you called them the “Prime Minister.” It was quintessentially the outsider’s language because every word is inverted – because these were people on the bottom. So that’s why animals, to me, would speak Yiddish, if they could speak.
My step-grandfather translated “The Wasteland” and “The Old Man and the Sea” into Yiddish. I used to joke that the Yiddish translation of “The Wasteland” went like this, “April is the cruelest month, but May is no bargain either.”
Hahaha! So, were you Bar Mitzvahed?
No. My father wasn’t that kind of Jew, he was a cultural Jew, not a religious Jew – he was a New York Jew. But he definitely thought of himself as a Jew. He didn’t go to country clubs and wear Lacoste shirts.
So he was a Jew of the 99 percent. Was he Bar Mitzvahed?
He was 100 percent Jew! My father claims that his father told his wife, “We’re going to get Bar Mitzvahed,” but then they just went to play pool. He said his father told him after, “Tell your mother we got Bar Mitzvahed.”
At least he played pool – he became a man in a way.
Exactly! It was a self-made Bar Mitzvah.
There is a really strong sense of place in this book. What location in New York is the most Jewish for you?
The 14th Street Y. The sauna. All that stuff in the book is pretty much taken from memory. And those machines, the ones that jiggle you. They’re probably still there. Oh, and Jade Mountain, that was the Chinese restaurant on 12th Street and Second Avenue.
Have your kids expressed any interest in any of the Jewish stuff?
They’re a quarter Jewish. But I think they have a little of the Yiddish humor in them.
Your father moved to Boston after your parents were divorced. How often did you get to see him?
Not enough. Not enough. So when I got divorced I made sure that I would get to be in the same city with my kids all the time. I get the loss. By the way, my father is nothing like the father in the book. I would hate for anyone to think that. My father was very soft-spoken, very encouraging. Marty is a fictional character. The only thing that’s like my dad is that he was also a softball pitcher on a Puerto Rican softball team. My dad was “Gringo Number 1.”
Your character Hank from “Californication” kind of hated LA and felt like he couldn’t be creative unless he was here in New York. Do you feel similarly?
No. I love L.A. Although the novels that I’ve written have been written here, so I may be stuck here if I want to keep writing. The next story I want to write is set in New York. But it’s ok, because my son has five more years until he graduates high school.
Was it important for your dad to publish his novel before he died?
He died about three years after. I think it was extremely important to him. I think it was everything; it meant everything. I don’t think he could have died before that. I’m very happy for him, not only that it came out, but that it was well-reviewed. He got to feel some of that.
What did you think of that book?
I liked it a lot. It’s strange to read a book by a relative. I can’t imagine what it would be like for my kids to read my stuff.
Did they read Holy Cow?
Probably. I don’t know. I’m just not that interested. I’m interested in them – what they do, what they write. I get asked, “Have they heard your album?” When I say I don’t care, it’s not that I don’t care about my kids obviously, but I get asked if they’re proud of me – and I really don’t understand that question. I’m proud of my kids. I don’t understand the state of mind that seeks approval from one’s own children. It’s the other way around.
But on the other hand it’s impossible not to read a work by your relative without trying to connect the dots – which one is me and where’s that coming from and who’s that guy and where am I in this?
And is that something you think about while you’re writing, even writing song lyrics?
No, I can’t. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly a casualty of a creative life, but it’s somehow a burden. I would hope never to embarrass my kids but I can’t say that I haven’t or that I won’t.
The songwriting on your record “Hell or Highwater” feels like it’s taken from your own life.
But all the situations are universal – it’s love, it’s loss, it’s death, it’s love, it’s a girl, it’s no girl – all of rock and roll is about the same thing. You have this very general filter through which you can squeeze your take. I have no interest in foisting my autobiography on anybody. It’s only interesting to me insofar as it can be universal. You can take those lyrics and know nothing about me, and make them into something about you. To me it’s only about the universal in me reaching out to the universal in somebody else.
Mr. Duchovny will embark on a European tour with his band, promoting his recent record, “Hell or Highwater,” from May 5th to the 19th.
Stefanie Iris Weiss is a New York City-based freelance writer who writes about sexuality, politics and subcultures. Her most recent book is Eco-Sex: Go Green Between the Sheets and Make Your Love Life Sustainable (Random House/Crown Publishing).