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Jafsie and John Henry

The Newsletter of the David Mamet Society 
Fall 1998 • Volume 5 • ISSN 1095-9629




David Mamet. Jafsie and John Henry. New York: Free Press, 1999.
xv + 171 pp. Cloth $22.00.


In the introduction to his latest book of essays, David Mamet uncharacteristically explains the cryptic title, Jafsie and John Henry. Jafsie is the intermediary in the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder, who may have been a perpetrator of the crime. John Henry is the laborer who worked all night to defeat the machine, but dies as a result of his exertion. For Mamet, one man represents the con artist, living in the shadows of American society, flirting with respectability; the other is a hero — and a fool. At the half-century mark, as he announces in "Looking at Fifty," the maverick writer allows that he is now too old to play the "angry young man," for he is fast becoming an "Old Fart" (2). Jafsie and John Henry is Mamet’s bid to slough off his persona of social outcast and adopt an identity that corresponds to his new secure station in life. If we attempt to apply the paradigm, casting Mamet as either Jafsie or John Henry, we will be sorely disappointed. The new Mamet sounds like the old, expounding on familiar themes, grand philosophies and peccadillos.

What is new? In three of his best compositions, Mamet takes on the persona of the John Henry fool and deflates his own macho bravura, showing us the human reality behind the he-man image. In a frank and gripping play-by-play, Mamet assesses why he lost a Level 3 big hand in "Six Hours of Playing Poker." Out for dare-devil kicks in "Race Driving School," he confesses at the finish line that he and the other "gents" in his class are "just a bunch of middle-aged American guys learning to drive fast" (116). The same willingness to eschew vanity and make himself the butt of the joke informs "Late Season Hunt," although the identical subject is covered in a longer, better rumination entitled "Deer Hunting" in Make Believe Town.

Mamet is most enjoyable when he is indignant. We don’t just read him at those moments; we identify. We’ve been there — in fact, we are him. Examples of his scathing humor proliferate in "Producers" and "L.A. Homes," where he eviscerates Hollywood and its denizens.

"Scotch Malt Whiskey Society" is one of the best pieces in this volume, offering an example of Mamet’s tendency to collect and flaunt facts. It tracks Mamet to Scotland, where he finds a new passion and coterie of playmates. Strikingly, throughout Jafsie and John Henry, Mamet is quick to mention friends by name, perhaps to prove that he no longer "env[ies] those glimpsed from afar who had, it seemed, their society intact, their support intact" (10). At fifty, Mamet has become an insider: in Hollywood, in American theater, in Cabot, Vermont, even in Scotland. Wherever he goes, he is surrounded and buffeted by friends. One cannot help wondering if critical acclaim, social acceptance and material success have tamed the beast.

Mamet’s first two collections of essays, Writing in Restaurants (1986) and Some Freaks (1989), are more informative, revealing that he is an autodidact who has read and thought deeply. However, of all his prose collections, The Cabin (1993) is the finest. It stands as a watershed, for in it Mamet drops his testy guard long enough to share painful childhood memories. By contrast, Jafsie and John Henry falls short of his former achievement, apparently informed more by mid-life crisis than by childhood trauma.

University of Pennsylvania