“How long have you been here?” asks Bogosian.
“Oh, you have a barbershop?”
“Yeah, and a restaurant down the alley.”
Bogosian takes a beat to assimilate all this, like some cool dad doing a generational translation in his head: Irony! He grows a hint of smirk and says, “All really cool, right? A really cool place?”
“Yeah, you know,” says the youngster, returning the smirk. “Really, really hip.”
The mystery of Richard Morris, the embittered, Philip Rothian novelist in Perforated Heart, is what happened between the raw, naïve seventies journals and the cynical musings of the older writer who calls those diaries “Portrait of the Artist As a Young Idiot.” Bogosian, in between the many espressos he gulps in his spacious Tribeca-loft office (downstairs from his spacious Tribeca-loft home), seems to ask himself much the same question every day: Who was that guy, and what ever happened to him?
Among Bogosian’s many artistic infatuations—conveyed in speeches as rambling as his old monologues—is the mid-career crisis that led Philip Roth to write Sabbath’s Theater. Roth took it hard when Operation Shylock went nowhere. “He really wanted that book to be the book,” says Bogosian. But then came Sabbath’s Theater, “a big Fuck You book. It’s just spitting venom. From that point on, once he cuts himself loose from giving a shit what anyone thinks about him, he begins to win awards.”
Perforated Heart is Bogosian’s version of that crisis, as filtered through his own blend of impersonation, identification, and wish fulfillment. He went through much the same thing, but worse—because unlike a novel, a play has to be staged before it even has the chance to fail. His 1998 play Griller was panned in Chicago and never made it to New York. “I got a little pissed off with the theater world,” he says. That same year, he took publisher David Rosenthal to a Yankees game, during which he groused about how many awful novels get published. Rosenthal said if he felt that way, he should write one himself. So Bogosian came up with Mall, a novel about a violent suburban rampage. It was a quieter Fuck You than Roth’s, but a Fuck You nonetheless, directed not so much at the lunkheads in Middle America as at the ones who ran Off Broadway. “They want to hear a workshop production of your play,” he says. “Five shows that worked, isn’t that enough evidence that you don’t need to hear it? Just fucking do the work! In the book world, nobody has said dick to me about what I’m writing, because they don’t really know what makes a book work.”
“Whatever I was pretending to be or thought I was, at the end of the day what I really am is a very bookish guy.”
Perforated Heart finally allowed him to pour out those emotions. “I have written five novels,” the older Morris writes in the book, “but I will forever be a ‘renowned writer of short stories, one of which was adapted as a film, directed by Paul Schrader.’ Read: ‘not a major talent; negligible; a clown.’ ” Later, on a humiliatingly short book tour, Morris reads mostly for old fans. “No one seemed to have any interest in my more recent work,” he moans. “It was as if I were there as a representative of my former self.”
Those last lines were written in 2007, when Talk Radio was revived starring Liev Schreiber. It should have been a personal vindication—finally, Bogosian on Broadway! “People were going, ‘Hey, that’s a great play.’ But I didn’t write that play; this other guy wrote it, 25 years ago. I have a play I wrote last year. I wish that were being produced.”
But this is where Bogosian diverges from Morris, and Roth too. In his calmer moods, he wonders if it isn’t all for the best. “As a theater artist, I’d like to see more of my work done, but I would actually rather see more of Adam Rapp’s stuff. Let’s find out what the new things are.” He speaks more grimly of the aging artist: “The passage-of-time business—the guy that’s in his mid-fifties thinking, ‘Do I have the energy I used to? The acuity, the imagination? Was I thinking in big, bold ways that I don’t think anymore?’ I can’t tell, I don’t know. The truth is, the best stuff usually happens between 30 and 40.”
Bogosian still writes plays, and there’s Law & Order. But while many of his artist contemporaries (Robert Wilson, Kim Gordon, Sherman, and Longo) continue to command money and respect for the kind of work that made them famous, Bogosian sloughs off his younger self. “I don’t really have the soul of a performer,” he says. “I saw David Byrne at Radio City recently, and I hope I don’t have to get in front of audiences at 60 years old. I mean, fuck that shit!”