- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 13, 2002

TEPPER ISN'T GOING OUT
By Calvin Trillin
Random House, $22.95, 213 pages


A recent weekend visit to New York confirmed what people have been saying and writing. The city is changed, yet in many, and comforting, regards remains the same. Mingling with the holiday-season evening throng on 5th Avenue was just as always. Illuminations dazzled in their brightness, while the flags of friendly nations moved hardly at all in calm and chilly air. In the windows of famous department stores, imaginative displays, many clockwork, acted out festive scenes, in some cases with pedestrians queuing up to watch. Then there was the Plaza Hotel with its intimations of fame and Gatsbyesque extravagance.
Ah, New York.
Next morning, a different story: Weather gray and threatening snow as the taxi carried us down past Pier 90, where the Cunard liners used to dock one of the other piers now is being used as a holding pen for cars towed by police. Our destination, Ground Zero, was just what people report, evidence of a cityfl and a world, drastically plucked from its old life and plunged into a painfully different one.
The new viewing platform wouldn't open until the next day, Sunday, but just being there was plenty. Glimpsing what scraps of the 16 acres one could from various angles, taking in the rank air (a policeman posted at a street intersection wore an elaborate-looking protective mask), watching the young firemen in their yellow helmets and jackets stroll jauntily through a barrier for another day's work on the site, pathetic memorabilia pinned up by relatives and friends on a church railing, was sufficiently upsetting to give the walk north afterwards, up Broadway through SoHo, a feeling of near tearfulness.
There was change.
One cannot help but feel that change reading Calvin Trillin's neatly wrought little novel of New York before the cataclysm, "Tepper Isn't Going Out." His story's being outdated even before it was published could be reckoned a pity, but that is so only in the sense that history itself is a pity, always burying our sense of how the world is supposed to be under some new cloud of deadening ash. But it is from the ashes that new life always springs and what does a reader care now that the world that inspired "The Great Gatsby" was destroyed in the Depression.
There may even be instances where a touch of anachronism does the trick for a book. "Tepper," which I read during my little excursion to the Big Apple in Winter, offers an entertaining and thought-provoking test.
Mr. Trillin is known for his many years of writing for the New Yorker, his books on eating (notably "American Fried"), memoirs that include "Remembering Denny," and comic novels. He is listed as being co-editor of a one-issue publication called Beautiful Spot: A Magazine of Parking. The so-called magazine is mentioned more than once in these pages, which concern the parking travails and idiosyncratic parking accomplishments of Murray Tepper, a lifelong New York City resident, husband and father. The novel is set around the time of the millennium.
Forty years ago, Murray started a market research business called Worldwide Lists with a partner, Howard Gordon, who still is with him and still playing the melancholy Jaques to Murray's more stoic self. Along the way computers and big organizations have come along to push aside small direct mail operations such as theirs, and now there is the Internet. But it's a living, as Murray likes to say. They fly "under the radar," and by that means pick up enough business to stay in the game.
Murray and Howard work from cards: "40,000 buyers of American Revolution decorations and memorabilia" … "61,000 thousand buyers of discount automotive accessories" … "40,000 buyers of deodorizing shoe pads," and so on. Foil to the pair is Arnie Sarnow, a 31-year-old assistant still learning the ropes. Tending to disconcert Arnie is Barney Mittgin, an inventor trying to market his improbable creations; but Barney is old hat to Murray and Howard. The two partners' dream is to find a "magic list," one on which the people whose names are rented out may be predicted to purchase anything at all, whatever the client is selling.
Waiting at home, Murray has wife Ruth, who paints watercolors and fancies moving to a cottage in the Southwest of England a very far cry to a Manhattanite such as Murray. The couple has a daughter, Linda. She is married to Richard, who works on Wall Street in derivatives. Each member of the family is, in his or her own way, worried about Murray, and so are his business associates.
What are they all worried about? Well, Murray, a veteran like so many New Yorkers of an adult lifetime spent in part looking for a parking space on the city's streets, has taken to parking his dark blue Chevy Malibu at metered spots. He looks back nostalgically to his days of alternate-side-of-the-street parking years before, but now it's mainly meters. He parks his car at favorite locations around the city outside Russ and Daughters' deli is a favorite one on Sunday mornings and just sits there reading his newspaper.
In the necessary course of things, other drivers looking for a spot come along and, seeing Murray in his car, conclude that a space is about to open up. But "Tepper Isn't Going Out," and it is from the inherent dramatic tension in the situation that Mr. Trillin's New York comedy takes off.
The story's cast of players includes the aforementioned and more, including Mike Shanahan, a pollster and longtime monitor of the approval ratings, "numbers," of politicians including New York city mayors. But this really is a two-character novel, the first being Murray Tepper and the other being the current mayor, Frank Ducavelli, spoken of behind his back as Il Duce. That, truly, is what makes Mr. Trillin's tale pre-September 11, for Ducavelli is a transparent takeoff on the real-life mayor who stepped down just the other day. This is pre-iconic Rudy Giuliani.
Ducavelli combines know-it-all authoritarianism with encroaching paranoia. At the entrance to his office, freakishly elaborate machines test the identity and metal-carrying, if any, of his visitors including retainers, like Shanahan, of many years standing. The mayor is fanatic about orderliness and has come up with an ancient ordnance enabling him to prosecute persons stepping off the curb to hail a taxi cab. He is trying to enforce more modest attire in city parks. And he considers parking regulation to be the cornerstone of any civil society.
As Murray Tepper's eccentric parking habits begin to attract attention from angry drivers and from passersby who stop by to sit in the passenger seat and talk with him, seeking advice as often as not, a confrontation of epic, if also hilarious, proportions becomes inevitable. The situation is replete with ironies. Murray, whom relatives, colleagues and friends think maybe should see a shrink, becomes shrink to the people admiring of, and attracted to his mite of self-assertion.
A small man who simply wants to be left alone is working up to a head-on-head with "the bully," and once the media gets into the act all of New York City gets to join in the fun. The novel is light reading at the time, its deeper insights and suggestions sinking in only in the aftermath. In the first sense, it is very much of life in the greatest city in the world before the terrorist attacks took down the twin towers of the World Trade Center. In the second sense, it is New York as it was and still is.


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