QUITE ENOUGH OF CALVIN TRILLIN: FORTY YEARS OF FUNNY STUFF
By Calvin Trillin
Random House, $27 368 pages
Don’t believe it. There can never be enough of Calvin Trillin. He has become a literary treasure over the past four decades, during which he has bestowed on readers his inimitably droll philosophy of life.
From a lifetime of poking subtle and often savage fun at the times of our lives in the New Yorker magazine and one-man off-Broadway shows, Mr. Trillin has chosen what he considers the best of his work and translated it into segments that lend themselves to be read aloud to friends as well as savored alone in a quiet room.
This collection of Mr. Trillin’s work roams across topics including politicians and pomposity. He contends that the average shelf life of a book is between milk and yogurt, but that does not do justice to the kind of writing that has as much depth as humor. He has a satirist’s eye, and he obviously enjoys skewering the pretentious, as in his hilarious piece “Dinner at the de la Rentas,” in which he takes a dig at what the New York Times Magazine has described as “the barometer of fashionable society.”
By which it meant a “latter day salon for the very rich and very powerful and very gifted” (Henry Kissinger qualified, of course) at the home of the fashionable New York couple. Tongue firmly in cheek, Mr. Trillin confesses that he was not even aware he had been left out of these events and wonders why to his wife, Alice, who possessed a sense of humor equal to his own.
“Because you speak French with a Kansas City accent,” she explains. He demurs, noting that Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel was a regular guest of the de la Rentas, “and I heard the last time someone asked him to speak French, he said ‘Gucci.’ ” Mr. Trillin consoles himself by vowing that when the moment came and Mrs. de la Renta called to invite him to dinner, he would say, “This is Calvin of the Trillin. I’ll be right over.”
Especially delectable is the segment of the book he titles “Twenty years of pols: one poem each.” He commemorates Sarah Palin with a small gem called “On a clear day, I see Vladivostok” and John Edwards with a verse “I know he’s a mill worker’s son, but there’s Hollywood in that hair.”
On former President Bill Clinton: “Clinton needs a rest all right and we need one from him. We needn’t know with whom he golfs, with whom he takes a swim. We can’t absorb so much of him. That’s one of our frustrations. I think that our relationship needs separate vacations.”
Or poor old Al Gore: “What’s that, behind the President-elect - that manlike object stiff from head to toe? But wait! He breathed. He blinked. He scratched his nose. This couldn’t be an adamantine blob. This manlike object seems to be alive. It’s Albert Gore. He’s there to do his job.”
He is devastating on the Nixon tapes: “His quick response to any news is break the law or blame the Jews. We hear him planning to defraud, collecting dough for posts abroad, Discussing B&E techniques. In Nixon’s tapes, the master speaks.”
Yet it is on the “literati” that Mr. Trillin is most effective. He has a marvelous essay on letter-writing, recalling his study of the correspondence of H.L. Mencken at the New York library, where he found letters exchanged with Ambrose Bierce, the San Francisco journalist who once complained in a column about slow service on the Southern Pacific railroad that “the passenger is exposed to the perils of senility.”
As time and trouble marched on, so did Mr. Trillin, one of the few humorists who dared take on terrorists as objects of ridicule. In his segment on criminal justice, he mentions that he is “an absolutist on the First Amendment except for people who show slides of their trip to Europe. They should be arrested. If they can’t be held, they can at least be knocked about a bit at the station house.”
But he goes beyond sardonic in a dark piece titled “Crystal Ball,” in which Mr. Trillin complains that despite the attention given to the wannabe terrorist from Nigeria widely known as the underwear bomber, “nobody has mentioned that I predicted this turn of events.”
Perhaps only Mr. Trillin would have written a column about Richard Reid, the “shoe bomber” of 2001, saying, “I’m convinced the whole shoe bomber business was a prank. What got me onto this theory was reading that the shoe bomber had been described as very, very impressionable. I had already decided he was a complete bozo.”
Mr. Trillin suggested that Reid got the idea of setting fire to his shoe on a plane from a terrorist the columnist dubbed “Khalid the Droll,” who predicted from prison, “I bet I can get them all to take off their shoes in airports.”
According to the author, that was the kind of twisted humor that spawned the underwear bomber, “another bozo who tries to blow a hole in an airplane and succeeds only in setting his underpants aflame in a manner that might have rendered him ill-equipped for the seventy-two heavenly virgins who were to be his reward.”
Not once, Mr. Trillin observes gloomily, had it occurred to anyone that the acts of terrorism inspired by “Khalid the Droll” were “an elaborate scheme to embarrass us to death. Nobody followed up on Trillin’s underwear tip.”
There is only one Calvin Trillin, and if he didn’t exist we would have to invent him. He would be a great Christmas present.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.