By: Harvey Freedenberg
Book by Calvin Trillin (Random House, $27, 340 pages)
There’s a good chance you’re reading this column in February, and if there’s a month that requires a good laugh, it’s our shortest one. That’s why it’s the perfect time to pick up this collection of the incomparable Calvin Trillin’s best humor writing; a book that’s already been honored with the Thurber Prize for American Humor.
Trillin is a literary treasure who has worked as a staff writer at The New Yorker for nearly 50 years, but he’s much more than a humor writer. His memoir Remembering Denny is a powerful book about a close friend at Yale who seemed destined for greatness but never came close to achieving it before committing suicide at age 55. About Alice is a tender tribute to Trillin’s beloved (and to judge from the pieces where she appears in this book, exceedingly patient) wife, who died on September 11, 2001 of heart failure caused by the radiation treatments that had cured her lung cancer 25 years earlier.
As would be expected in a career-spanning collection containing more than 125 pieces, Trillin takes aim at an impressive array of targets. The book is organized by topics that range from the world of food (“Tales of a Clean Plate Ranger”) to finance (“Madly Making Money”) to the animal world (“Beasts of the Field, Fish of the Sea, and Chiggers in the Tall Grass”), and that only begins to identify the subjects that amuse or irritate him.
For the most part, Trillin is a satirist who specializes in the kind of observational humor that’s the foundation for Jerry Seinfeld’s comedy, though he’s usually satisfied to provoke a knowing grin or a chuckle, rather than a belly laugh. While he can wander into the curmudgeon’s corner at times, there’s never a hint of mean-spiritedness in his humor. He doesn’t hesitate to make himself the butt of a joke, for example, such as when he explains his campaign to get people to name their sons Calvin because “those of us named Calvin sometimes feel like someone named Hepzibah.”
A few highlights of this ample volume will have to suffice. Trillin promised 1988 would be the year he planned to be “nice about fruitcake,” but that pledge only served as the jumping off point to share his theory that “there is only one fruitcake, and that this fruitcake is simply sent on from year to year.” In a piece entitled “Crystal Ball,” he takes credit for predicting the Underwear Bomber (the creation of an imaginary terrorist leader with a sense of humor he named Khalid the Droll) in 2006: “Another bozo 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 72 heavenly virgins who were to be his reward if he succeeded.” From the days before email, “Mencken’s Mail” explains his reluctance to answer letters because doing so, “only brings another letter to be answered.”
Every day we experience the minor annoyances he’s fond of identifying in these pieces, but he has the genius to turn them into opportunities for humor.
Some of the great pleasures of the book flow from its helping of Trillin’s light verse. Beginning in 1990 with the chance to write a poem entitled “If You Knew What Sununu,” inspired by the name of the former New Hampshire Governor and White House Chief of Staff, he’s made a name for himself as a “deadline poet” for The Nation magazine, writing verse about current events (his new collection, Dogfight: The 2012 Campaign in Verse is in stores now). Along with poems on other topics (O.J. Simpson, the 2008 financial crisis and Y2K among them) sprinkled throughout the book, Trillin offers a section entitled “Twenty Years of Pols – One Poem Each,” that cavorts from Sununu to Chris Christie.
Here, for example, is his reflection on George Bush’s college grades: “Obliviously on he sails / With marks not quite as good as Quayle’s.” Though he finds more fodder on the Republican side, these lines about Bill and Hillary Clinton show he’s capable of slinging an occasional barb at a Democrat: “And so it’s up to our Ms. Rodham / To prove Bill’s White House isn’t Sodom. / It’s left to this adroit señora / To show that it is just Gomorrah.”
Unlike a reviewer whose responsibility to write about a work requires plowing through it from beginning to end, readers are fortunate they can enjoy a book like Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin by dipping into it at random. It’s a delightful companion for that kind of reading, and if there isn’t a laugh on every page, it isn’t long before one comes along.