Calvin Trillin, who writes about food, travel, and other topics for The New Yorker (as well as satirical poems and topical humor columns for The Nation) has something of a cult following. It's a mild-mannered, urbane cult, but a cult nonetheless, fueled not just by his writings but also by his occasional, hilariously deadpan appearances on The Tonight Show and other late-night venues.
For me, Trillin is the foremost current practitioner of the art of what used to be called the "casual," the short, funny, personal essay for which New Yorker writers like Robert Benchley, James Thurber, E.B. White, and S. J. Perelman were once famous. More recently, Woody Allen has written some good casuals; so have Ian Frazier and Bruce McCall. I don't care much for the attempts by Steve Martin and P.J. O'Rourke, and while Dave Barry can be very funny, his spirit is fundamentally parodic, and his shtick is limited and therefore tiring.
Trillin's writing is rarely uproarious, but it is so thoughly infused with his quietly eccentric personality that it becomes, at its best, both loveable and highly entertaining. I savor his long-running gags, such as his ongoing campaign to replace turkey as the traditional main course on Thanksgiving with spaghetti carbonara, and his complaints about the former editor and publisher of The Nation (invariably referred to as "wily, parsimonious Victor Navasky") and the scanty pay he offered Trillin for his columns--"something in the high two figures"--which Trillin says he accepted only because The Nation's offices were within walking distance of his Greenwich Village apartment, making it easy and pleasant to drop off his copy at the same time as he picked up his dry cleaning.
Fans of Trillin are also fond of his wife Alice, a constant sitcom-style presence in Trillin's writing. However, as Trillin observes in his rueful memoir, "Alice, Off the Page" (in the March 27 New Yorker), the literary version of the Trillin household fractured sitcom convention by casting Alice as the straight man, the George Burns to Calvin's slightly ditzy Gracie.
Alice, sadly, died of cancer five years ago. Trillin's memoir briefly recounts the events surrounding Alice's passing. (I hadn't realized she died on September 11, 2001, which must make for a weird collision of griefs in Trillin's annual remembrance.) Most of the essay, however, is about the relationship between the real Alice and the fictional Alice that Trillin created in his writing, as well as the role the woman played in Trillin's life and work. My favorite passage describes how Trillin--much to his delight--impressed Alice with his wit the first time they ever really talked, at a party in New York. Then he adds:
. . . I never stopped trying to match that evening--not just trying to entertain her but trying to impress her. Decades later--after we had been married for more than thirty-five years, after our girls were grown--I still wanted to impress her. . . . I showed Alice everything I wrote in rough draft--partly because I valued her opinion but partly because I hoped to impress her. If the piece was meant to be funny, the sound of laughter from the next room was a great reward. When I wrote in the dedication of a book "For Alice," I meant it literally.
Trillin compares himself to the mystery writer Dick Francis, who said he would give up writing books after his wife died. "As I understood what he was saying," Trillin remarks, "she was the one he'd been trying to impress."
I know exactly what Trillin means. Maybe most men who write have in mind some person they are trying to impress. For some, it may be a father, teacher, friend, or mentor. But for many, it's a wife or lover. That's certainly true of me. Mary-Jo impresses me so much that it means a lot to me when I manage to turn the tables on her. Apparently that's how Trillin felt about Alice.
In truth, this is a big reason I blog. Not only does blogging provide a creative outlet, a podium from which to share my ideas and opinions, and a chance to practice and hone my craft, but it's also an opportunity for me to write something I know Mary-Jo will read. Unlike Trillin, I don't show her my work in draft form. (For one thing, a lot of it is about topics she's not very interested in--business, for example.) But she's very faithful about logging on to World Wide Webers. And I don't write very many posts without thinking, "I hope Mary-Jo likes this one."
I wonder what she'll think about this one.
Tag: Calvin Trillin