Saturday, August 4, 2007

Book Report Saturday: Have you read Calvin Trillin?

This is a picture of Calvin Trillin, who is known to his friends as Bud. He looks somewhat glum. If you have seen him on TV, his delivery is somewhat deadpan. Do not be fooled. As someone who tries to be funny on occasion, let me say that Calvin Trillin actually is funny, and on a regular basis, though that is not the only reason to read him.

You may have read him in The New Yorker or in The Nation where he has written for several years. Many of his books are collections of his articles from those publications, though not all. Let me make several recommendations that you can find at better bookstores near you, and one book that appears to be out of print, so you might be best off checking at the local library.

One of his most recent books is About Alice, written about his lovely bride. This picture was taken at about the time of their marriage back in the sixties. Alice died of complications from lung cancer on September 11, 2001. She never smoked, but was diagnosed back in the 1970s. The assumption is she contracted the disease from secondhand smoke in her parents' home when she was a child.

Calvin loved Alice very much. He writes about the letters of condolence he got from readers when Alice died, and quotes one from a young woman considering her own upcomig marriage with the question about her husband-to-be, "Will he love me as much as Bud loves Alice?"

It is Trillin's nature to be brief, but nowhere more so than in his books of "deadline poetry" originally published in The Nation. He wrote for the magazine for many years, often talking about the parsimonious publisher Victor Navasky paying him "in the high two figures" for his articles. Navasky agreed to pay Trillin the same amount for poems, some of them as short as a couplet, commenting on the political scene, which has been Trillin's job there since 1990. The two from the Bush administration era are Obliviously On He Sails and A Heckuva Job. Let me give a short example titled George W. Bush, the Lion of Baghdad, demands that Syria withdraw from Lebanon.

You must withdraw, since nations can't
Install their troops in other places
To change regimes that they don't like.
Except, of course, in certain cases.

Some of Trillin's best known work are his reviews of restaurants. He searched far and wide to find the best barbeque places in the States, and these adventures and others turned into three books, American Fried, Alice, Let's Eat and Third Helpings, now collected together in the anthology known as The Tummy Trilogy. These are some of his most popular works, and where most readers first meet his wife Alice, though presented as Trillin admits more as a sensible sitcom wife foil to her somewhat less sensible husband, not as the more fully developed character he gives tribute to in About Alice. Still, these books are well worth reading, especially if you have a good quality barbeque joint to visit in your immediate vicinity.

Lastly, let me recommend the out of print book Killings. Trillin wrote these stories of murders and violent deaths from around the United States first as articles in The New Yorker, which is also how Truman Capote's In Cold Blood began. Trillin is much more concise than Capote, which may have something to do with Trillin being a Midwesterner and Capote being a Southerner. Killings is less than 200 pages and tells the story of sixteen deaths and the resulting trials, unlike Capote's masterwork is more than twice as long and tells only a single story. Maybe I have some form of attention deficit syndrome, but I found it much easier to get through the book I recommend here.

Matty Boy says check it out. You can thank me later.

1 comment:

FranIAm said...

I totally LOVE Calvin Trillin and I thank you even though I already do.

I thank you for bringing him to the attention of others.

He must be read. He must be read!