There was a discussion at my house recently about whether or not I am an uncultured oaf. This is not the first time the subject has come up.
We have the “parsimonious” Victor S. Navasky to thank. Many years ago, he commissioned the wonderful writer Calvin Trillin to write regularly for The Nation magazine, which Navasky then edited. The project was “a thousand words every three weeks or so for saying whatever’s on my mind, particularly if that’s what on my mind is marginally ignoble,” Calvin Trillin recalls in one of many essays in his new collection, Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin. That regular project combined with Trillin’s famous deadline poetry made him one of America’s foremost humorists.
Included in this volume are some of Trillin’s finest works dating back all the way to 1965. More recent readers can find Trillin’s work in the New Yorker magazine, for which he is a staff writer. His classic piece on poutine, the Quebec dish made with French fries, cheese curds and gravy, comes readily to mind. The passion Trillin invests in food is perhaps only rivaled by his devotion to his late wife, Alice, to whom this book is dedicated. Both Alice and food enjoy generous attention in the new book, which is essentially a collection of Trillin’s previous essays and poems.
About the funniest of the food-related essays is the one about Thanksgiving dinners, “Eating With the Pilgrims,” where Trillin alleges that if one were truly to eat as the Pilgrims and natives did, then we would all be served “Brussels sprouts that were put to boil shortly after the Pilgrims left.” Trillin puts his own spin on history as well. “In America, the Pilgrims tried farming, but they couldn’t get much done because they were always putting each other in the stocks for crimes like Suspicion of Cheerfulness,” he writes.
“The Indians took pity on the Pilgrims and helped them with their farming, even though the Indians thought the Pilgrims were as much fun as a teenage circumcision. The Pilgrims were so grateful that they invited the Indians over for a Thanksgiving meal, and the Indians, having had some experience with Pilgrim cuisine in the past, took the precaution of bringing along one dish of their own.”
In a really funny critique of T. S. Eliot’s poetry (Eliot was a native of Kansas just like Trillin is), Trillin maintains that “the result of the separate paths T. S. Eliot and I took is simple: He is thought of as perhaps the greatest literary figure of the twentieth century, and I am a deadline poet, commenting on the events of the day in verse for a hundred dollars a shot.”
A true progressive, Trillin uses his humor to best critique the political dramas of the day. There are sharp verses about taxes for the rich, spending by the Department of Defense and even Mitt Romney’s constant flip-flopping.
Just as Seinfeld once said his show was about “nothing,” Trillin, too, can take something that appears quite inconsequential and writer an entire (funny) essay about it. So it is that there are essays about the use of the word ‘holistic;’ why Trillin can never identify constellations in the sky; the Brits’ excessive politeness; and our dislike of tear-out subscription cards in magazines.
There are some instances, however, where the logic in Trillin’s arguments don’t quite work. In one essay Trillin takes a look at the latest survey on smoking statistics and points out that the “percentage of smokers among people who didn’t finish high school is now twice as high as among people who have graduated from college.” Trillin goes on to prove that this is because the tobacco campaign is killing off all the dropouts. The logic in here is relatively threadbare, so while you understand that it’s all in jest, it’s still not as funny as the rest. The chuckle in this case is a stretch.
Trillin’s humor is wry, on the mark, and never acerbic even in his put-downs of politicians. Ever a nice guy, Trillin’s work reflects his amiable and laid-back personality. When even he says, “Sometimes, I have to admit, I wonder about this country,” it’s time to start worrying. Fortunately for us, we have Trillin to keep us company through trying times.
Have we had ‘Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin?’ I don’t think so!