My favorite columnist has done it again. He has produced another book in the grand old tradition of the columnist as curmudgeon. You know a curmudgeon - cantankerous, ill-mannered, bad-tempered, quarrelsome (like H.L. Mencken). All those words are just a little strong, though, for Calvin Trillin.
A curmudgeon is also endearing. His gems of thought always enlighten.Calvin Trillin, nationally known humor writer, is a classic - a curmudgeon with a difference. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley has called him "a grump for the ages."
Mostly, he expresses his complaints in his column, "Uncivil Liberties," which first appeared in "The Nation" in 1978 and since 1986 has been syndicated weekly to more than 100 newspapers across the country.
A staff writer for the "New Yorker" since 1963, Trillin spent 15 years traveling the country to produce a series of "New Yorker" articles called "U.S. Journal" - regular pieces covering a wide range of subjects, including a definitive history of a Louisiana restaurant called Didee's "or eat an awful lot of baked duck and dirty rice trying."
More recently, he has written longer narrative pieces under the heading "American Chronicles."
He has also written three books on eating - "American Fried," "Alice, Let's Eat," and "Third Helpings," which he refers to as "the tummy trilogy." And he appears regularly on the "Tonight Show" with Johnny Carson, where he comments perceptively on all aspects of the American scene without ever cracking a smile.
His bravest departure from the norm was his highly praised one-man show called "Calvin Trillin's Uncle Sam," which he did last year at the American Place Theatre in New York.
Trillin's wry humor is always on the mark. Personally, I've loved his columns for years, as well as his books, especially "With All Disrespect" and "If You Can't Say Something Nice."
Trillin is best enjoyed when you have an image in mind of him speaking his mind on television. Then it is absolutely necessary that you read him ALOUD, preferably to a long-suffering spouse. Marti is just as familiar with Calvin Trillin as I am, but not by choice.
His newest book,"Travels with Alice," (hardback, $18.95, 195 pages) was published this month by Ticknor and Fields. It chronicles Trillin's travels with his wife Alice in such exotic places as Tuscany, Guadeloupe, Sicily and the Champs Elysees. Although Trillin had previously said that "children are ready to take a trip to Europe about the time they are ready to eat mushrooms," his non-mushroom-eating daughters, Abigail and Sarah, are often along.
A gem from the book: "As if the feeling for meat were not pervasive enough, the school uniform in Argentina consists of a white cotton coat, so a visitor who walks by a school just as the children have been dismissed can get the impression that he is walking down the street among hundreds of tiny butchers."
Another: "I was feeling less confident of mastering Veronnelli after discovering that the reason he mentioned `parcheggio,' which I had taken to be a type of cheese, after the address of each restaurant was that `parcheggio' means parking."
As a traveler, Trillin has to deal with daughters who say things like, "Daddy, I hope you're not going to make a scene about how absolutely fascinating it would be to eat bat stew."
Trillin says that his lack of fluency in French was no problem. "Among four people, someone is bound to come up with the right word or gesture, and great command of the language is not required in order to point to a display of fluffy croissants and say, "14 please."
Trillin often makes serious points with his satire. For instance, he is true to form when analyzing traveling habits of Americans, who are most famous for "driving straight through" whether in America or Europe. Years ago, Trillin and his family stayed at a Holiday Inn in Gallup, N.M. On the second night the waitress asked, "Car break down?" He didn't understand the question until he realized that she had never seen a family stay more than one night.
It was then that he realized a central truth about Americans and travel: "Americans drive across the country as if someone's chasing them. They tend to move across Europe at the same pace. Traveling in Europe, some of them may give up counting miles and start counting cathedrals, or even countries. For anyone who has ever made good time on Interstate 70, there aren't enough miles in Europe to make any difference."
If you don't know Trillin yet, the time has come. Buy it. Put it by the bed. And read it before dropping off. Aloud.