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Trillin’s sardonic wit in overdrive

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Calvin Trillin, mostly famous for his delicious satire, is one of America's most diverse writers. He can write humor columns or comic novels, light verse, books on eating — or he can write serious, provocative memoirs. In the latter category are "Remembering Denny," a tragic story about a college friend, and "Messages from My Father," both of which were best-sellers.

Trillin has written columns for The New Yorker, The Nation and, most recently, Time. Many of his columns have been compiled for publication — in five different books, the most recent being "Too Soon to Tell." And for 38 years, he has been a staff writer for The New Yorker, a job he still tackles with sardonic wit.

His latest work, the comic novel "Tepper Isn't Going Out," is a superbly funny and ingratiating tale of a direct, principled man named Murray Tepper, who has the habit of parking in several different choice spots in New York City — then refusing to leave until the time has expired on his meter.

Trillin candidly admits that not everyone appreciates or understands his subtle style, and during a telephone interview from his New York apartment, he said that, yes, he gets strange letters. "During the Reagan administration, I was frequently writing columns about 'the Gipper' and how President Reagan had difficulty differentiating between movies and real life.

"Once I wrote that Notre Dame football player George Gipp (portrayed by Reagan in the 1940 film 'Knute Rockne, All American') had not actually died but had suffered a lot from an infected molar, and Notre Dame had actually been defeated by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — and that the famous saying was not 'Win one for the Gipper,' but 'Win one for the principal of Logarithm High.'

"Afterward, I got letters from people who said they had researched it and found that George Gipp really did die!"

Trillin added that "You have to wonder if it is their failure to get it or a problem in the quality of the jokes."

As a humorist, he believes that he is simply "one of those people who sees the world in a slightly skewed way."

The idea for the Tepper book came from Trillin's own often fruitless efforts to find a parking spot in New York City. "I was one of those guys. I drive a lot — and usually at night. If someone invites us to dinner, they say 'Meet us at 74th and Lexington,' or something like that, so the natural thing for me is to drive and then look for a spot. I would pass that guy who shakes his head or gives you a finger wag — and I kept asking, 'Who is this guy?' "

Trillin is proud to say that "we're pretty sure this is the first parking novel. I don't know if it will start a whole genre of novels about parking. . ."

Although Tepper isn't based on a real person, the autocratic mayor of New York, Frankie Decavelli, "does resemble our very own Mayor Rudy Giuliani. I admired his performance after 9/11, and I said in a poem that 'sometimes a paranoid control freak is exactly what the situation calls for,' so I thought he was great. But Giuliani, like Decavelli, actually thinks you can govern the city. When you think about it, that is kind of a leap! You might have to be a maniac to govern it, but it's possible."

Some other things in the novel are taken from real life. Russ and Daughters, the fish market Tepper frequents, "is a real place — and there really is a guy named Herman who wore a badge saying he was 'the artistic slicer' (meaning he slices lox). He still works there, but he doesn't wear the badge any more."

And the "body orifice security scanner" that visitors to Trillin's fictional New York mayor's outer office have to sit in before seeing the mayor is real. "I actually saw one at an industrial security convention in Las Vegas."

Tepper's unusual occupation of mailing-list broker grew out of Trillin's earlier research for The New Yorker about mailing lists. He became fascinated with "the lists you develop to try to figure who people are and what they might buy."

Some real lists pop up in the book. "For fund-raising in the 1960s, the Republicans really did use a list of people who had sent away for a chemically treated cloth that was effective for 'washing' a car without the use of water. (Democrats said the average Republican donor was not only abnormally interested in maintaining his property but too stiff to get wet while doing it.)

"And the best list for selling subscriptions to the Kiplinger Newsletter, published for businessmen, was made up of people who sent away for nose hair trimmers."

Trillin talks almost exactly the way he writes.

He said he "suffers somewhat less than most writers. It's a spectrum. Some pieces I just write and others I get stuck on, but I've never had an awful writer's block period when I couldn't write at all. I think I write fairly quickly. Again, it's relative. When I did a column for The New Yorker, magazine writers would say, 'How do you keep up this pace?' While newspaper writers would ask, 'so what else do you do?' "

Since relinquishing his column for Time, Trillin has gotten his "Sunday mornings back" because he doesn't have to watch "those sabbath gasbags any more ('Meet the Press,' 'Face the Nation,' etc.). I realized I was watching them to sort of see what was going on. I still do my little comic poem for 'The Nation,' but for that I just set the shower on 'iambic pentameter' and it comes to me.'"

E-mail: dennis@desnews.com