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BOOK REVIEW

New collection of Trillin writing reveals plenty of ‘Funny Stuff’

New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin’s new collection of essays takes delight in poking fun at the powerful and wealthy. New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin’s new collection of essays takes delight in poking fun at the powerful and wealthy.
By Diane White
Globe Correspondent / September 17, 2011

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Reading “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff,’’ reminded me of the late Globe columnist Jeremiah V. Murphy, who liked to say, “Everybody has three good columns in him.’’ It was a way of pointing out that what he did for a living was harder than it looks.

Calvin Trillin is one of those talented writers who make turning out columns, and a lot of other stuff, look easy. Columns are only part of Trillin’s writing repertoire. Over his long career his journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, the Nation, and many other publications. He’s a novelist, an essayist, an eating writer - as opposed to a food writer - and an official Deadline Poet. I’m sure I’ve left out some genre he’s written in, several, probably.

This collection is organized by subject, for example, “High Society and Just Plain Rich People,’’ “The Media,’’ “Criminal Justice,’’ “Family Matters.’’ Trillin writes about the American class system from the perspective of someone who attended public school in Kansas City and graduated from Yale. He takes particular delight in poking fun at the powerful and wealthy. His column “Dinner at the de la Rentas’ ’’ is a small satiric masterpiece. He’s sometimes asked, he writes, whether he’s ashamed of making a living making snide remarks about respectable people. His defense: “It’s not much of a living.’’

One of the treats in this collection is the section “The Years With Navasky,’’ a series of pieces that appeared in the Nation, a “shabby pinko sheet,’’ he writes, “founded many years ago to give a long succession of left-wing entrepreneurs the opportunity to lose money in a good cause.’’ The editor, a man Trillin’s readers would come to know as “the wily and parsimonious Victor Navasky,’’ offered him a sum “in the high two figures’’ to write a column. Trillin still writes the Deadline Poet column for the Nation, in which he comments in rhyme, more or less, on the news. As far as can be determined, he remains the only writer ever moved to verse by John Sununu. Sometimes he’s inspired to compose lyrics, as in the country song he wrote about John Edwards, “Yes, I Know He’s a Mill Workers Son, but There’s Hollywood in That Hair.’’

Trillin’s style in this collection of humor is amused, sometimes bemused, often self-mocking, a quality reflected in the book’s title. Beneath that laid-back surface is a social critic armed with a sense of mischief. The financial system nearly collapsed, he suggests, because smart guys started working on Wall Street, taking over from Ivy League legacies with “nice qualities’’ who graduated in the lower third of the class and never learned to do math. He puts forth some useful suggestions for reforming the publishing business, many of them revolutionary, such as the “Open Blurb Law,’’ which would require anyone furnishing a blurb to reveal his or her connection to the author of the book.

Triilin’s subject matter ranges all over the place. He’s a passionate eater, author of three books on the subject. In this collection he addresses the making of authentic Cajun boudin, the construction of a turducken (a turkey stuffed with a duck stuffed with a chicken) and imagines the delights of a tropical vacation on an island that, sadly, doesn’t exist, in the Italian West Indies.

His late wife, Alice, who died in 2001, appears as a character in many of these pieces, watching his diet, forbidding him to use violence on marauding raccoons, waiting to see a tidal bore in the Bay of Fundy, and generally putting up with her husband’s nonsense. He dedicates this collection to her memory.

Diane White is a freelance writer in Georgetown, Ky., and can be reached at duxwhite@aol.com.

QUITE ENOUGH OF CALVIN TRILLIN:

Forty Years of Funny Stuff

By Calvin Trillin

Random House, 340 pp., $27