Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: Forty Years of Funny Stuff

( 7 )

Overview

For at least forty years, Calvin Trillin has committed blatant acts of funniness all over the place—in The New Yorker, in one-man off-Broadway shows, in his “deadline poetry” for The Nation, in comic novels like Tepper Isn’t Going Out, in books chronicling his adventures as a happy eater, and in the column USA Today called “simply the funniest regular column in journalism.”

Now Trillin selects the best of his funny stuff and organizes it into topics like high finance (“My ...

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Overview

For at least forty years, Calvin Trillin has committed blatant acts of funniness all over the place—in The New Yorker, in one-man off-Broadway shows, in his “deadline poetry” for The Nation, in comic novels like Tepper Isn’t Going Out, in books chronicling his adventures as a happy eater, and in the column USA Today called “simply the funniest regular column in journalism.”

Now Trillin selects the best of his funny stuff and organizes it into topics like high finance (“My long-term investment strategy has been criticized as being entirely too dependent on Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes”) and the literary life (“The average shelf life of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt.”)

In Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, the author deals with such subjects as the horrors of witnessing a voodoo economics ceremony and the mystery of how his mother managed for thirty years to feed her family nothing but leftovers (“We have a team of anthropologists in there now looking for the original meal”) and the true story behind the Shoe Bomber: “The one terrorist in England with a sense of humor, a man known as Khalid the Droll, had said to the cell, ‘I bet I can get them all to take off their shoes in airports.’ ” He remembers Sarah Palin with a poem called “On a Clear Day, I See Vladivostok” and John Edwards with one called “Yes, I Know He’s a Mill Worker’s Son, but There’s Hollywood in That Hair.”

In this, the definitive collection of his humor, Calvin Trillin is prescient, insightful, and invariably hilarious.

Winner of the 2012 Thurber Prize for American Humor

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

The only thing wrong about this book is its title: There can never be enough of Calvin Trillin. Over four decades, this prolific Show-Me-State native has entertained and enlightened us in dozens of books, and hundreds of poems, short stories, travel pieces, food articles and reminiscences. As a humorist, he can be truly incomparable; USA Today called his Nation contributions "simply the funniest regular column in journalism." This 368-page collection of Trillin's "funny stuff" will brighten your mood at any time of the day. Born to be a gift.

Publishers Weekly
Humorist Trillin (A Heckuva Job; Deciding the Next Decider) entertains with this collection of his song lyrics, comic verse, and more than 130 of the brief essays he originally wrote for the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Nation, and his syndicated King Features column. His acerbic wit is evident in 50 poems, such as "Condoleezza Rice" ("So to serve her guy, she will testify to a lie she hopes you'll buy"), and his Barbra Streisand–styled song for Sarah Palin ("On a Clear Day, I See Vladivostok"). Jesting about everyday life, Trillin can get very close to the truth, as indicated by his 2006 shoe bomber comments in which he predicted the 2009 underwear bomber: "If someone is arrested one of these days and is immediately, because of his MO, referred to in the press as the Underwear Bomber, you'll know I was onto something." He divides the material into sections, such as food, sports, holidays, New York ("I live in Greenwich Village, where people from the suburbs come on weekends to test their car alarms"), technology ("Everyone knows that the only people in an American family who understand electronic devices are the children"), language and literature ("The average shelf life of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt"). Trillin dances around a subject, examines it from different angles, and often finds fun in the commonplace throughout this huge and hilarious comedic compendium. (Sept. 13)
From the Publisher
Praise for Calvin Trillin
 
“A classic American humorist.”—The New Republic
 
“I spent my college years deep into the great humorists: Benchley, Perelman, Woody Allen. Calvin Trillin is up there with any of them.”David Brooks, The Daily Beast
 
“Trillin may be the funniest columnist in Americabemused, amused, wry and right on the mark.”People
Library Journal
That Trillin (Alice, Let's Eat) suggests in jest that the name Obama summons up "slap yo' mama" is just one of the attention-getting remarks in this selection of essays and poems from the body of work that has made him a preeminent humorist. While many pieces (from 1971 to the present) focus on American politics, other essays observe aspects of American culture from the Walt Disney Company to Antiques Roadshow, high society, marriage announcements, New York City tourists, and bagels. Tales of Trillin's childhood and his late wife, Alice Stewart Trillin, are located throughout the collection. Astute readers will appreciate this compilation of witty commentaries. Not much escapes those twinkling eyes. [See Prepub Alert, 3/7/11.]—J.S.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780812982213
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 12/4/2012
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 628,121
  • Product dimensions: 5.34 (w) x 7.78 (h) x 0.83 (d)

Meet the Author

A longtime staff writer at The New Yorker, Calvin Trillin is also The Nation’s deadline poet. His bestsellers range from the memoir About Alice to Obliviously On He Sails: The Bush Administration in Rhyme. He lives in Greenwich Village, which he describes as “a neighborhood where people from the suburbs come on weekends to test their car alarms.”

Biography

As a religion reporter, Calvin Trillin showed himself as something of a Doubting Thomas.

He was working for Time in the 1960s, and he didn't much like his assigned beat. So, he turned to one of the standard tricks of a good reporter: He hedged. "I finally got out of that by prefacing everything with 'alleged,' " he told Publishers Weekly. "I'd write about 'the alleged parting of the Red Sea,' even 'the alleged Crucifixion,' and eventually they let me go."

Fans of Trillin's writing -- his snapshots of ordinary U.S. life for The New Yorker, his political poetry in the Nation, his search for the ideal meal with his wife good-naturedly in tow -- will recognize his style in this early exercise in subversion. He is warm, gentle, and human, but there can be a dash of mischievousness for taste. Even the unwelcome sight of a brussels sprout at a buffet provoked his ire. Turning to his wife, he said, "The English have a lot to answer for."

Humorist Mark Russell took note in the pages of The New York Times in 1987: "Mark Twain, Robert Benchley and [S. J.] Perelman are dead, but Calvin Trillin is right there with the post-funeral cocktail to assure us that life goes on."

Born in Kansas City but transplanted to the West Village of New York City, Trillin has kept in touch with his midwestern roots for much of his writing. A collection of articles from The New Yorker on so-called ordinary murders from around the country became the book Killings, called by The Wall Street Journal "one of the most low-key, dispassionate, matter-of-fact books on murder ever produced."

In its review, the Los Angeles Times said: "He may be The New Yorker's finest stylist, and his writing is quite different from the careful accretion of detail that characterizes much of the magazine's writing. Trillin omits as much as he possibly can; he leaves spaces for resonating, like a guitar string stopped and kept mute to sound the overtone from the next string down."

In Travels with Alice he writes of looking for hamburgers on the Champs Elysées in Paris. Even in a classic New York story, Tepper Isn't Going Out, he writes not of theater or restaurants or even a rent-controlled apartment equidistant between Zabar's and Central Park. Instead he seeks out deeper pleasures: finding the perfect parking space, and holding onto it.

Humor is a Trillin trademark. He began writing a humor column for The Nation in the late 1970s called Uncivil Liberties that became two book collections. In 1980, The New York Times chuckled gratefully at his first novel, writing that "the antics around the nameless news magazine in...Floater are as funny as The Front Page and as absurd as playground pranks."

In 1990, he began treating Nation readers to a new column, a weekly spot of verse on the political hijinks of the day, pieces with names like "If You Knew What Sununu." This, too, became a book, The Deadline Poet: My Life as a Doggerelist. He even shares insights into the creative process: "A fool is fine. A pompous fool's sublime. / It also helps if they have names that rhyme."

Trillin's résumé has a sense of elasticity: journalist, novelist, humorist, satirist, poet. But there is a commonality to his work: It's approachable. And The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley points out that, for a journalist, this may be the toughest feat of all.

"Calvin Trillin is like an old shoe," he wrote in a 1998 review of Trillin's Family Man. "Whatever he may be writing about, he always makes you want to slip into it and get comfy. This may seem like a modest compliment, but it is a high one indeed. Few tricks are more difficult for the journalist to pull off than being consistently likable and engaging, making oneself and one's little world interesting and appealing to others."

Good To Know

Growing up in Kansas City, Calvin Marshall Trillin was known as Buddy.

The family name was originally Trilinsky.

He staged two one-man shows showcasing his humor in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Calvin Marshall Trillin (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York
    1. Date of Birth:
      December 5, 1935
    2. Place of Birth:
      Kansas City, Missouri
    1. Education:
      B.A., Yale University, 1957

Read an Excerpt

BIOGRAPHICALLY SPEAKING

a

"I've found that a lot of people say they're from Kansas City when they aren't. Just for the prestige."

Chubby

It's common these days for memoirs of childhood to concentrate on some dark secret within the author's ostensibly happy family. It's not just common; it's pretty much mandatory. Memoir in America is an atrocity arms race. A memoir that reveals incest is trumped by one that reveals bestiality, and that, in turn, is driven from the bestseller list by one that reveals incestuous bestiality.

When I went into the memoir game, I knew I was working at a horrific disadvantage: As much as I would hate this getting around in literary circles in New York, the fact is that I had a happy childhood. At times, I've imagined how embarrassing this background would be if I found myself discussing childhoods with other memoirists late at night at some memoirist hangout.

After talking about their own upbringings for a while-the glue- sniffing and sporadically violent grandmother, for instance, or the family tapeworm-they look toward me. Their looks are not totally respectful. They are aware that I've admitted in print that I never heard my parents raise their voices to each other. They have reason to suspect, from bits of information I've let drop from time to time, that I was happy in high school. I try desperately to think of a dark secret in my upbringing. All I can think of is Chubby, the collie dog.

"Well, there's Chubby, the collie dog," I say, tentatively.

"Chubby, the collie dog?" they repeat.

There really was a collie named Chubby. I wouldn't claim that the secret about him qualifies as certifiably traumatic, but maybe it explains an otherwise mysterious loyalty I had as a boy to the collie stories of Albert Payson Terhune. We owned Chubby when I was two or three years old. He was sickly. One day Chubby disappeared. My parents told my sister, Sukey, and me that he had been given to some friends who lived on a farm, so that he could thrive in the healthy country air. Many years later-as I remember, I was home on vacation from college-Chubby's name came up while my parents and Sukey and I were having dinner. I asked why we'd never gone to visit him on the farm. Sukey looked at me as if I had suddenly announced that I was thinking about eating the mashed potatoes with my hands for a while, just for a change of pace.

"There wasn't any farm," she said. "That was just what they told us. Chubby had to be put to sleep."

"Put to sleep!" I said. "Chubby's gone?"

Somebody-my mother, I think-pointed out that Chubby would have been gone in any case, since collies didn't ordinarily live to the age of eighteen.

"Isn't it sort of late for me to be finding this out?" I said.

"It's not our fault if you're slow on the uptake," my father said.

I never found myself in a memoirist gathering that required me to tell the story of Chubby, but, as it happened, I did relate the story in a book. A week or so later, I got a phone call from Sukey.

"The collie was not called Chubby," she said. "The collie was called George. You were called Chubby."

1998

Geography

Geography was my best subject. You can imagine how I feel when I read that the average American high school student is likely to identify Alabama as the capital of Chicago. I knew all the state capitals. I knew major mineral resources. Missouri: lead and zinc. (That's just an example.) I learned so many geographical facts that I've had to spend a lot of time in recent years trying to forget them so I'll have room in my brain for some things that may be more useful. I don't hold with the theory that everyone is just using a little bit of his gray matter. I think we're all going flat out.

For instance, I've worked hard to forget the longest word in the English language, which I had to learn for a high school club. Pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. It isn't a word that's easy to work into conversations. There are only so many times you can say, "Speaking of diseases usually contracted through the inhalation of quartz dust . . ." I finally managed to forget how to spell it, and I was able to remember my Army serial number.

I think my interest in geography grew from the long automobile trips across the country I used to take with my family as a child. I grew up in Kansas City, which is what the real estate people would call equally convenient to either coast. We usually went west. My father would be in the front seat, pointing out buttes and mesas, and my sister, Sukey, and I would be in the back, protecting our territory. We had an invisible line in the center of the seat. At least, Sukey said it was in the center.

There were constant border tensions. It was sort of like the border between Finland and the old Soviet Union. I played Finland. Sukey played the Soviet Union. Then my father did something that we now know was politically retrograde and maybe antifeminist. He told me, "We do not hit girls. You will never hit your sister again." Sukey was not visited with a similar injunction. So I became a unilaterally disarmed Finland, while she was a Soviet Union bristling with weaponry. If I hadn't had to be on constant alert because of Sukey's expansionist backseat policy, I might now know the difference between a butte and a mesa.

If I had followed my geographical bent, I would have become a regionalist, a geographer who decides where to draw the lines dividing the regions of the United States, like the Midwest and the South and the New England states. Actually, I do the same sort of thing, without a degree, except I only use two regions-partly because of my math. Math was my worst subject. I was never able to convince the mathematics teacher that many of my answers were meant ironically. Also, I had trouble with pi, as in "pi r squared." Some years ago, the Texas State Legislature passed a resolution to change pi to an even three. And I was for it.

The way I divide up the country, the first region is the part of the United States that had major league baseball before the Second World War. That's the Ancien United States, or the Old Country. The rest of the United States is the rest of the United States-or the Expansion Team United States.

For those of you who didn't follow baseball closely in 1948, there's an easy way to know whether you're in the Old Country or the Expansion Team United States. In the Old Country, the waiters in an Italian restaurant have names like Sal or Vinnie. If you're in an Italian restaurant and the waiter's name is Duane, you're in the Expansion Team United States.

1988

Spelling Yiffniff

My father used to offer an array of prizes for anyone who could spell yiffniff. That's not how to spell it, of course-yiffniff. I'm just trying to let you know what it sounds like, in case you'd like to take a crack at it yourself. Don't get your hopes up: This is a spelling word that once defied some of the finest twelve-year-old minds Kansas City had to offer.

The prizes were up for grabs any time my father drove us to a Boy Scout meeting. After a while, all he had to say to start the yiffniff attempts was "Well?"

"Y-i . . . ," some particularly brave kid like Dogbite Davis would say.

"Wrong," my father would say, in a way that somehow made it sound like "Wrong, dummy."

"How could I be wrong already?" Dogbite would say.

"Wrong," my father would repeat. "Next."

Sometimes he would begin the ride by calling out the prizes he was offering: ". . . a new Schwinn three-speed, a trip to California, a lifetime pass to Kansas City Blues baseball games, free piano lessons for a year, a new pair of shoes." No matter what the other prizes were, the list always ended with "a new pair of shoes."

Some of the prizes were not tempting to us. We weren't interested in shoes. We would have done anything to avoid free piano lessons for a year. Still, we were desperate to spell yiffniff.

"L-l . . . ," Eddie Williams began one day.

"Wrong," my father said when Eddie had finished. "Next."

"That's Spanish," Eddie said, "the double L that sounds like a y."

"This is English," my father said. "Next."

Sometimes someone would ask what yiffniff meant.

"You don't have to give the definition to get the prizes," my father would say. "Just spell it."

As far as I could gather, yiffniff didn't have a definition. It was a word that existed solely to be spelled. My father had invented it for that purpose.

Occasionally some kid in the car-usually, the contentious Dogbite Davis-would make an issue out of yiffniff's origins. "But you made it up!" he'd tell my father, in an accusing tone.

"Of course I made it up," my father would reply. "That's why I know how to spell it."

"But it could be spelled a million ways."

"All of them are wrong except my way," my father would say. "It's my word."

If you're thinking that my father, who had never shared the secret of how to spell his word, could have simply called any spelling we came up with wrong and thus avoided handing out the prizes, you never knew my father. His views on honesty made the Boy Scout position on that subject seem wishy-washy. There was no doubt among us that my father knew how to spell yiffniff and would award the prizes to anyone who spelled it that way. But nobody seemed able to do it.

Finally, we brought in a ringer-my cousin Keith, from Salina, who had reached the finals of the Kansas State Spelling Bee. (Although Keith, who eventually became an English professor, remembers the details of his elimination differently, I'm sure I was saying even then that the word he missed in the finals was "hayseed.") We told my father that Keith, who was visiting Kansas City, wanted to go to a Scout meeting with us to brush up on some of his knots.

"Well?" my father said, when the car was loaded.

"Yiffniff," my cousin Keith said clearly, announcing the assigned word in the spelling bee style. "Y-y . . ."

Y-y! Using y both as a consonant and as a vowel! What a move! We looked at my father for a response. He said nothing. Emboldened, Keith picked up the pace: "Y-y-g-h-k-n-i-p-h."

For a few moments the car was silent. Then my father said, "Wrong. Next."

Suddenly the car was bedlam as we began arguing about where our plans had gone wrong. "Maybe we should have got the guy who knew how to spell 'hayseed,' " Dogbite said. We argued all the way to the Scout meeting, but it was the sort of argument that erupts on a team that has already lost the game. We knew Keith had been our best shot.

1986

Doing My Talent

I can whistle and hum at the same time. It's my talent, in the way the Miss America people use the word talent-as in "Miss Minnesota will now do her talent." If the Miss America people announced that I would now do my talent, I would whistle and hum at the same time. I would probably whistle and hum "Stars and Stripes Forever," although I've also prepared "Buckle Down, Winsocki" in case of an encore. It's a secure feeling, knowing that you're ready if the Miss America people call.

I hate to use the phrase "God-given talent"-like a lot of people with God-given talent, I have always prided myself on my lack of pretense- but it's true that whistling and humming at the same time came to me naturally. I didn't work at it, the way I worked at being able to blow a hard-boiled egg out of the shell. It's more like my other talent, the ability to bark like a dog: One day I just realized I could do it.

I can whistle/hum anything, but I prefer "Stars and Stripes Forever" because it's a traditional song for people doing my sort of talent. On Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour, a program whose passing I lament, "Stars and Stripes Forever" was a staple. I once saw a man play it on his head with two spoons, varying the notes by how widely he opened his mouth. I suspect he had "Buckle Down, Winsocki" ready as an encore, even though they never did encores on Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour. "Buckle Down, Winsocki" is also traditional.

You might think that my ability to whistle and hum at the same time has always been a matter of pride in my family. I know the sort of scenes you're imagining. You see my wife at lunch with one of her friends. "It must be exciting being married to someone who can do a talent," the friend is saying. My wife smiles knowingly. You see my daughters as kindergartners bringing other kids home and begging me to show little Jason and Jennifer and Emma how I can whistle and hum at the same time. "Do 'Stars and Stripes Forever,' Daddy," they say. "Then do 'Buckle Down, Winsocki.' " I do both. Even little Jason looks impressed. "Jesus," he says. "I thought I'd seen everything."

That's not the way it has been at all. When my daughters were kindergartners, they never asked me to whistle and hum at the same time for their friends. Little Jason, I know for a fact, still hasn't seen everything, even though he's now sixteen years old. Now that my daughters are teenagers themselves, their response to a bit of spontaneous whistle/humming in a restaurant or an elevator tends to begin with "Daddy, please."

I don't know what my wife and her friends say to each other at lunch, but I have to consider the possibility that my wife rolls her eyes up toward the back of her head as her friend asks, "How's the old spoon player these days?" All this reminds me of what used to be said about the kid in my fourth-grade class who couldn't seem to catch on to math: "He doesn't get much encouragement at home."

Not that I expect special treatment. I'm not just being modest when I say that I think many people have similar talents, even if they don't always demonstrate them. I've always thought that of world leaders, even though a lot of them act as if they might have had too much encouragement at home. When I used to see pictures of General de Gaulle, I'd always think, "I bet that man can play 'Lady of Spain' on his head with a spoon. He may not want to, but he has the capacity." I believe that if you gave Helmut Kohl an ordinary pocket comb and some waxed paper, he could turn out a credible rendition of "Pop Goes the Weasel." I've always thought that Margaret Thatcher must be able to throw a lighted cigarette in the air and catch it in her mouth. I sometimes think that we would have been better off, and she would have been better off, if she had just gone ahead and done it.

Actually, I don't do my own talent in public anymore. Here's what happened: I was in Milwaukee on a book tour. Some people who had read about my talent came in the store and said that they had a man with them who could also whistle and hum at the same time. They suggested that the two of us might like to do a quartet. He was the chairman of the neurology department at the local medical school, although I don't think that had any connection to his talent. The talent I do is not deeply neurological. It's more like a God-given talent. At any rate, it turned out that this man could not simply hum and whistle at the same time. He could hum one tune while he whistled another tune. He could, to be specific, whistle "Goodnight, Irene" while humming "I'm in the Mood for Love." Well, right then, I packed it in.

But I still daydream about doing my talent. Sometimes, I imagine that Ted Mack's Original Amateur Hour has been brought back to network television. I'm on the first show. I've whistled and hummed "Stars and Stripes Forever." They call for an encore. I'm ready.

1990

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  • Posted March 5, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    I've been reading Calvin Trillin's funny books for a long time,

    I've been reading Calvin Trillin's funny books for a long time, and his ode to his wife Alice, About Alice, is one of the loveliest books about a marriage that you'll ever read. (Many people give this book as a bridal shower gift, and it's great idea.)

    So I looked forward to a compilation of his New Yorker columns, his The Nation humorous political poetry and so much more into one book. Some of his best stuff is here, and I chuckled at such comments as:
    "Math was my worst subject. I was never able to convince the mathematics teacher that many of my answers were meant ironically."
    I always tell my sons to beware of people who scream the loudest about other's moral weaknesses, that they have something to hide, and a Trillin political poem from 2007 speaks to that reads:
    "Once more, for right-wing folks it really rankles
    To see who's caught with pants around his ankles.
    Who's next? Who knows?
    But some would take the view
    That sanctimony is often quite a clue."
    Trillin, who grew up in the midwest and still has that sensibility, now lives in New York City, and his comic observations about city life are dead on, including this one:
    "I live in Greenwich Village, where people from the suburbs come on weekends to test their car alarms."
    His funniest stuff includes his attempts to reason logically with his young daughters and his ongoing arguments with a magazine publisher whom Trillin feels doesn't pay him enough for his work. Alice is here as well, and her presence is definitely a welcome addition.

    This is a book best read in short chunks, and I read it daily while on the treadmill, which was perfect. Some of the earlier political stuff may feel a bit stale, and younger people may not have a clue as to who some of these people are, but they will know George W. Bush, a frequent comic target for Trillin.

    Calvin Trillin is one of smartest, funniest writers around, and this is a terrific compilation for his many, many fans.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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