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From The CriticsBy turns sweet and sassy, at times laugh-out-loud funny, Calvin Trillin's comic novel is a New York charmer, a portrait of the city at its blithe, tumultuous best. Even in this idyll, however, unknowing portents of the coming tragedy intrude. The narrator imagines a bulwarked City Hall: "Large, movable shields made of bullet-resistant Plexiglas were in strategic spots around the lawn, blocking what had been determined to be sight lines that terrorist snipers could use if they took over the discount computer store across the street and began firing at city officials."
The Beirut-style security underscores the bunker mentality of Mayor Frank Ducavelli, the book's mock-Giuliani. Here, of course, he isn't the Giuliani astride the WTC rubble, but the earlier Rudy of top-cop notoriety. Nicknamed Il Duce, Ducavelli is draconian in his crusade against skimpy running shorts in Central Park; any whisper of opposition inflames in him the moral ire of a Torquemada (he bellows in capital letters). A puppet of his own self-righteous fury (he moves in "a peculiarly jerky way"), he's forever shoring himself up against largely imagined "forces of disorder"—Ukrainians, media pundits, whomever. And he won't let up. As one of the novel's priceless newspaper columnists quips, "Mayor Ducavelli has become to vindictiveness what the early New York Mets were to infield errors."
One of his odder targets is the book's titular hero, the wonderful Murray Tepper. Remember Herman Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, the wallflower to whom any mundane request would be met by a cryptic "I would prefer not to"? Well, Tepper's a sunnier, less existentially fraught Bartleby. But he's just as adamant in hisminor-key defiance, his unruffled refusal to kowtow. Tepper's thing is parking. He pulls over, feeds the meter and then simply sits, meditates, reads the paper. In New York such behavior is unheard of, like killing cows in New Delhi. You "go out" of the parking space whenever you're done with your errands. Tepper declines—and for no reasons other than his inscrutable own.
A spry, nearly seventy-year-old man, Tepper runs Worldwide Lists, a company that scouts prospects for mail-order firms. He snacks on whitefish-and-herring salad. He's as courteous as Confucius. Yet around him a maelstrom gathers. His wife seeks reassurance: His parking obsession/ritual, she needs to believe, isn't a crack-up but a hobby. His son-in-law, yuppified and overanalyzed, opines in psychobabble that Tepper is "trying to exert some meaningful control over [his] environment." A friend tells Tepper, "I say that you're a symbol of the alienation of your times."
Soon enough, Tepper becomes a cause celebre. He begins to draw crowds. His parked car becomes a kind of Hebraic confessional; he lends his ear to the lost and lovelorn and dispenses homespun wisdom. "There's always something," he mutters, in deadpan consolation.
Then Tepper's a star. He becomes a poster boy for all of the city's disaffected. A Web site, Tepperisntgoingout.com, springs up. Sy Lambert, a hotshot literary agent, woos Tepper with a book deal and gives him the skinny on the book biz. "Remember the days when writers would live in garrets and dream of writing a great book and becoming famous?" Passé, argues Sy. These days, "The big authors are big because they're famous—they're famous politicians or famous CEO's or famous adulterers. The point is, they're famous. That's what you're going to be." Blinded by paparazzi, meek Murray Tepper is overwhelmed.
All the while, Ducavelli has simmered. Finally, having had it up to here with this new cancer in the body politic, he sets his sights on the hapless Tepper. He trains high-powered legal eagles against Tepper and tries in court to terminate him with extreme prejudice. New York, of course, rises to the defense of the little guy.
This being a comedy, all's well in the end for Tepper—but not before a manic round of kangaroo court high jinks, a nifty rally of the outraged citizenry and the admirable spectacle of Tepper, a still point in a turning world, holding his own, unperturbed.
A columnist for The New Yorker for thirty-five years, Trillin knows, and plainly loves, his city. With Tepper Isn't Going Out, he's written his best fiction—a Capraesque fantasy of the unwitting underdog winning out (with Mel Brooks, say, subbing for Jimmy Stewart in the title role). It's a gentle vision: a valentine to undaunted individuality. This fine, winsome book is a reminder of how we may prevail in small ways.