TRAVELS WITH ALICE by Calvin Trillin, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 195 pp., $18.95
LIKE Napoleon's army, Calvin Trillin seems to travel on - or perhaps even for - his stomach.
Anyone who's ever had a vacation trip spoiled by inedible meals that make you wish you were back at Burger King will feel a warm glow of recognition on learning that when Trillin and his wife, Alice, think of visiting the beautiful beaches of the Virgin Islands, they worry what they'll find to eat besides ``that old Caribbean standby, Miami frozen fish covered with Number 22 sun block....''
Trillin dreams of an ``Italian West Indies'' to replace the British- and American-influenced ones: ``a lush volcanic island whose steep hills are green with garlic plants.'' He calls his dream island ``Santo Prosciutto.'' Confronting reality, however, he and Alice plan on bringing their own ham and other provisions for the Caribbean trip.
Unlike Napoleon, Trillin has no plans to conquer the world. He's not even out to take in its most celebrated sights. As he explains in the first of the 15 brief pieces in this collection, what he most enjoys about travel is ``hanging around.''
Hanging around usually involves eating: sampling the gelati in Italy, rating the American-style hamburger joints that have proliferated in Paris, or frequenting produce markets in Provence, France. Markets are places where Trillin, son of a Kansas City, Mo., grocer, feels in his element: He knows how important it can be to shop for your dinner, even though he doesn't always know exactly what he should be looking for: ``... even though I've read all the instructions about how to gauge the freshness of a fish by looking him in the eye,'' he modestly confesses, ``the fish I eyeball looks pretty noncommittal. I'm still waiting for the first one to lower his eyes in guilty knowledge of how long he has been out of the water.''
Hanging around can also include trying out your Spanish in Spain - and finding yourself suddenly ``running out'' of the language mid-conversation, ``the way someone might run out of flour or eggs. ... It wasn't merely that I couldn't think of the Spanish words for what I wanted to say. ... I couldn't think of any Spanish words at all.''
And it can include investigating local sports, like ``babyfoot,'' as the French call the game of table soccer. (Trillin underestimates the spread of this sport to America: He says it arrived here in the late 1970s, but I saw it being played at least as early as 1973.) Then, there are more exotic events like taureaux piscine, which involves seeing how long (not very) human contestants wish to remain in a small plastic swimming pool with a bull for company.
A staff writer for the New Yorker, a syndicated columnist, and author of over a dozen books with titles like ``American Fried,'' ``Alice, Let's Eat,'' and ``Uncivil Liberties,'' Trillin has a knack for turning out diverting little essays. This kind of light humor retains its popularity because it is so easy - and such fun - to read. But it's not all that easy to write. Even Trillin doesn't always manage to bring it off. Sometimes the effect can be a little forced. As when Trillin contrasts his wife's love of gardens with his own indifference to the finer points of horticulture. ``In fact,'' Trillin admits, ``I don't know many flowers by name. Because of that, I've always referred to all flowers as marigolds. Marigold sounds like a flower, and it's easy to spell.'' This is neither as true nor as funny as it ought to be.
But for the most part, Trillin is in good form throughout this collection. His strength as a writer of light prose derives not from the brilliance of his individual witticisms (amusing though some of them are), but from his ability to maintain an infectiously humorous tone throughout his accounts of places, foods, family colloquies, and curious local activities.
``Travels With Alice'' is not quite first-class travel writing (although Trillin conveys a keen sense of atmosphere), nor is it first-class food writing (although his love of good food is always apparent), nor is it first-class humor (although readers will be smiling throughout). And in pricing this slight, 195-page book at $18.95, the publishers may well make prospective purchasers feel a lot like overcharged tourists. But Trillin's skillful blend of travel, food, and humor is an entertaining excursion nonetheless. All in all, he's good company.