A rich plum pudding of anecdotes and profiles; Far-flung & Footloose: Pieces from The New Yorker 1937-1978, by E. J. Kahn Jr. New York: Putnam. $12.95.
E. J. Kahn Jr. Goes to monthly fire-company meetings, likes to sing "Ol' Man River" in the shower, and can only ice skate counterclockwise. He has read more books about David Crockett than he cares to remember, but he does admit to once having been tipped by a waitress in Kiev, USSR. Although he dotes upon Labrador retrievers and sleek pheasants, he is not so taken with muskrats.
Kahn is also a very witty writer, and getting better acquainted with one of the quipsters behind The New Yorker editorial "we" is the best part of this book. A staff writer for that magazine, Kahn has by his own dust-jacket count dashed off some 2 1/2 million words and 21 books since he signed his first byline in 1937, fresh out of Harvard, raring to be "Far-flung & Footloose." Here we have the pith of 40 years' pieces.
A chronicler of the significant in the tradition of James Thurber and S. J. Perelman, Kahn sweeps from the sublime to the more sublime, from Averell Harriman's Communist horse to David Rockefeller's Japanesem Japanese beetles.
An anecdote rewrite man turned reporter turned loose, Kahn delights in rooting out the odd fact. Where other columnists drop names, he drops tidbits:
"As a wedding-anniversary present one year [Dr. Seuss's wife] gave her husband a delicate life-size model of a cockroach."
In characteristic New Yorker style, with more of a "have you heard?" than a "listen here!" lead, Kahn opens the door to topics and causes I'd never have guessed I could care about. Ever since reading about the Journal & American's homing pigeons (one had to be sent back to the newsroom in a taxi, with all the windows closed) and the American Kennel Club's Naming Girls (one turned down a member's application to name a male puppy Jesse James on the grounds that Jesse was a girl's name), I've been looking for an Animal Rescue League to join.
In his profiles of the famous -- Frank Sinatra, Josh Logan, Al Capp, Abe Burrows, Guy Lombardo -- Kahn relies not so much on physical description as revealing example:
"One of Burrows' most engaging characteristics is his gruff, froggy voice, especially when he exaggerates it to utter grammatical absurdities in Brooklynese. Well realizing that all humor is based in large measure on surprise, he has polished to a high gloss the knack of expressing a philosopher's thoughts in truck drivers' jargon. . . ."
Surprise is likewise the catapult to much of Kahn's vaulting humor. But at times in this collection the word play gets a bit cute, and there's the kind of feeling that comes from watching a precocious four-year-old at a birthday party: you love it when his eyes light up at the sight of a new toy, but you wish he wouldn't look around quite so coyly to see who's smiling at him.
Still, when there are so few writers to laugh with today, Kahn has served up a rich plum pudding of a book, one to be savored by the spoonful.