New Yorker wit in a Midwest accent. Calvin Trillin writes from front lines of America's back roads
CALVIN TRILLIN is one reporter who won't be following the presidential aspirants through New Hampshire this winter. The New Yorker writer and syndicated humorist says he finds most political reporting ``astonishing.'' ``Probably 80 to 90 percent is devoted to who is likely to win the election - something everybody's going to know the night of the election.''
Often, journalists call the election wrong. ``But what if they were right?'' he says, voice rising with incredulity. ``I mean, it doesn't make any difference.''
So while his peers pack the press buses in New Hampshire, Mr. Trillin will be out by himself on the back roads of the American experience, writing about people and events considered inconsequential by the national press. (Including the eating events for which he is best known.) When he does write about the candidates, it's in his humor columns, the third collection of which has just been published as ``If You Can't Say Something Nice.''
Trillin is the resolute provincial of American journalism, the big-city guy who still keeps time by what he calls ``Kansas City Mean.'' It's true that he went to Yale and lives in Greenwich Village. And that for 25 years, he has written for a magazine that features ads for $245 paperweights and watches that cost almost as much as the Strategic Defense Initiative.
But, writes Trillin, ``for Midwesterners, a hometown has no statute of limitations.''
In photographs, Trillin appears dour and imposing. An avid enthusiast of Chinese food (along with just about every other kind that isn't ``natural''), he wears the chronic expression of a man who has just finished a mediocre Shrimp in Lobster Sauce, which the waiter suggested, only to see a memorable Twice Fried Beef arrive at the next table.
In person, though, he's just a few inches above elfin, with a good-humored chattiness that helps explain why small-town folks open up to him. He clearly loves an audience for his best one-liners and cockamamie theories, such as the way the Vietnam war improved the lot of Oriental food lovers like himself. He imagines the American choppers hovering over Saigon in the final days of the war, with GIs shouting frantically, ``Get the chefs. Get the chefs.''
Trillin's New Yorker pieces are the polar opposites of the ``impact journalism'' of a Time or Newsweek cover story. There are no new trends, no ``hooks'' to matters of national concern. They are simply sketches of life in America. The story, for example, of a young Navajo man in Gallup, N.M., who kidnapped the local mayor, explores Indian-Anglo relations, but only incidentally.
``Washington reporters are interested in people, what they are like, only insofar as it might be an indication of how they'll vote,'' he says. ``I'm only interested in how they'll vote for what it says about what they're like.''
``Where others see events of mild interest and little consequence,'' wrote Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, ``he sees stories that help us understand ourselves.''
Trillin turned to food for comic relief from the sometimes grim local occurrences. Shunning linen tablecloths and anything called ``cuisine,'' he celebrates places Americans go to eat rather than to dine, from Cincinnati chili parlors to Yonah Shimmel's wondrous knish bakery on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
In these paeans to the provincial palate, Trillin casts himself as a man who is either eating or thinking about what he will eat next. His wife, Alice, in real life a producer of educational films, enters as his comic foil. She's a woman with a ``weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day'' - a defect somewhat balanced by a ``broad view of what constitutes an hors d'oeuvre.''
Trillin began his humor column 10 years ago, for the Nation magazine. While writing seriously about everyday Americans, he could now poke fun at the high and mighty. ``I think of myself as someone standing off here making a living insulting his betters,'' Trillin says.
His bemused, unhurried wit calls to mind another New Yorker writer from the Midwest, the late James Thurber. He has a fine sense of the befuddlements of the American psyche - such as whom to root for in the Iran-Iraq war.
Where Woody Allen's point of reference is the neurotic New York male, Trillin's is the utterly sane Midwesterner. He claims that Kansas City owes its collective mental health to a sign on the highway warning, ``Psychiatrists, Get Your [Backsides] Out of Town by Sundown.'' He grounds his observations in universal American experiences, such as high school. When former White House aide Michael Deaver drew fire for influence peddling, Trillin compared the job of maintaining ethical standards in the Reagan White House to that of the ``high school history teacher who has been designated to enforce the no-drinking rule at the all-night graduation party.''
His barbs can be sharp. Mr. Deaver, he wrote, ``is so close to Ronald and Nancy Reagan that he is often described as being like a son to them - something that has never been said of any of their own children.''
Democrats get off no easier. He once conjured up an imaginary debate between Sen. Ted Kennedy and Ronald Reagan in which the senator could name only two of the three branches of government. ``I'm really not intensely political,'' he says. ``I really am against anyone that's in.''
Trillin often uses serious questions as setups for one-liners. But he becomes reflective when asked how far he thinks he can go before he hurts somebody.
``My first inclination is to find something funny,'' he says. ``I don't think of these people as my enemies - though [Attorney General Edwin] Meese is getting pretty close.''
In context, Trillin isn't nearly as biting as the above quotations may suggest. There is a disarming, Ozzie-and-Harriet quality that is both familial and familiar.
Abigail and Sarah, his daughters, make frequent appearances in the columns, along with Alice. Beyond them is an extended family of people such as Fats Goldberg, of New York pizzeria fame, who dropped 160 pounds - ``the equivalent of Rocky Graziano in his prime'' - and ``keeps down'' through an iron-man diet regime. And there's an outer circle of friendly personifications, such as Harold the Committed, who reads the Sunday New York Times beginning to end and who once suggested that Abigail go to a Halloween Party dressed as the Military Industrial Complex.
These are the hubs of Trillin's comic universe. And in fact, his family is a lot this way. He and Alice recently celebrated their 20th wedding anniversary. ``We made a strong effort to live in Kansas City, [Mo.], even though we were living in New York,'' Trillin says. With its low-rise buildings and friendly neighbors, Greenwich Village is conducive to this kind of living, he says; certainly more so than uptown, which he refers to the way a Missourian would speak of ``The East.''
In a New Yorker piece last spring called ``Goldberg Can Go Home Again,'' Trillin recounts his friend's Fat's return to their native Kansas City, there to plot his next career move. (Latest idea: a ``Bagel Buggie'' with which to cater parties.) Goldberg used to take his daily constitutionals down Manhattan's crowded avenues. Now he walks the climate-controlled Ward Parkway shopping mall.
Trillin denies that the tale bears any symbolism of an America gone homogenous and sterile. If anything, he says, Americans are more aware of local identity than they were 15 years ago.
Besides, Trillin thinks those earthshaking trends on Newsweek covers don't really penetrate that far beyond the coasts. At least once a year he gets together with a group of old high school buddies.
``These guys are the same as they were in high school,'' he says. ``All are married to the same people.
``All I can extrapolate from that is that probably an awful lot of people were not affected by `The '60s' and `The '70s.'''