September 13, 2011
Never enough of Calvin Trillin
Calvin Trillin, as we are reminded in “Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: forty years of funny stuff” (Random House: $27), has long served as a polestar in the American literary firmament. He is best-known and loved for his witty contributions to The New Yorker, but he has also displayed his acerbic good humor and powers of social observation on the off-Broadway stage, in a series of comic novels (including “Tepper Isn’t Going Out”), in “deadline poetry” for The Nation and in a heart-tugging memoir about his late wife, “About Alice,” among many other efforts.
Trillin may be an emblematic New York writer, but his origins and interests are not limited to the inner boroughs. Born in Kansas City, Mo., and educated at Yale, he quips that “T.S. Eliot and I constitute the Missouri school of poetry.” Although he has written only sparingly about his Jewish background, he affirms that “in Kansas City, where I grew up, Calvin Trillin is a very common Jewish name.” And he can be credited with a leading role in the invention and improvement of American food journalism, a specialty that was inspired by his voracious appetite and all-consuming curiosity: “Now that it’s fashionable to reveal intimate details of married life,” he once wrote, “I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day.”
Trillin talked to The Jewish Journal from his New York City home shortly before embarking on a national tour that will bring him to Los Angeles on Sept. 21 for a conversation with “Saturday Night Live” alum Kevin Nealon, at an event sponsored by Writer’s Bloc at the Writers Guild Theater.
Jonathan Kirsch: The first stop on your author tour is an event at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side. What does the venue mean to you personally?
JK: The headline on The Journal’s story about the passing of Amy Winehouse was “Jewish Chanteuse Dies.” A close reading of your book — but it takes a close reading — suggests that you would be entitled to a similar eulogy. What does your Jewish background amount to, and what does it mean to you?
JK: Did you pick up any Yiddish in Kansas City?
JK: Thanks to your long association with The New Yorker, I tend to think of you as a quintessential New Yorker, and yet you disclose that you keep a famous line from “The Wizard of Oz” on your bulletin board: “Toto, I don’t think we’ re Kansas anymore.” Have you been fully Manhattanized?
JK: Did you personally do the work of selecting the various pieces that appear in your new collection, more than 130 in all? Did you work from your own archive of your writing?
JK: Larry David and Sarah Silverman are willing to make jokes about the Holocaust, and you are able to write comically about the Shoe Bomber. As a humorist, do you think there are any subjects that are beyond humor?
JK: One of your couplets refers to the Rodney King beating and invokes the Viet Cong (“If I done right or I done wrong/I’d sooner be held by the Vietcong”), which prompted me to wonder: What is the expiration date of a good joke?
JK: You devote one section of your new book to “Twenty Years of Pols.” Do you think that American politicians are getting better or worse?
JK: You have written that “the average shelf life of a book is somewhere between milk and yogurt.” Do you think that the advent of electronic publishing means that books will have an even shorter shelf life, or perhaps a longer one?