A FRIEND OF MINE has lately put himself on an ambitious self-improvement program. Along with doing yoga and drinking wheat grass juice, he's also carrying around little bits of paper inscribed with meaningful quotations and proverbs. Thus he can use otherwise idle moments, like waiting for a bus, by cogitating on the maxims of Lao-tse and Don Juan.
Now I support his search for satori, so I'm giving him a copy of Social Studies as soon as possible. No quest for enlightenment can be complete without the crystallized wisdom of Fran Lebowitz. Forget dharma and karma. Lebowitz alone punches through to the reality of modern life. Meditate on these:
"A dog who thinks he is man's best friend is a dog who obviously has never met a tax lawyer."
"Do not encourage your child to express himself artistically unless you are George Balanchine's mother."
"Just because I own my own restaurant does not mean that I can include on the menu a dish entitled Veal Jeffrey."
Lebowitz would disapprove of my friend's self-help efforts, of course. But then she disapproves of virtually everything, particularly fads, trends, and the relaxation of social and personal restraints in general.
"Being offended is the natural consequence of leaving one's home," she writes. "I do not like aftershave lotion, adults who rollerskate, children who speak French, or anyone who is unduly tan . . . . I stay at home as much as possible and so should they."
Those unfamiliar with Lebowitz might think her a moralist, an elitist, a snob. She is all those. But she is an equal-opportunity snob, venting her disdain regardless of one's race, disability, sexual persuasion, or for that matter, species.
When told, for example, that her wish to bar all dogs from New York would deprive "the blind and pathologically lonely," she suggests that "the lonely lead the blind." This would provide "companionship to one and a sense of direction to the other, without inflicting on the rest of the population the all-too-common spectacle of grown men addressing German shepherds in the respectful tones best reserved for elderly clergymen and Internal Revenue agents."
Lebowitz is a curmudgeon of classic proportions. Her work echoes H. L. Mencken, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley -- especially the latter when she's cranking out epigrams, lists, and rules for the betterment of the social order. Unlike Benchley, however, Lebowitz's humor lacks warmth or empathy. She is astringent, snide, and smarmy. And like the New York scene she chronicles, she makes no excuses. ("I am not the type who wants to go back to the land; I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel.")
Not all of the 26 essays in Social Studies succeed. But as in her first book, the 1978 best seller Metropolitan Life, Lebowitz packs a lot into a little book and hits far more than she misses. Her elegant, finely honed prose can make you laugh out loud while wincing at her devastating images of America the Inane.
She interviews Pope Ron, a laid back, relevant young pontiff who's discarded "the old, uptight values that deny men the right to their feelings." "The Big P.", as he calls himself, wears a T-shirt reading "INFALLIBLE BUT NOT INFLEXIBLE," serves a whole-grain host, and lives a blissed-out life with Sue, his "delicate blond wife of the pre-Raphaelite curls and long, tapering fingers."
Or go with Lebowitz on a stream-of-consciousness tour of a high-tech apartment. "Must be interesting eating here," she muses, surveying the stainless steel dining room table. "First a small but tasteful dish of number ten nails and then on to the Salk vaccine. . . . I wonder what you serve the wine in. You probably just inject it."
She gives us her travel tips for Los Angeles (where "it is generally sunny . . . thereby allowing the natives to read contracts by natural light"); the Fran Lebowitz High Stress Diet ("eat whatever you like. If you can choke it down, it's yours"); and her thoughts on war and the draft ("I suggest that rather than draft, the powers that be consider inviting. Inviting assures attendance by all by the most conscientious of objectors").
Not unpatriotic, she'd serve herself but only if a Writers' Regiment was given certain considerations. ("War is, undoubtedly, hell, but there is no earthly reason why it has to start so early in the morning.")
Alone in her lifeboat on a sea of decadence, Lebowitz also does a marvelous job of spoofing herself, with her prissy devotion to propriety in conduct, clothing, food, and smoking, the last being "if not my life then at least my hobby. . . . Smoking is, as far as I am concerned, the entire point of being an adult."
Lebowitz is unashamedly Lebowitz, thank goodness, a funny, urbane, intelligent one-woman bulwark against cultural ticky-tack, creeping mellowness, and the excesses of what Mencken dubbed "boobus Americanus."