The contract we get with the universe, as I comprehend it, is that we can breathe a little, maybe one short night or maybe 100 years, and that's about it.

But we soon get used to luxuries -- places to live, language, food and that sort of thing, and in no time we expect more than was promised, more than is in fact achievable.

No longer do we feel relief that tigers and alligators are gone from in front of the cave. Instead, we glower that mushrooms cost more than last year.

Now in language this sort of thing -- give 'em an inch and they'll take an ell -- has led to many pointless complaints.

Readers nowadays pick up something to read and say hmmph that's not even as good as "The Iliad" and if we can put a man on the moon you'd think we could turn out a few writers as good as the old ones for Pete sake.

Now the calm inquiring man understands we were never promised an Iliad just because we had one once. Anything we get at all, nowadays, is pure gravy.

Still, I myself am a reader, and share the common yippety-yip-yip sins of the reading class, impossible to please and sure to point out the daily word is not even as good as Shakespeare, who didn't even go to school to speak of.

So I came to the conclusion -- which I recommend to all -- that there is probably nothing of any great consequence going to be written in America in this century but so what, and you may as well be amused if any where possible.

To that end I have been perusing two current works, "Crackers" by Roy Blount Jr., and "The Official Explanations" by Paul Dickson.

Neither one of them even as good as "Midsummer Night's Dream" for Pete sake.

But by now we all must be aware the base of literature is the simian pleasure of chattering along in the trees, and thus it does no good to argue that greater noises were made in past centuries. We are living now and chatter is born in all of us. Thus there never will be a shortage of writers nor, for that matter, of readers who love to jabber back, usually in alarmed and disapproving tones.

Now "Crackers" is a sort of meditation on the family of President Carter and some of his imaginary kin, along with meditations on the state of Georgia and man's place in the cosmos and so forth.

That author is shameless. He makes up kinfolks for the Carters such as "Velvetta Carter," a perfectly imaginary relative who manages to have a baby by a Mexican, she cannot for the life of her think how.

Blount is a Southerner, of course, and all these people down there are holy rollers at heart and the main thing they ever got from the Bible (a book it is impossible not to know down there) is that publicans and sinners (and thieves and whores) are better folk than others. It is a somewhat classical Christian doctrine, of course, and therefore a bit odd.

He is strong on Early Billy and Later Billy, dealing with the president's brother. I can hardly do the work of two chapters in a nutshell here, but the general drift is that Billy is less pretentious than some, warmer than some.

It is, of course, the main theme of Lawrence's Chatterley novels, especially in the first version.

Now one may lose patience with Billy Carter on occasion. There are more Arabs than Jews and one does get a trifle tired of the holiness of Israel after a while. Still, the remark did sound a shade anti-Semitic.

But about the time you quite lose patience with Billy Carter, along comes some ass yammering about the parameters of media conceptualizations of zub-zub-zub. And one then turns again to the Billys of Georgia as to streams of living water.

As for the president, I gather from Blount that the president has lost overmuch of the plainness, the sparkle, the ornery freshness of the good old boy. I don't know that it's much of an argument, but there it is.

Finally, the book includes snippets of verse that I presume were written by Blount and I admire them more than anything else. Here is one about a girl named Polly Esther: She's my sugarbaby, She's my pride, She's all Polly Esther And a yard wide. I doubt she'll ever wrinkle bad She's got a kind of shine She's all Polly Esther And two-thirds mine.

On the whole, a merry volume dedicated to the proposition the Republic is now too full of s---.

Dickson's volume, on the other hand, is a standard reference of the nature of the world as we have all known it.

You recall Murphy's Law, that if anything can go wrong, it certainly will.

Well, Dickson has founded the Murphy Center for etc. etc. right here in Garrett Park to collect and codify examples and extensions of that law.

A typical example:

The ratio of south ends of north-bound horses to the number of horses is always greater than 1.

These gems, these discoveries, these pithy summaries were collected from contributors all over the country who further the work of the Murphy Center.

My favorite is not a typical one, since it is not a one-sentence epigram but a rather long story, which I am bold to summarize (while sacrificing much of the charm of the original):

There was once a new lion at the zoo who noticed the other lions were just sitting around yawning, not putting on much show for the folks. But this new lion took his job seriously and used to stalk about and roar and carry on, and people began to be fond of watching him.

But the other lions got buckets of horse meat and the new lion only got some lettuce and oranges to eat.

Undaunted, he figured if he worked harder and did better work roaring and carrying on he would be rewarded.

But after quite a while -- and by this time people were lined up before his cage to see the good show he put on -- he still got only lettuce and one day presumed so far to speak to the lionkeeper about it.

"Life is cruel," the zoo person said, "but I see upon investigation why you don't get horsemeat like the other lions, but only lettuce. It appears we've been carrying you on the table of organization as a monkey."

I think that is beautiful. I think about 250 million of us Americans could learn from it. And thank God the thoughts and epigrams are short. Truth is unendurable in long doses.