Seventeen years ago, an affable, Yale-educated man of average height (5-8) resigned from his occupation as a roving staff writer ("floater") on an important national newsmagazine, determined to make his career elsewhere.
Although few realized it at the time, that man was Calvin Trillin. He would go on to author the sesquifortnightly "U.S. Journal" column for a nonnewsmagazine called The New Yorker (circ. 498,128 weekly). Later, he would also contribute humorous material to the weekly nonmagazine The Nation (circ. 35,000), and write books on gustatory topics as well (as he could).
Now 44 and still a native of Kansas City, Mo. (pop. 458,251), Trillin has turned his pen back to those halcyon days at Time and published a novel entitled "Floater," which he describes as an "entertainment." This slim volume (204 pp.) leans heavily on alleged recrudescent Time office ambiance in attempting to reproduce the decision-making methodologies of the institution.
Trillin (rhymes with villain) concedes that he chose his former beneficent employer as a subject "reluctantly," because "when I left, back in 1967, people were quitting in great snits, and I wasn't one of those."
Trillin's thesis seems to be -- nay, is -- that employes of a national newsmagazine are ordinary people who do not take public service as their singular goal. Instead, they chronicle office affaires de coeur (his Wolferman's Law posits the existence, at any given time, of between 16 and 19 such liaisons), indulge in long lunches and invent societal phenomena ("trends") for their own amusement. The executive staff, meanwhile, vies for invitations to presidential briefings, with the score kept in White House matchbooks.
Rattled ruminations of a recidivist schoolboy? Hardly. Trillin, though he has never won the Pulitzer Prize, is said to be one of the best reporters in America, a reputation based on 17 years worth of interviewing PTA members for "U.S. Journal." (Every Trillin article is routinely checked for inaccuracies, a New Yorker spokesperson confirmed.) A lively conversationalist, he is considered a darling of the literati. Fact: Trillin is married, with two children.
The author, a regular guest on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson," concedes that "Floater" is a mere 204 pages long. As such, it is neither "War and Peace" nor "The Recognitions" by William Gaddis, one of the great underappreciated masterpieces of the 20th century. Trillin does not even attempt to deny that his work falls hundreds of pages short of "The Recognitions." Explained he: "I wrote it during the summer, and it's not my fault the summer is only three months long."
Given the widespread interest in correcting any misapprehensions of Time caused by "Floater," Trillin granted an exclusive, on-the-record interview at week's end. Excerpts from that 90-minute conversation:
Q: What was your intention in writing "Floater"?
A: I just tried to make everybody in it look silly, for the entertainment value. I didn't mean to make Time seem silly, but I guess I failed, because everyone took the book seriously. My only intention was that, perhaps, in its bizarre way, "Floater" would give people an idea of how a newsmagazine works. That afterward, they would read Time with a knowing smile. Frankly, after all these years, I can hardly remember the place anyhow.
Q: Yet you went ahead with your jocular fictionalization?
A: Why not. A newsmagazine is not that different from an insurance company or a restaurant. The goals of the individuals are not precisely the same as those of the institution. The writers are really more interested in who's being reassigned to the Ottawa bureau than in whether two-thirds stockings are a trend or not. The stories result from meetings, and you can see the meetings in the magazine itself. The "billboard paragraph" -- you know, the one about the third paragraph down that tells why the subject of the piece is important -- is usually decided upon by editors before they even assign the story.
Q: You denigrate the decision-making process that leads to life-style articles on drownings in hot tubs, two-thirds stockings, etc. Is no societal phenomenon sacred to you?
A: Only the question-and-answer interview format.
Q: Is it true that as a "floater" assigned to Time's religion page you made it a practice to write the word "alleged" when citing major events in the history of religion?
A: It's true that I wrote the word alleged, but the editors just crossed it out. I was trying for a transfer. I was unsuccessful.
Q: Are the names in the book real?
A: Yes and no. For example, the character of Andy Wolferman is based on that of John Gregory Dunne, though it tends to flatter. Wolferman is actually the name of the English muffins I ate as a child in Kansas City. Also, my dentist is in there. Marvin Rappaport. Dental work is so expensive. However, my bills remain high. I put my ophthalmologist in, too: eDavid Pearce, though he comes out as Diego Pearce. Also, Jacob Bernstein, who in real life is 2 years old. Charlie Shopsin, the son of the owner of my corner grocery store in Greenwich Village, also appears.
Q: "Floater" is presumably a satire. Would you describe yourself as a humorist?
A: Ring Lardner said that a writer calling himself a humorist is like a baseball player calling himself a great third-baseman.
Q: Have you heard the expression, "Scratch a humorist and you find a deeply serious person"?
A: Scratch me and you'll find a stand-up comedian. While the other would-be writers were learning to be neurotic and sensitive in high school, I had a comedy team. The other kid knew how to do a French accent. That was in Kansas City.
Q: Kansas City comes up a lot. It could be termed central to your oeuvre.
A: My wife calls it my Kan City act. I love Kansas City. There's a cow on top of the American Hereford Association building there, 10 stories up. At night, its heart and liver light up. At the city limits, there's a sign that says, "Psychiatrists: Don't Let the Sun Set on Your A-- Here."
Q: Is that actually true?
A: A lot of people can't find the sign.
Q: You've written two books about food ("Alice, Let's Eat" and "American Fried"). Yet you don't really cotton to haute cuisine, eh?
A: No, I began "American Fried" with the line "The best restaurants in the world are, of course, in Kansas City." But in Kansas City, they hated it when I said that Arthur Bryant's restaurant has the best ribs in the world. That's because it's in a bad neighborhood. See, midwesterners suffer from rube-o-phobia. Fear of being thought rubes. There are restaurants with names like La Maison de la Case House, Continental Cuisine. I like to think of myself as an okay rube.
Q: The fact is, however, that you live in Greenwich Village.
A: The worst sin, if you're from the Midwest, is not armed robbery. It's getting too big for your britches. It's forgetting where you came from. iIt's drinking foreign wines and wearing pointy shoes.
Q: You're a New Yorker writer who's also on the Johnny Carson show. Isn't that kind of a contradiction?
A: Well, I do it because I enjoy it. Of course, it's terribly embarrassing to my New York friends. But Johnny is amazing. He never says anything to which there's no answer. He can extend a joke without taking it away from you. And there's no defense for humor. You can never say to the audience, "Listen -- I've told that joke in seven cities, and everybody else loved it."
Q: What do you find funny?
A: Anything Johnny Carson finds funny. Health food is funny. If health food is so healthy, how come the clerks in health food stores can't even grow a full beard?
Q: Travel-wise, you are peripatetic. How do you rate American cities?
A: By their airports. The way to the airport should be clearly marked, but it's hard to control. I have suggested that any city which fails to clearly mark the way to the airport should lose one major league franchise.
Q: Is there really an Alice? Or did you merely make your wife up for professional reasons?
A: Alice is definitely real. And I have two daughters. Actually, I have a recurring nightmare, where I'm lying in bed and a Gray Line tour bus pulls up out front and the loudspeaker says: "And here live the Trillins, the last Nuclear Family in Greenwich Village." Having a family is just like being in Kansas City.