Andy Rooney has planted himself smack in the middle of the American predicament and taken it for his own: Shorter and wider than he'd like to be ("sturdy," his mother liked to say), his closet stuffed with clothes he can't wear until he's lost 10 pounds (or maybe 20) and ties that have a spot on them somewhere. Last time he washed his socks, he came out with seven that didn't match.
Coming to terms with all this ("I'm going to give up trying to wear socks in pairs") in a daffy and beguiling way has made Andy Rooney a one-man institution. Sundays he's on "60 Minutes," demonstrating how many pants, shirts, coats and undershirts he can hang on a doorknob, and berating the coat-hanger designers. Three times a week he writes a syndicated newspaper column, 127 of which are gathered in this book. In a few spare words he details the madcap minutiae of his daily life, shares his observations about this cuckoo's nest we all inhabit and tells you how he thinks things could be improved.
His problems are Everyperson's. He waits all day for the floor sander, who never comes. He pays the yard man more each year to send a substitute worker who does ever shoddier work. He has trouble shedding weight and keeping a grip on his sense of purpose. ("Certain jobs I'm faced with bring on a feeling I'd rather go lie down than do them.") His garage is a mess. ("If I need a Phillips screwdriver, it's easier to go out and buy a new one than to find any of the three I already own.") Some of the stuff in his freezer may date from 1976. ("When we stow something in the freezer, it's Good-by Charley.") He doesn't like to "think and lift on the same day," but the demands of life keep blurring the line. Somewhere, he thinks, there is "someone as good at finding things as I am at losing them."
He is a newspaper junkie. Saturdays he buys two copies of the same paper to be sure to have one to himself. "I want the whole thing or none of it." If he misses the paper one day, "there's going to be a hole in my information storage system for the rest of my life." He also turns on the radio every morning "to make sure the world hadn't come to an end."
If he ventures outdoors, all birds seem to look like sparrows, even after he buys a bird book. He "wouldn't know a sycamore if it fell on me," and notices that the "bark and leaf samples in my books don't look like the bark and leaves on my trees."
When it comes to the big picture, he wonders if we wouldn't be better off with a king. Or maybe a dictator. "What we could use is a real Mr. Nice Guy." He suggests that the housing market would prosper if there were companies that shrink houses instead of enlarging them, and that the speed limit should vary according to the skill of the driver. "I know people who are safer driving seventy-five than my sister is driving thirty-five. She's a basically good person, but she's a lousy driver."
If he's ever elected to Congress, he threatens to pass a law outlawing tomatoes and melons, except when they're in season. As things stand now, the "federal government has sponsored research that has produced a tomato . . . perfect in every respect, except you can't eat it." He suspects that it wouldn't hurt one of these tomatoes if a truck ran over it. "The driver might think he'd hit a rock, but no real damage would be done to either the truck or the tomato."
This gives you an idea of the sweep of Andy Rooney's concerns. He works with the skill of a man who has been at the typewriter professionally since World War II, when he first started writing for Stars and Stripes. And not just any old typewriter. He uses a 1920 Underwood, and if it ever gets stolen he'll never write again. Sort of. He's collected 17 others just like his trusted Underwood, just in case. He tried an electric typewriter, "but there's no use pretending you can use machinery that thinks faster than you do. An electric typewriter is ready to go before I have anything to say."
Yet skilled as they are, there is a thin quality to these essays, when you stack them up against the work of others -- E.B. White or James Thurber, say -- who have mined the same turf. But White and Thurber were writing in another time, when a writer had room to roam. Andy Rooney has an audience on his hands with the attention span of a flea, whether they read him on the page or watch him on the tube. In the context of his working conditions, he's about as funny and as profound as people will hold still for. You just hope the industrial scale of his output doesn't wear him out. We already know he won't run out of typewriters.