If this were the best of all possible worlds, a review of Calvin Trillin's frolicsome new humor collection would be superfluous. In such a world, the mere mention of Trillin's name would detonate chuckles, every literate person would count himself a Calvinist, and "With All Disrespect" would o'erleap every other entry on the best-seller list with no assistance from me.
In as much as this world falls a mite shy of the Best Possible hatch-mark, however, a review there must be. Now, faced with a writer as clever and quippy as Trillin, most reviewers would try to get by with stringing together scads of quotes, letting the author himself do most of the work. I intend to run with the pack.
Before we get to the scads, though, a little background may be in order. Calvin Trillin is a staff writer for The New Yorker who writes a column for The Nation titled "Uncivil Liberties." "With All Disrespect: More Uncivil Liberties" is Trillin's second collection of these columns -- a fine example of 100 percent literary recycling. The first was called, reasonably enough, "Uncivil Liberties."
Now let's let the quotes fly. Here is our humorist talking with his wife about the gout, from which he suffers and whose image he would like to refurbish.
" 'We need to come up with a new name,' I told Alice. 'Maybe something that sounds breezy, like the names they use these days for new brands of cigarettes.'
" 'How about Glutton's Syndrome?' Alice said."
Here is the humorist's response to his friend Harold the Committed, "our neighborhood causemeister," who has been chiding him for caring more about palate than politics, with particular reference to the Vietnam war. "I watched the war. I was tuned in for the entire conflict. I was concerned. I was reacting. When Saigon fell and American helicopters hovered above the desperate crowd of people trying to escape from the embassy compound, I was the one who sat in front of the television set and shouted, 'Get the chefs! Get the chefs!' "
Besides geopolitical noshing, Trillin's preoccupations include one Victor S. Navasky, who edits The Nation. As hyperbolized by Trillin, Navasky's tightfistedness has become legendary. In the earlier collection, he was said to be paying Trillin a per-column fee in the "high two figures." Although that amount has now swelled to "a full hundred -- or what I prefer to think of as a century," Trillin has by no means abjured Navaskian potshots. Asked to characterize The Nation by a conceivably imaginary reporter, Trillin has himself replying, "I would describe it as a pinko magazine printed on very cheap paper. It's this sort of magazine: if you make a photocopy of your piece, the copy is a lot better than the original."
If I can be serious for just a moment, I would like to plump for Calvin Trillin as a sane-making writer. His universal chaffing, his rollicking self-disparagement, his verbal ingenuity -- what are these but the antidotes to discouragement that all of us ought to seek, if not in our own selves, then vicariously in the work of our humorists?
And yet Trillin's salubrious mindset has distinct limits. Sad as the duty may be, I must warn the reader that when it comes to his home state of Missouri, Trillin's rational faculties often take a powder. Here we are talking about a writer who once devoted an entire "U.S. Journal" essay in -- yes -- The New Yorker to attacking the subtext of the St. Louis Arch. Kansas City, not St. Louis, shrilled Trillin, was the Gateway to the West. Sure, and it's also the K.C. of Brotherly Love and The Big Plains Apple, and if you toss in Kansas City, Kan., you've got the echt-Twin Cities. You might think he'd be satisfied with the up-to-dateness of everything in Kansas City, not to mention the crazy little women they got there. But no!
The man's latest mania is how to pronounce Missouri. Trillin not only espouses the lazy-tongued deviant "Missoura" but assumes that every loyal Show-Me son and daughter joins him in condemning outlanders who say the word pretty much as it is spelled. Let the record show that in the eastern part of the state -- and especially within the ambit of the one and only Gateway to the West -- "Missoura" is dismissed as affected folksiness and that, by his own admission in another piece, Trillin has owned a tuxedo since his college days. Need I say more?
I will anyway -- all that remains being to sum up this witty and lucid-on-all-topics-but-Missouri writer. There is a wealth of superlatives to choose from, but let's leave it as this: Calvin Trillin is the funniest fellow alive writing incessantly about Victor S. Navasky.