By Dwight Garner
“People feel so special, so wise, when somebody they know drops dead,” Ottessa Moshfegh wrote in “Homesick for Another World,” her 2017 story collection. The newly dead might have felt special and wise in advance of their demises if they were friends with Calvin Trillin and could be reasonably sure he would speak at their wakes.
Trillin has long been more in demand as a eulogist, in Manhattan’s interlocking journalism and literary worlds, than probably anyone alive. The reasons are apparent to anyone who has heard or read him. He has a) a fundamental decency, b) a phlegmatic manner and c) a deadpan wit that delivers, like an inoculation, hurt and healing at the same time. I’ve known people to attend the funerals of people they’ve never met because word had spread that Trillin would be speaking, in the manner that an NBA nonfan might attend a New York Knicks game solely because he had heard that Chaka Khan would be singing the national anthem.
Trillin’s new book is called “The Lede: Dispatches From a Life in the Press.” It’s an assortment of profiles, essays, columns and a few examples of light verse, all of them about journalism, written originally for The New Yorker, The Nation, Time and other outlets. A few go back as far as the early 1970s. New money for old rope, in other words. But it makes sense to have this material in one place, and this book is buoyant and crunchy from end to end.
“The Lede” contains profiles — of Miami crime reporter Edna Buchanan, of New York Times writer and expense-account legend Johnny Apple, and of pseudonymous Texas drive-in movie critic Joe Bob Briggs — that are acknowledged classics of the form and will be studied until artificial intelligence makes hash out of all of us. Trillin can be counted on to hand the world back clearer than it was before he picked it up.
I began this review with eulogies because the best section in “The Lede” is a short one called, simply, “R.I.P.” It contains remembrances of some of Trillin’s favorite people, including Russell Baker, Molly Ivins, John Gregory Dunne, Morley Safer, Andrew Kopkind and Murray Kempton.
About Baker, a former Times columnist, Trillin writes that he “preferred the unadorned to the gussied-up” and was “an enemy of pretension and pomposity.” Trillin might as well be writing about himself. He reminds us that Baker compared writing 800-word columns for what was once called the op-ed page to “doing ballet in a telephone booth.”
Trillin also recalls the time that Baker almost died when a raw potato fell from a tall building, barely missing him. No one wants to be remembered for a goofy death, such as Sherwood Anderson’s, for example. He died after accidentally swallowing the toothpick that skewered the olive in his martini.
Trillin reports Ivins’ comment that “if a certain congressman’s I.Q. dropped any further, he’d have to be watered twice a day.” He notes Dunne’s imaginary “Irish drawer,” files devoted solely to grudges. Safer, a “60 Minutes” correspondent, had a sideline making paintings of hotel rooms. He quotes Safer this way:
Capturing the unique colors — the burnt oranges, the vivid turquoises — that are frequently encountered in American hostelries poses an extraordinary challenge to the artist. You realize that the bedspreads and rugs in Holiday Inns were designed for one purpose — so that people can get sick on them and it won’t show.
Trillin’s droll manner has a lot to do with his gift for understatement. So, when I read, in his remembrance of Kopkind, a Nation journalist, that he was “the most entertaining person of his generation,” I had to put the book down for a moment. I thought to my stunned self: That is possibly the greatest bit of praise I have ever heard — coming from Trillin, at any rate. Kopkind must have had a personality that could microwave leftovers at 30 yards.
Trillin’s understatement matters because through it he resolves the traumas of life into humane comedy. While reporting on a barbecue-related contretemps among the staffers at Texas Monthly, he has a meal with the kind of fellow that a lesser writer might describe as “heavyset.” Trillin would never reach for such off-the-shelf and impolite verbiage. Instead, he writes, the man had “a midsection that reflects a 40-year interest in Texas barbecue.” Multiply that kind of observation across a career and you have the foundation, like a Cajun cook’s roux, of the Trillin style.
There is a piece here, from 2001, about Chowhound and New York City’s then-new legion of food critics. They all seemed to Trillin like, in a generally admiring way, the kind of dudes who had stayed in grad school way too long. There is a column about trying to slip phrases into your work that will enter the language, like Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation.” Trillin had high hopes for “D.T.S. — Disappearing Tush Syndrome,” which describes “the tendency of older men’s hindquarters to flatten out.” It seems not to have caught on.
Several pieces are about this newspaper. He recalls when the Times, all at once in the 1990s, dropped its Stamps, Coins and Camera columns (and later Chess and Bridge) and introduced a new Styles section. Trillin would flip through Styles, he writes, “looking for tips on how to acquire the mannerisms of an in-the-know teenager.”
He recalls his suggestion, “on behalf of reporters everywhere,” that Roy Reed “be given the Pulitzer Prize for managing to convince the pooh-bahs at The New York Times that New Orleans, a backwater in just about every human endeavor except the enjoyment of life, rather than Atlanta, the Babbitt-ridden commercial center and air hub of the South, was the logical place for The Times’s Southern correspondent to make his headquarters.”
There are pieces about The New Yorker, for which Trillin has written since 1963. He wonders if he is among the last of its writers and editors “who hasn’t discussed his New Yorker experience in excruciating detail between hard covers.” He writes about trying to get dirty words past William Shawn, the magazine’s prim longtime editor. The point was not to shock or titillate. The point, Trillin writes, is that we are all adults and “I’m grateful for having no restrictions on what I can listen to or look at.”
There are a few misfires in this book, pieces Trillin might have added to make other writers feel better about themselves. A 2001 profile of Canadian press baron Conrad Black flips and flops. I suspect it’s because Trillin didn’t find much to admire in Black, and he had trouble saying so. Some weeks, I am glad The Nation still prints his “deadline poetry,” a few examples of which are here. Other weeks, I groan so hard that it hurts, physically.
Maybe he included this lesser stuff for the same reason he once proposed that The New Yorker intentionally print one cartoon in each issue that isn’t funny. As a result, “the reader would assume that he must be witnessing ‘subtle humor beyond his power of perception, and that The New Yorker is therefore even more sophisticated than he thought.’”
Yes, that must be it.