No Laughing Matter (Calvin Trillin, Peter Lefcourt and the comic novel)

New Trillian novel bucks literary trend and provides comic relief.
Over the last year, I have read many wonderful novels: “The Lovely Bones” by Alice Sebold, “Atonement” by Ian McEwan, “The Hours” by Michael Cunningham. Well-written, emotionally resonant, all best-sellers, these highly praised literary works are required reading in book groups in Los Angeles and across the nation. Yet as excellent as they were, as one critic said of “Schindler’s List”: “There weren’t that many laughs.”

By contrast, “Tepper Isn’t Going Out” by Calvin Trillin delivers more pleasure, more belly laughs per page than any other work in recent memory.

“Tepper Isn’t Going Out” is the story of Murray Tepper, a New Yorker who has survived many mayoral regimes and has passed through the many stages of parking life in New York City, from metered, to alternate side of the street, to garaged parking a few blocks from his apartment. Suddenly, Tepper decides to spend his time sitting in his car, reading the newspaper at desirable metered parking spots around the city.

People, friends, family, passersby start asking him why? His answers are always literal: “Because there’s still time on the meter.”

Quoting Trillin’s phrases out of context does not do them comic justice. Suffice to say, paraphrasing A.J. Libeling’s appraisal of his own talents: “There is no humor writer who can write better and no better writer who can write more humorously.”

Trillin has been funny for a long time, most famously chronicling his adventures in eating for The New Yorker. He has written about almost every aspect of his life — except explaining how Calvin came to be a Jewish name (something we might also ask Mr. Klein — but I digress). Still, “Tepper” is fiction, and it presents an exquisite achievement.

Yet “Tepper” has won no Pulitzer, National Book Award or Jewish Book Award. And why not?

I have a simple answer: Because funny gets no respect. I suppose this is true in the film world as well, where studios gripe that comedies and comic performances are rarely nominated for Academy Awards — but at least there we know that funny is money and popularity is some consolation.

To discuss the difficulties inherent in the comic novel, I called up a local practitioner of this neglected art, Peter Lefcourt. Lefcourt has written such very funny and brilliant works as “Di and I,” “The Dreyfus Affair” and “The Woody.”

His touch is light and deft — “The Dreyfus Affair” has more to say about macho and politics in professional sports than any three sports columnists combined. (He also has published a new memoir of loves past in the form of a novel, “Eleven Karens.”)

Publishers are not big fans of comic fiction, Lefcourt believes, because the novels “don’t always translate well into foreign languages” (so no large foreign sales). Humor is often a matter of individual taste, and comic novels often appeal to a “small and select audience.”

We also discussed how many of the funniest fiction appears in short stories and how hard it is to sustain comedy in a novel. “Comic fiction is largely a matter of understatement,” Lefcourt said.

He’s right, of course. There are many people who can tell or even write a joke, and a few can put together a stand-up or a monologue. There are those who can write a brilliant sitcom, but how many of them have written humorous novels?

Woody Allen has written short stories. Steve Martin has written a collection of humor pieces, but his novel, “Shopgirl,” was more serious. NPR has fostered a collection of new humorists, such as David and Amy Sedaris, Sarah Vowel and Ian Brown, but again, they work the short form.

Perhaps the greatest miniaturist was S.J. Perelman. Today, Perelman is mostly known as the co-author of some Marx Brothers movies and Oscar-winner for “Around the World in 80 Days,” but he was a hilarious and impeccable stylist, whose motto was, “Misery breeds copy.”

As for recent comic novels, “A Year in Provence” made for a pleasant afternoon, and “Le Divorce” was fairly irresistible. I barreled though “The Nanny Diaries” and “Bridget Jones’ Diary,” as well as all of Nick Hornby’s novels.

I highly recommend Peter Farrelly’s novel, “The Comedy Writer,” but it’s a shame that his success with “There’s Something About Mary” seems to be distracting him from his true calling. Still none match the comic timing and rate of laughs per page as Trillin.

What, as the Bolsheviks used to say, is to be done? In publishing, it seems comic fiction presents a devil’s bargain: People will enjoy your work, but few will ever admit it. Sales will be modest, praise faint.

Maybe humor is a hothouse flower that they are afraid will wither if nourished. I suggest the Pulitzer committee create a new fiction award not for seriousness of intent but for laughs per page. As the Romans were fond of pointing out: Art is long, but life is short.

A good laugh is not always easy to come by and deserves high praise. Consider it a much-needed tonic for our times. Viva “Tepper!” Viva Trillin!

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Copyright 2003 Tommywood