Acres & Pains
S. J. Perelman
Some of us acolytes of S. J. Perelman stipulate in our Last Will and Testament that his book Acres and Pains should be read at our funeral, insuring the no guest will be able to keep a straight face. Perelman's masterpiece is an account of his endlessly defeated attempts to renovate and inhabit an old farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania which Perelman, his wife, and her brother Nathanael West had bought in a fit of bucolic madness. In Perelman's posthumous collection "The Last Laugh", one sketch returns to the subject of "Acres and Pains", reminiscing about the American pastoral daydream that led them to purchase the place.
It was another pen pal of West's, in this same seedy epoch, who sweet-talked him into a venture that addled our brains for years to come. About mid-autumn of 1933, my wife and I began to detect glowing references in her brother's speech to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. He had latterly been weekending there with Josephine Herbst, the novelist, and his accounts of the flora, the architecture, and the natives verged on the rhapsodic. Owing to its remoteness and the paucity of highways, the district was still altogether rural; but the submarginal land and the inroads of the Depression had brought about a wave of farm foreclosures, and property was ridiculously cheap. Inevitably, West conceived a romantic dream of ourselves as country squires. He visualized us cantering on fat cobs through the leafy lanes, gloating over our waving fields of alfalfa, the great stone barns decorated with hex signs, and the lowing kine. [Here, Perelman acolytes will automatically visualize a beady-eyed real estate agent named Lowing Klein, which the Master, in his late memoir, no longer needs to spell out in the text.]
Since I was stony at the moment, eroded by debt and hostile to any prospect of becoming a mortgagee, West started a campaign of suasion that was a masterpiece of sophistry. The Revolution, he pointed out, was imminent; how sensible it would be for us, when "La Carmagnole" rang across the barricades, to own a patch of ground where we could raise the necessities of life. Fish and game were so abundant in the Delaware Valley that shad, rabbits, and quail had to be restrained from leaping into the cookpot. If Roosevelt closed the banks as predicted, we could grow our own tobacco, cobble our shoes with rough, fragrant birch bark. He painted a pastoral of the three of us in our bee-loud glade, my wife contentedly humming as she bottled raspberry jam, he and I churning out an unending stream of prose.
I turned a deaf ear to all such blandishments, but his sister, who was easier to influence, succumbed. One Monday morning the two of them returned from a reconnaissance of the section pale with excitement. They had stumbled across the ultimate, the ne plus ultra, in farmsteads --- an eighty-seven acre jewel in the rolling uplands bordering the river. Their voices shook as they described the stone house on a hillside circumscribed by a tumbling creek, the monumental barn above larger than the cathedral at Chartres.
The place, it appeared, belonged to a left-wing journalist, one Mark Silver, who had tried to launch a ne'er-do-well brother in the chicken business there. The brother and other rodents had eaten the fowls, and Silver, to compound his troubles, was involved with a tigress in New York who was a threatening a breach-of-promise lawsuit. To enable him to flee to Mexico, which seemed to him an ideal solution for his woes, he was willing to accept a token payment for the farm, plus easy installments. In West's view, it was the biggest steal since the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre.
I grudgingly went out with them to see the place. and in a trice also fell for it. The autumn foliage was at its height, and the woods and fields blazed with color. In contrast to the bedlam of New York, the only sound that disturbed the sylvan hush was the distant chatter of crows in the north forty. My glasses steamed over as a series of colored lantern slides flashed before me---sleigh rides, Halloween parties, sugar off, sugaring on, and bringing in the Yule log. We hastened through the dwelling, exclaiming over virtues like its massive fireplaces and deep window reveals, and conveniently ignoring its drawbacks.
Several years later, incidentally, I learned that a celebrated colleague had seen the property and its owners, just before we did, under peculiarly harrowing circumstances. George S. Kaufman was being shown some of the real estate available in the neighborhood, Kaufman strenuously protesting the while to his wife that he detested the out-of-doors, that country living was full of pitfalls, and that nobody had ever incurred a hernia in Reuben's delicatessen. Up at the Silver Farm, as they ascended its winding lane, a lesson in firearms was in progress: Mark Silver, who could not open an umbrella without puncturing someone's lung, was initiating his brother in the mysteries of handling a shotgun.
"They call this the breech," he explained, opening the mechanism. "We place the bullet, or shell, in there. Then we close it, like so, and raising it to the shoulder, we aim along the barrel and squeeze here." He pressed the trigger smartly, unaware that the weapon was still trained on his brother's foot. Simultaneously with the explosion, the Kaufmans materialized as though on cue, just in time to see the hapless brother bite the dust. Silver stared at the casualty, his face contorted in horror, and then bounded up to the arrivals.
"Cain and Abel!" he bellowed, and smote his forehead. "Woe is me --- I have slain my own brother!"
Kaufman took off like an impala, and it was a decade before he would consent to enter even Central Park. Had West and I had any such therapeutic experience, we too might have been cured of our obsession. But the poison was circulating in our veins, and a fortnight afterward, in a simple ceremony at the county courthouse, two blushing innocents were married to four score and seven acres.--- Excerpted with minor elisions from
The Last Laugh
S. J. Perelman
(Simon and Schuster)