S. J. Perelman
S. J. Perelman
(Burford)We Perelman fans fight over which of three titles we will call "The Best of Perelman."
For some, it is Crazy Like A Fox, for others, Acres and Pains. However, the cognoscenti of cognoscenti will always give the nod to Westward Ha!
Crazy Like A Fox consists of shorts he did for "The New Yorker," and many are dated and sophomoric. (Actually, all of Perelman is sophomoric, but then again, most of his fans are sophomoric --- and nowadays, we are all most certainly dated.) Acres and Pains, on the other hand, is of a whole --- the tale of a denizen of Manhattan living in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In Perelman's time, anyone living outside the area beyond the East River, north of Greenwich Village, to the west of 6th Avenue, and south of Harlem was beyond the pale.
Although richly absurd, Acres and Pains can't measure up to Westward Ha! The latter is the most baroque, the most testy, the most sardonic, and the most raucous of all of his writings.
The central thesis that runs through all of Perelman is not unlike that of H. L. Mencken. Namely --- most of the world is made up of boobs. The exceptions are you (the reader) and me (the author); and sometimes we aren't so sure about the former.
What holds Westward Ha! together are three themes: a 25,000 mile trip around the world (paid for by Holiday magazine); the trip being described by Perelman, a master navigator of English syntax; and the presence of a companion, one Al Hirschfeld. Hirschfeld was ostensibly the one who would supply the drawings for the book --- but he was also an excellent foil for Perelman. He becomes the oafish companion, in contrast to his own dandified absurdist self.
Perelman not only had wit, timing, and a roman candle literary style --- he had a rich, sometime obscurantist vocabulary:
The whole business began sixteen years ago, as so many complex ventures, with an unfavorable astrological conjunction, Virgo being in the house of Alcohol. Late one August day in 1932, I was seated at the Closerie des Lilas in Paris with my wife, a broth of a girl with a skin like damask and a waist you could span with an embroidery hoop. I had had three mild transfusions of a life-giving fluid called Chambéry Fraise and felt a reasonable degree of self-satisfaction.
The joy is in the vocabulary, but it's also the slashing wryness, a somewhat bittersweet contrariness right of the Marx Brothers (for whom he wrote, at one point in his life). All these are joined with a master's gift of taking clichés to a quick reversal:
Just to indicate how cold it was, I left a tumbler of water at my bedside and when I woke up, it was gone. Hirschfeld had drunk it and also had eaten the glass. That was one cold night.
On the basis of an overnight sojourn, I can report that I found the Pearl of the Orient slightly less exciting than a rainy Sunday evening in Rochester...
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Perelman prospered in the fifties and the sixties, and many of us subscribed to the New Yorker specifically for his essays. Unfortunately, he was one of those writers --- Wordsworth, Hemingway, Steinbeck, Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Hardwick also come to mind --- who should have given up while still ahead of the pack. It was difficult for him to try to improve on what he had written so fiendishly well at the beginning. He fell to imitating himself, but the spark was snuffed out, possibly by his personal life, possibly in the agony of being billed as "funny" when, perhaps, he no longer felt funny.
Towards the end, he complained bitterly that William Shawn was sitting on many of his manuscripts --- neither publishing them, nor returning them. We would suspect that Shawn knew how bad his writings had become, but may have not wanted to create unnecessary hurt by commenting on them, certainly not by returning them.
Perelman wrote up to the end and Burford has seen fit to publish not only his best, but one of his worst --- written in 1977 --- Eastward Ha! It neither has the wonderful drawings of Hirschfeld, nor the wonderful character of Hirschfeld to hold it together. For those of us who care for Perelman, and care for him a great deal, it's heavy going. Once in ten or twenty pages, the old curmudgeon will reappear:
There are no malacca canes in Malacca. There is, though, a plentitude of old tombstones and open drains, and for any sociology major seeking underfed Portuguese children, lassitude, and hundred-degree humidity, it is a veritable cornucopia.
But that's it: those seeking the cynical nose-thumbing master of old will not find it here.
Several years ago Dorothy Hermann wrote a life of Perelman (she is the one that revealed the contretemps with Shawn). It's a depressing book: depressing because not only is it fawning --- she is, moreover, one of those ghastly scholarly types who drop footnotes around like pigeon shit on a statue.
What Hermann tells us about his life puts him in the I Pagliàcci school of artists --- the miserable clown. It certainly convinced us once again that those glum English majors and professional biographers should be locked up in a dank cellar and be forced to listen to a two-year reading of their works by someone --- an announcer, perhaps --- who speaks with a pure, low, and boorish radio voice.
What Perelman wrote early on was high comic art --- on the plane of Mencken, Robert Benchley, Jerome K. Jerome, Betty MacDonald, and the authors of the recent travel book, Gringolandia. What Perelman did with his life before and after should be (and is) of no concern of ours.
In any event, those who have never tasted the pleasure of his high wit --- like those who have never tasted the prose of Nabokov, or "The Mahabarata," or Curzio Malaparte; or those who have never danced to the poetry of Tennyson, cummings, or John Donne; or those who have never revelled the early writings of Sherwood Anderson, André Schwarz-Bart, or Richard Wright --- they too should be locked up, forced to listen to an articulate, soulful elocutionist, reading words of these artists, words out of the secret soul of the gods.--- Lolita Lark