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Friday Afternoon Guest Review: Hot Dog! A Calvin Trillin Reading

Filed under: The Squib Report   Tagged: , , , , ,

Martin Schneider, our trusty Squib Reporter, reports from a Calvin Trillin reading last week at the Upper West Side Barnes & Noble. Trillin read from from his new book, About Alice (about whose prospects we hear Random House is very excited, incidentally), just for starters.

One of the few posts on my old blog, Between the Squibs, was about Trillin. See, Trillin’s a bit stealthy: His basic persona is of an avuncular, curmudgeonly Keillor type, and almost as a sidelight, he’s the best goddamned reporter in the country. If you have the Complete New Yorker DVD, I really recommend spending a week or two with his “U.S. Journal” entries. You’ll thank me.

Anyway. I realized listening to him on Friday that one reason I love Trillin is that he represents the premise that The New Yorker and Middle America aren’t separate entities that need to be “bridged”; I love the lack of self-consciousness with which he would likely present himself as a New Yorker correspondent to, say, the proprietor of a Cincinnati chili stand.

The New Yorker must, of course, define itself as the best of a certain kind of thing, but it’s even better when it sees itself as obviously “of” America rather than in any way in opposition to it. To me, that’s exactly what Trillin represents—The New Yorker immersed in the country, not aloof from it.

Wisely, Trillin didn’t read exclusively from the book, but instead read a selection of short pieces in which Alice figures and then the first (brief) chapter of About Alice. In one he talks about how much he hates his highly organized neighbor Elwood; one was from his “Uncivil Liberties” column at The Nation, about how the de la Rentas never invite him to their fashionable soirées (from the early 1980s; when Francoise de la Renta does finally call, he calls himself “Calvin of the Trillin”); one was a fine poem from The New Yorker called “Just How Do You Suppose That Alice Knows?” My favorite was about how vacationing in the countryside is irksome because the tangible reality of the life of the land renders all-too-literal so many of the cliches that we use (like “a long row to hoe”). The excerpt from About Alice was excellent, of course.

I rarely ask questions at these events, but a good one occurred to me. I asked what his last meal at Shopsin’s was. I was hoping to get a little insight into Shopsin’s last days, some juicy tidbit or some bit of business that he could never disclosed while the restaurant was still in operation. Somewhat surprised at the question, he instead avowed that he could not recall what his last Shopsin’s concoction was and took a moment to explain the restaurant to the assembled, quoting himself to the effect that their Burmese Hummus was neither hummus nor Burmese.

I also only occasionally have books signed, but, finding myself towards the front of the audience and hence without long to wait, this time I did. The older lady in front of me pointed out that Trillin “never smiles,” which was true—except when he was actually signing the books and interacting with his readers. When I got home I realized that my used copy of Uncivil Liberties is also inscribed.

Oh—never let it be said that Emdashes doesn’t break the big stories. [No, indeed! —Ed.] A woman seated in the row behind me handed me a flier. Trillin’s A Heckuva Job (“deadline poetry” from The Nation) has apparently been set to music by the composer Tom Flaherty and will be performed by the Speculum Musicae Monday, January 29, at 8 p.m., at Merkin Concert Hall.

comments are off


Trillin is certainly one of the best. Thanks for the beautiful post.

Trillin is indeed a treat! Someday, please interview him about his magazine of the ’60s, ‘Beautiful Spot,’ on finding parking spaces in Manhattan.

Gertrude StrongJanuary 20, 2007
2008 Webby Awards Official Honoree