Saturday, June 04, 2005

Now Reading

American Stories by Calvin Trillin. A collection of his New Yorker writings from the 1980s. Out of print, I see; I got it at Nice Price Books, a used book and CD store.

If you don't know, Calvin Trillin does human-interest stories, in the best possible sense. He writes a lot about food, and about travel in the U.S., and he's quite interested in murder, but when he writes abut murder (a few of these pieces are about murder cases, and the title of another of his collections, Killings , says it all) he does so without an iota of luridness. No hardened criminals, and few entirely-innocent victims, just workaday Americans whose lives took an unfathomable catastrophic turn, and Trillin dispassionately dissects each case to see how family or neighbors managed to rub each other so very wrong. Sometimes we never learn the culprit's identity, just about the atmosphere and chain of events that makes murder thinkable.

I enjoy the heck out of Trillin and gobbled up this book like candy. He's not flashy, but he picks great subjects (or at least, the right subjects for him) and as he explains in an afterword to this collection, he gives a lot of thought to the beginning, middle, and end of each story. Most of his subjects are little-known, but he has revealing takes on some quirky celebrities: Ben & Jerry of ice cream fame; the magicians Penn & Teller. (No murder cases in these.)

There's always a central turning point, delivered very drily and offhandedly, when a fairly humdrum bourgeois life turns weird. Trillin often writes in the first person, so his humdrum midwest-Bourgeois persona adds to the effect. In one story, Trillin has an old friend, an ex-preacher and longtime newspaper editorial writer, who decided to return to his hometown in Kentucky, to open a small dinner theatre and farm a bit, and how curious it was when a federal grand jury indicted him for growing marijuana. By this time we know Calvin Trillin--family man, bit of a nerd--and the thought of his being friends with a drug supplier is incongruous to say the least, but it opens us up to wanting to learn how one becomes a middle-aged ex-Baptist-preacher eastern Kentucky pot farmer.

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