THERE'S A COUNTRY IN MY CELLAR. By Russell Baker. William Morrow and Co. 432 pages. $20.95.
THIS HAS BEEN a fine literary season if you like the work of witty American journalists. First there was a collection of "Writings from the New Yorker, 1926-1976," by the late E. B. White, one of the most talented writers of his generation (born 1899). Now we have these 138 New York Times "Observer" columns, 1964-1989, by Russell Baker (born 1925 in Virginia, raised mostly in Baltimore, educated at Johns Hopkins), who is, in my opinion, the most talented living journalist of his generation.
Baker has won two Pulitzer Prizes and, even had he never written another word, should be installed in some Hall of Fame for "Francs and Beans," a devastating parody of gourmet cuisine first published on the Times' good, gray editorial page in 1975. "The meal opened," he writes as a just-folks gourmet, "with a 1975 Diet Pepsi served in a disposable bottle. Although its bouquet was negligible, its distinct metallic aftertaste evoked memories of tin cans one had licked experimentally in the first flush of childhood's curiosity."
And so on -- one of the funniest things ever done in English. Baker is also a marvelous social critic, even though he has no very tedious interest in war or economics or politics or religion. He is the only big-time reporter I've ever known who has admitted that the White House beat is a dull one; so he can be philosophical, even a touch cynical. Another example in this collection:
"History suggests that 20th-century man is unsurpassed at destroying things, but peculiarly inept at improving what he builds on the ruins . . . Consider the construction of the Third Reich on the ruins of the Weimar Republic . . . Consider the construction of the interstate highway system on the ruins of our cities."
Baker is a little critical of feminists, teen-agers and jargon. And, arguing that apple pie is no longer an accurate symbol of America, he notes: "Dashiell Hammett got off a fine one . . . when he wrote, 'as American as a sawed-off shotgun'."
And he calls the Washington Beltway "Helldrivers' Boulevard." He lived for some years in the D.C. area and has a house in Virginia now, not far from where he was born in Morrisonville.
Baker explains in a note written recently for this book that he often assumes the personality of narrators other than himself when he writes a column. "If you can make it in Baltimore, you can make it anywhere," he writes, assuming a rube personality in order to kid New York City. The real Russell Baker, of course, worked for The Sun for 10 years or so and would be kidding Charm City if he made such a remark.
Or have I got that backward? Anyhow, Baker can be other people: He assumes the role, more or less, of Frank Sullivan's cliche expert in one piece. He's sort of like James Thurber when he rewrites fairy tales (as Thurber rewrote Aesop's fables). He plays the baffled father of three, the mistreated restaurant customer. The book's title alludes to him as a TV watcher. He watches it in his cellar, but he doesn't waste a lot of space writing about TV, give thanks.
Long ago, I wrote a daily column for The Evening Sun that was supposed to be humorous and was therefore in competition, sort of, with Baker's writing for The Sun, which was humorous. In those days, I thought Baker was so good he made me sick. Now, reading his stuff in "There's a Country in My Cellar," I just relax and enjoy it.
John Goodspeed writes from Easton. Most of Baker's columns 1/2 over the past 12 years have been published on this newspaper's editorial page.