Trillin, stuck in a Manhattan parking spot

January 06, 2002|By Kevin Cowherd | By Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff

Tepper Isn't Going Out, by Calvin Trillin. Random House. 215 pages. $22.95.

If you live in Manhattan and park your car on the streets -- as opposed to paying usurious fees to a garage -- this curious comic novel by Calvin Trillin may be right up your alley. If you're not (and this effectively eliminates some 260 million Americans), it may be considerably less appealing.

Murray Tepper is a mild-mannered senior citizen with a strange fixation for parking. He knows all the parking regulations -- Lower East Side, one-hour parking, 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. including Sunday; East 78th Street, no parking 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Friday, etc.

Once he finds a prime spot, he sits there for hours in his car, reading the newspaper and making annoying little hand gestures that signify "I'm not going out" to motorists who covet his parking space.

For some reason, people begin ascribing all sorts of ulterior motives to Tepper's parking obsession. Some think he's expressing anger or alienation, others think he's making a political statement, still others wonder if he isn't engaged in some bizarre street theater.

Soon, New Yorkers begin jumping in his car and asking his advice. They treat his words as if coming from an Eastern holy man. The media pick up on the story, and soon Tepper -- heretofore an anonymous husband, grandfather and small businessman -- is the talk of the city, attracting huge crowds to his car and earning the enmity of the mayor, who has vowed to quash all forms of urban disorder.

Understand, I count myself as a big fan of Calvin Trillin, the veteran author and staff writer for The New Yorker.

But where the book's premise falls apart, I think, is in its central conceit: Would any true New Yorker -- the cynical, jaded, tough-as-nails New Yorker of lore -- find a guy who sits in a parked car for hours this fascinating?

Wouldn't they think he's just another nut in the pantheon of nuts that populate the city and give him a wide berth?

Still, there are lots of amusing touches to the novel -- this is, after all, Trillin, a humor heavyweight, at the keyboard.

The mayor, Frank Ducavelli (Il Duce to the tabloid press) is wonderfully rendered as a paranoid leader who, in the words of one columnist "showed signs of having studied under the same ballet master as Richard M. Nixon." To enter his office, even longtime staffers must undergo security checks that include an iris-scan and a Body Orifice Security Scanner, also known as a BOSS.

Sy Lambert, the blowhard literary agent trying to sign Tepper to a major book deal, is another deftly-portrayed character; the scene where he insists that Tepper guess how much Lambert paid for the huge portraits on his office walls is laugh-out-loud funny. ("Go ahead -- guess! You'll never guess! So guess!")

But there are vast stretches of the book populated by characters who are not as developed or engaging, and incidents not as interesting.

Even with all the unlikely events emanating from Tepper's behavior, the story is basically about a guy who sits in his parked car for hours. I'm not sure even a master like Trillin could weave an amusing tale from such a mundane premise.

Kevin Cowherd has been a Sun columnist for 20 years. His collection of humor columns, Last Call at the 7-Eleven (Bancroft Publishing, 229 pages, $19.95) was published in 1995 and can still be found by desperate readers via the Internet.

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