Trillin's short, sweet elegy for his Muse

Review Memorial

January 07, 2007|By Jonathan Kirsch | Jonathan Kirsch,Los Angeles Times

About Alice

Calvin Trillin

Random House / 82 pages / $14.95

When Alice Trillin died in 2001, the headline over the obituary in The New York Times identified her as "Educator, Author and Muse." Of the three roles, she is best known for the last one - Alice was the inspiration for the work of author, columnist and veteran New Yorker contributor Calvin Trillin. "When I wrote in the dedication of a book `For Alice,' I meant it literally," he affirms in About Alice, which is a kind of belated obit of his own.

At a scant 82 pages, About Alice is a short and sweet elegy, a slightly expanded version of a piece that ran in The New Yorker earlier this year. Alice, of course, is already a familiar figure to Trillin's readers. She is a constant companion - and the title character - in many of his most beloved food and travel books. "Now that it's fashionable to reveal intimate details of married life," he cracks in Alice, Let's Eat, "I can state publicly that my wife, Alice, has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day."

This quote, which appears on the opening page of About Alice, aptly sums up the tone that he also adopts in his new book: He is affectionate but restrained and discreet, given to ironic wit and self-deprecation. "Years ago," he writes, "at a conference of English teachers where we were both speakers, the professor who did the introductions said something like `Alice and Bud are like Burns and Allen, except she's George and he's Gracie.'"

When Trillin seeks to debunk the public image of his wife that he created, he reveals nothing more shocking than the fact that she was more childlike and fun-seeking than he made her out to be. He quotes Alice as complaining that he always depicted her as "a dietitian in sensible shoes," and now he seeks to celebrate what he describes as "a child's sense of wonderment" that he saw in her. "She was the only adult I ever knew," he writes, "who might respond to encountering a deer on a forest path by saying, `Wowsers.'" Indeed, when it comes to making an unabashed declaration of love, he allows his readers to do it for him, saying he "got a lot of letters like the one from a young woman in New York who wrote that she sometimes looked at her boyfriend and thought, `But will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?'"

About the harshest thing he has to say is that Alice "could get bossy," and the moments of intimacy are always oblique, as when he observes that Alice, whom he praises as a beautiful woman, always seemed to enjoy the company of other couples whose female half was also beautiful. "Do you feel more comfortable with attractive women because you don't have to worry about being resented?" he once asked her. "She looked at me as if I'd intruded on something that was meant to be private."

Quite aside from her physical beauty, Trillin praises Alice's activism, commitment, compassion and problem-solving skills, all of which she readily deployed on behalf of friends and strangers alike, especially those who suffered from illness like the one that afflicted her from the age of 38. "At Alice's memorial service," he remembers, "our friend Nora Ephron described those under Alice's protection as `anyone she loved, or liked, or knew, or didn't quite know but knew someone who did, or didn't know from a hole in the wall but had just gotten a telephone call from because they'd found the number in the telephone book.'"

Trillin refers to his union with Alice as a "Monocle marriage," referring to a 1963 launch party for an ill-fated magazine of political satire called Monocle - several of the couples who first met at the party, including the Trillins, ended up in long-term marriages. The host of the party was Victor Navasky, longtime editor and publisher of The Nation, and he figures in the story that Trillin tells about how he fell in love with Alice.

"Although some people thought that Alice looked like the quintessential shiksa, I always claimed that when I spotted her across the room that night I asked Navasky, `Who's that cute little Jewish girl over by the punch bowl?'" writes Trillin, who points out that he and his wife had Jewish mothers. "Alice always said that I'd made up that story and that, furthermore, there wasn't any punch bowl."

If there were moments of conflict or pain during their Monocle marriage, Trillin says nothing about them. About the closest he comes to revealing the inner life of the Trillin family is when he describes the relationship between Alice and their daughter Sarah as "complicated." And he quotes Alice herself as acknowledging that the family motto was "`Pull Up Your Socks,' which was sometimes expressed as `No Kvetching.'"

Even his sense of loss is mostly left unspoken. Perhaps the most surprising and affecting moment, in fact, comes when Trillin confesses his terror at the recurrence of his wife's lung cancer in 1976, when her doctor gave her only a 10 percent chance of survival. "For years, that conversation with the surgeon was unsafe territory for me," he admits, "if I intended to keep my composure." Clearly, the composure that he maintains in About Alice must be understood as his tribute to Alice "the incorrigible and ridiculous optimist," and we come to understand that she would have expected nothing less.

Jonathan Kirsch is the author of, most recently, "A History of the End of the World: How the Most Controversial Book in the Bible Changed the Course of Western Civilization." He wrote a version of this review for the Los Angeles Times.

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