Life with Alice, viewed through prolific Trillin's looking glass

January 09, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Columnist

Calvin Trillin has written about his wife, Alice, many times during his long career as an author and staff writer for The New Yorker.

She has always shown up - he admits this - dressed as a sitcom character: the sensible wife who punctuates the misadventures and foibles of her befuddled husband with a wry comment.

But in 1976, when she was 38 and their daughters were 4 and 7, Alice was diagnosed with lung cancer and given a 10 percent chance of survival.

She lived an improbable 25 more years, long enough to see both girls married to men who might reasonably be expected to be around for the long haul.

She died of cardiac arrest on Sept. 11, 2001 - yes, on that day. Her heart had been irreparably damaged by the long-ago radiation that had saved her from cancer.

Trillin, who is so prolific, waited these five years to write about his wife again. But About Alice, his new book, is not so much a memoir or a biography as it is a gentle portrait of his love and devotion to her.

"I actually didn't know I was writing about that," said Trillin in a telephone interview from New York. "I thought I was just writing about Alice within the context of our marriage.

"I was a little bit surprised at the result."

Trillin has always written about Alice in a kind of teasing way. He said he wrote this book, in part, to correct the record.

"I tried to capture her, but in doing that I revealed more about how I felt about her than I expected. I guess my feelings came out on paper more than I realized."

In About Alice, Trillin remembers seeing her for the first time wearing a hat, while Alice insisted for all her life that she had never owned such a hat. What a perfect metaphor for love at first sight.

He talked that first night, he writes, the way a stand-up comic talks when he knows a booker for The Tonight Show is in the audience.

Alice would say that he was never again as funny as he was that night. He writes that he spent the rest of his life trying to match that evening. Trying to entertain her, to impress her, handing her rough drafts of his work and waiting anxiously in the next room for the sound of her laughter.

What a perfect description of devotion.

Both of these scenes are amusing - Trillin is a humorist, after all - but just behind a reader's smile is a lump in the throat.

Trillin writes a lot about how pretty Alice was, about how she worked at it, about how she didn't mind being thought of as pretty, about how she felt more comfortable around other pretty women because she knew she was safe from being resented.

How unusual for someone to write such nice things about the state of being pretty, something that is in such disrepute these days.

As if women don't care if they are thought of as pretty, when, in fact, that is what we care about most. More than being thought smart or funny.

How much would any woman give to have a man write so many words about how pretty she is?

After Alice's obituary appeared in The New York Times - she was a gifted writer and devoted teacher in her own right - a young woman wrote to Trillin to express her condolences and to say she can no longer think of her boyfriend in the same way.

She confessed that she now wonders, "Will he love me like Calvin loves Alice?"

Writing about people you love is tricky. Trillin writes that the people who read what you have written think they know these people, when, in fact, all they really know is how you feel about them.

There is no doubt, after reading About Alice, how Trillin felt about his wife.

"I don't know if Alice would have liked the book," Trillin said of the woman who had always been his "first reader."

"She might have found the writing clumsy, I don't know. But I think she would have been pleased at the affection in it."

susan.reimer@baltsun.com

To hear audio clips of selected Susan Reimer columns, go to baltimoresun.com/reimer.

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