S.J. Perelman: The Most of S.J. Perelman. Mandarin, 1991. 650 pages, $41.90.
review by Otto Steinmayer
How I wish that in reviewing this selection from Perelman's oeuvre I could be half as funny as he is, for what more fitting tribute could I pay to a master? My father introduced me to Perelman when my notions of humour were derived mainly from Mad magazine (America's version of Gila-gila). Perelman took me into a crazier world, where it has remained one of my greatest pleasures to wander.
Asking me to review Perelman is like asking me to
Of comic writers, Perelman is simply the best of the best. Awesome.
Writing reviews is a respectable enough employment, but it's hard to
face the feeling that the copy I am grinding out on Perelman can't
begin to do him justice.
In the first place, Perelman wrote a lot, all of it in a brilliant style unlike anyone else's that demands close attention. It intoxicates the reader and captivates the writer. Better scribblers than I have felt that. Alan Coren said it took ten years to free himself from the man's influence. Imitation and praise are equally hopeless. One winds up, as Perelman himself described it, "gelding the lily."
But, to try.
Hardly anybody outside America knows American
humour. No, I am not
referring to the canned corn of movies and tv shows that are as hard to
escape as that sickly brew, Coca-Cola. Humour runs the danger of the
ephemeral, and the "funny" may be, by and large, weak stuff.
Real American humour comes written, and, fortunately or not, it is a special taste. Around 1919 the legendary Algonquin Circle--Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner and others--rescued humour from its then dilute conventionality and brought verbal play and satiric commentary back into it, as they exercised their wit on each other and on the world in general.
"Wit" is the key word, that indefinable quality
of sharp judgement and
pointed expression. Perelman took wit and, as Benchley said, "swung
it," as Benny Goodman once swung jazz dance music. He modernized wit by
recreating it with absurdity, the 20th century's most important
contribution to literary sensibility.
Perelman had a gift for crazy images. He began as
a cartoonist, with
doodles like this one: "a distraught gentleman careening into a
doctor's office clutching a friend by the wrist and whimpering, 'I've
got Bright's disease and he has mine!'" In Perelman's miniature essays,
underwear manufacturers hold out-oftown tryouts like Broadway
producers, advertisements for household help bring a sucession of
vegetarian psychopaths, and a trip round the world becomes a nightmare
of revenant cliches. (See the section on Malaya, circa 1948 in Westward
Ha!) Delighted, the European surrealists hailed Perelman as one of
Perelman saw the lunatic images that language itself can inspire. He made the pun again respectable. What can I grab at random? "...He caught my arm in a vicelike grip and drew me to him, but with a blow I sent him grovelling. In ten minutes he was back with a basket of appetizing fresh-picked grovels. We squeezed them and drank the piquant juice thirstily."
Perelman's vocabulary is enormous. (It was
actually for this reason
that my father made me read him.) He collected words from every source,
literary or slang, and used them as an organ virtuoso his three
keyboards. Amidst the crazy fun he cherished a love of language and its
Perelman read widely, both the greats and junk. Some of his highest spirited pieces puncture the pretensions of his time's bestsellers. As a writer he practiced the finickiest correctness. "Easy writing," he said, "makes hard reading," and he subjected each piece to thirty rewrites before sending it from his hands. Joyce was his hero, and Perelman goes on record as the first to declare James Joyce's Ulysses one of the funniest books ever written, a point that escapes the solemn critics.
And yet by all account Perelman hated writing. He looked at it as a way of making money, of which he eventually made enough, not as much as he had hoped.
Perelman would have been at home in the world of
Swift and Pope.
Perelman adopted the satiric mask of a cunning, aggressive wimp, a
sneak, a poseur, a schlemihl selfish through and through. In many ways
Perelman was what he painted himself to be. His personal life was
troubled. But work came first and he turned his vices into literary
Humour is one way of dealing with disappointment and frustration, the craziness, inanity, absurdity and cruelty of the world. Hollywood and the movie business Perelman worked in for some years wrung from him the most artfully bizarre pastiche of parody, satire, and loathing I know, his story "Strictly from Hunger." At his most indignant Perelman touches the sublime.
Outside of reproducing a Perelman feuilleton in its entirety I can think of no better way of giving you the flavour of him than by quoting some of his titles. So...
One last word. The cover says "A definitive collection." The
article might have exasperated Perelman, who was wise to publishers'
pettifogging ways, as it does me. Buy this collection by all means. Buy
it! But remember that Perelman left another twenty years' worth of
writing not included here, some of it his very best, and leave for
yourself the last laugh.