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About Alice by Calvin Trillin

Chauncey Mabe [South Florida Sun-Sentinel]

Calvin Trillin's loving tribute to his wife showcases the best of the woman he so often included in his essays.

About Alice

Publisher: Random House
Length: 96
Formats: Hardcover
Price: $14.95
Author: Calvin Trillin
US publication date: 2006-12

Calvin Trillin, now that he's reached a certain age, is the kind of writer who might tempt a besotted reviewer to call him something ridiculous, like "a national treasure." Loved by a large audience for what he humbly (if correctly) terms "light books and magazine pieces about traveling or eating or family life," Trillin writes a sly, supple line that reads like nothing so much as an intimate chat with a witty and forthcoming acquaintance. It is all but impossible not to like the persona he presents on the page, or to love the things that he loves.

Those who know Trillin primarily as a humorist who writes travel and food pieces may not realize he is also one of the finest reporters and feature writers of his generation. I first met his work in the mid-'80s, when I was a young magazine editor, in a long story about the rise of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, and the battle the hippie upstart company waged against the established gourmet brand, Haagen-Daz.

That I was unable to determine where the writer's sympathy lay, so clearly did he present the charms and foibles of both sides, only enlarged my admiration -- as did the hard-nosed and unsentimental reporting, a prose style both economical and unhurried, and, not least, the whiff of worldly-wise amusement that lay over the whole piece.

Perhaps no more concise evidence of Trillin's sense of his place in the world, a revealing admixture of pride and modesty, can be found in the author's bio on the jacket flap of his 25th book, About Alice, which reads in its entirety: "Calvin Trillin has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1963. He lives in New York."

About Alice is Trillin's tribute to his wife, who died in 2001 of heart disease brought on by the radical radiation treatments she underwent 25 years earlier in a successful battle against lung cancer.

After Alice's death, Trillin received letters of condolence from readers who almost to a one started with a variation on the phrase, "Even though I never really knew Alice ..." Though touched by these notes -- "a lot of them made me cry," he admits -- Trillin pointedly agrees with the sentiment. Readers, indeed, could only know his wife of 35 years as a "character," filling "the role of mom" in his essays, like a figure in a sitcom or a Lifetime movie, or, on further consideration, he decides, "a Saturday morning cartoon."

"Yes, of course the role she played in my stories was based on the role she played in our family -- our daughters and I sometimes called her T.M., which stood for The Mother -- but she didn't play it in the broad strokes of a sitcom mom. Also, she was never completely comfortable as the person who takes responsibility for keeping things on an even keel; that person inevitably misses out on some of the fun."

Though Trillin takes pains to present aspects of Alice beyond the useful maternal figure she made in his previous work, his readers are presumably sophisticated enough not to expect to meet the real Alice in this brief tribute, which was first published last March in The New Yorker.

Alice was, Trillin tells us, a woman of talents -- an educator who taught college students and drug addicts; an intellectual who contributed her own pieces to The New Yorker and other publications; a person of principle willing to make people she disagreed with uncomfortable at parties; a passionate humanitarian and champion of causes, especially those concerning children. A nonsmoker, she hated tobacco.

Alice was also famous, at least among The New Yorker set, for her looks, and no one, including Trillin, quite understood how the average-looking guy from Kansas City landed her. Trillin's explanation, which he quotes from his book Family Man, is summed up as: "Wander into the right party."

Physical attractiveness among writers and eggheads is generally graded on a curve, but Alice was a real beauty, as shown in the picture on the back of About Alice. Taken after their marriage at the London registry office in 1965, the photo depicts Trillin and Alice walking hand-in-hand on a sun-drenched street. Both are smiling. Alice is lovely and stylish. Trillin still has most of his hair.

Hints emerge here and there that Alice, like any brainy beauty worth having, could sometimes be difficult, but Trillin isn't in the business of full disclosure, nor should he be. Sentimental readers hoping to get a glimpse of the real woman will be disappointed -- that is, if they can see through the welling of their tears. To say that Alice remains a cartoon, though one of slightly clearer lines, is not to diminish the charm of Trillin's tribute.

A cartoon, rendered with sufficient care and skill, can sometimes rise to the level of art.

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