'Messages From My Father' another Trillin hit

June 16, 1996
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@ dcn.davis.ca.us

BERKELEY - "Messages From My Father" ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $18) by the prolific and very funny Calvin Trillin is the story of a stubborn man written by an equally stubborn man, a man who loved his father very much.

Trillin came to town last week to read from his new book. He also answered questions from a standing-room-only audience.

"What's it like working at the new New Yorker?" someone asked.

"Oh, I never heard that question before," said Trillin. "Well, I like some aspects of it and not others. The stories in the magazine are much shorter now for one thing and I've always written short."

That's true. "Messages From My Father" is only 117 pages long.

Trillin continued.

"People often write to me because I've been there (at the New Yorker) for so long." Trillin described several letter-writers being utterly shocked when the magazine ran a photo of a bare-breasted actress. Here's a typical Trillin response:

"My only defense was - they were small breasts."

Another questioner asked whether Trillin's father, Abe, who died in 1967, was happy with his son's chosen profession.

"He seemed to think it was OK...but he thought any American boy could grow up to be president so there was some presidential pressure. His fall-back position was that I not be a ward of the county." In retrospect, though, Trillin decided that his father really wanted him to be a writer. He collected pieces of evidence like the oft-repeated family joke about Trillin's future career. When Trillin was three or four his father suggested he might like to be a newspaperman when he grew up.

"OK, Daddy, if you want me to sell newspapers I'll sell newspapers," the child responded. Trillin said the joke got to be a very old one as the years went by. But another piece of evidence emerged much later when Trillin was in high school. His father made him take typing lessons.

"Isn't that how you'd steer your son to a career in journalism?" Trillin asks. "Slip the word to him casually when he's three years old and then make sure he knows how to type?"

Still, there's an underlying note of sadness in this brief memoir. Trillin seems to regret not developing a habit of having long heart-to-heart talks with his father. But it just wasn't their way.

Trillin says taciturnity is a trait in Jewish families, including his own. He tells this joke: A struggling young Jewish actor announces to his parents one day that he finally got a part in a legitimate production. He is to play a Jewish father. His own father can't hide a look of slight disappointment. "What's the matter?" the actor asks.

"Of course I'm proud of you, son," the father says. "But we were hoping you'd get a speaking part." For instance, Trillin never got around to asking his father why he was named Calvin.

"In the past I've speculated that he named me Calvin because he believed, incorrectly, that it would be an appropriate name for someone at Yale."

There was never any doubt that Calvin Trillin would go to Yale. His father made one brief feint toward enrolling his son at Princeton, but Yale was always the school of choice and that's where Calvin Trillin went.

But while his parents were willing to name him Calvin, they were not willing to call him Calvin. He was never called anything other than Buddy. He was also given the rather tony middle name of Marshall. "It's an old family name. Not our family, but still an old family name."

Trillin's father was a hard-working grocer and later the owner of a small restaurant in Kansas City. But don't get the idea that Trillin's father was all work and no play.

"He was truly funny. He had a large collection of marching band albums and when Sukey, my sister, and I were children there were times when one of them would set him to marching himself. Every time he entered the room we were in he would be marching in a different way, one time listing precariously off to one side, the next time rolling along in a Groucho Marx stoop, the time after that marching in a kind of a hip-hop - pretending to take no notice of the fact that Sukey and I were both on the floor, helpless with laughter."

Abe Trillin was a poet, too. His shortest poem, published in the lunch menu of his restaurant, was: "Don't sigh/Eat pie."

One of his longest was: "Eat your food," gently said Mom to little son Roddy/ "If you don't, I will break every bone in your body."

After reading "Messages" it becomes clear that son Calvin is a chip off the old block.

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