Thurber Country

(James Thurber, Simon and Schuster, 276 pp. $3.75)

Simon and Schuster like to tell the one about the man who laughed so hard reading Thurber Country that he split wide open from his guggle to his zatch. And though publishers often exaggerate, there is probably some truth in the story. After all, it would be nothing new for James Thurber, who has been splitting zatches with remarkable regularity ever since The Seal in the Bedroom became an American classic some years ago.

For those who have not yet found out, Mr. Thurber writes little pieces about parlor games, hobbies and travel, but most of the time he writes about himself. Thurber Country is the latest in a long and proud line of collections of these little pieces, and even by Thurber standards, it is good one. New Yorker readers will find a majority of the articles familiar, but certainly no less delightful for a second, or even a third or fourth reading. Among the seven selections never before published in the United States is a short discourse on the Thurberian approach to word games, pointedly titled, "Do You Want to Make something Out of It? (or, if you put an 'o' on 'understo' you'll ruin my 'thunderstorm')."

The panorama scanned in this scenic tour of Thurber land is varied enough to suit any reader's taste. Mystery fans will probably find "The White Rabbit Caper" most to their liking. Out Spading Spade, it begins, "Fred Fox was pouring himself a slug of rye when he door of his office opened and in hopped old Mrs. Rabbit . . ." One of the choicest in the autobiographical vein is a little item called "There's a Time for Flags, or (Notes of a man who bought a curious Christmas gift)." The Thurber Diaries are like none other: "Dec. 15--Yesterday morning at eleven o'clock I bought an American flag, five feet by three, and a white flagpole, eighteen feet high, surmounted by a bright golden ball, and now I am trying to figure out why." Mr. Thurber never does, but no one really cares.

Perhaps the only thing more amusing than the Thurber approach to humor is the Thurber approach to cartooning. The inevitable fearsome women and lugubrious dogs dot the pages of the book, lending an added not of whimsy to the text. But even without the drawings, the author's trademark is hard to miss. Not necessarily orthodox, but almost always sophisticated, Thurber Country is the kind of Christmas gift you won't want to exchange.