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A Lime and a Pumpkin

ROYKO AND ROONEY/WINTER BOOKS

COMPARING MIKE ROYKO and Andy Rooney is like comparing a lime to a pumpkin. A lime is a sophisticated citrus fruit: full of acid, yet capable of sweetness as well as tart; a lime's proper home is in a drink on a bar. Chicago-based journalist Mike Royko's columns are sophisticated, too--well-crafted, balanced deliciously between tart satire and sweet comedy, and discussed, discovered and sittiated often in bars.

Now a pumpkin is basically just a big goofy gourd.

You carve a big smile in it, scoop out its brains, stick a candle inside and let it sit on your windowsill. Similarly, Andy Rooney's essays are goofy and brainless, but also warm and pleasant.

If a lime could talk, with all its citric wit and experience in bars, what stories it could tell! A talking pumpkin, on the other hand, would not be such an improvement.

Like I Was Savin' is a collection of one hundred of Mike Royko's best columns from 1966 to 1984. It is organized into four sections corresponding to the four different Chicago newspapers he wrote for in that time.

Royko's columns are so good that it's difficult to review them. The temptation is to quote from as many as possible. Suffice it to say that Royko can only be compared to H.L. Mencken.

Mencken drew his strength from Baltimore, the way Royko draws his from Chicago, the way Antacus drew his strength from his mother. Earth Royko's Chicago, the city of Nelson Algren (eulogized by his friend in this collection) is more bustling, alive and bursting with strength than Baltimore. Perhaps that's why Royko's essays seem more alive and compelling than Mencken's.

Compare Royko and Mencken's nostalgic reminiscences of crooked coroners. Here, is Mencken, from the 1942 Newspaper Days:

One dismal New Year's day I saw a sergeant lose an excellent chance to pocket $138.66 in cash money: I remember it brilliantly because I lost the same chance at the same moment...The dawn of the new year turns the thoughts of homeless men to peace beyond the dissecting room, and I accompanied the sergeant and a coroner on a tour of fatal scenes...The sergeant...began a search of the dead man's pockets, looking for means to identify him. He found nothing whatever of that sort, but from a pants pocket he drew out a fat wad of bills, and a hasty count showed that it contained $416. A situation worthy of Scribe or even Victor Hugo!...The sergeant looked at the coroner, the coroner looked at me, and I looked at the sergeant. Then the sergeant wrapped up the money in a piece of newspaper lying nearby, and handed it to the coroner. "It goes," he said sadly, "to the State of Maryland. The son-of-a-bitch died intestate, and with no heirs." The next day I met the coroner and found him in a low frame of mind. "It was a sin and a shame," he said, "to turn that money over to the State Treasury. What I could have done with $138.67! (I noticed he made a fair split, but collared one of the two odd cents.) Well, it's gone now--damn the luck! I never did trust that flatfoot."

An excellent and enjoyable memory, but Royko's speaks louder, perhaps because he is chronologically closer to our ears:

Ah, Chicago history. This particular chapter ended a few days ago when the political office of the Cook County coroner ceased to exist. It was abolished and has been replaced by a professional medical examiner. We are told this will make the investigation of deaths more efficient and scientific. Compared with the coroner's office, even Dr. Frankenstein and Igor were more scientific. "Gentlemen," a coroner once declared when a head was found in a city sewer, "this is the work of a murderer." To quality as a deputy coroner, you had to possess the following: a letter from your ward boss, a wide-brimmed gray fedora, a diamond pinky ring, and a cigar. When somebody died of anything but natural causes, a deputy coroner rushed to the scene. They always rushed, because they were afraid the wagon men might grab a locket. Once there, it was the responsibility of the deputy coroner to have the body sent to the nearest funeral home owned by his brother-in-law. Then he would gather the facts. It was done this way: He would get the name of the dead person. If the man was "James Doe," he would go to the phone and call his downtown office and say, "James Roe" is dead. The downtown coroner would say "got it." He would write down "James Sloan" on his list of dead people. Then he would call a newsman and say "Blain Cohen is dead." And the next day, Blain Cohen would read it in the paper and have a heart attack. Then the deputy coroner would go to Blain Cohen's house and write down, "James Roe."

Royko writes about a host of subjects in the hundred columns, all with the same scepticism and humor. He's not just a humorist, of course--as his life-long feud with Mayor Daley can attest--but this collection does not include his anti-Daley columns. Royko alternately exhibits conservative and liberal tendencies without contradiction: he simply exercises good common sense and defies facile labels.

For example, he deplores Farrah Fawcett-Majors' rise to sex-stardom not on grounds of exploitation, but rather on the grounds that she is not as sexy as the symbols from past generations ("Another time I saw Ms. Fawcett-Majors, she was on TV selling shaving cream. If that's what it took to arouse my passions, long-ago I would have leaped over the counter and into the arms of Mr. Solomon, my druggist.") Later, however, he defends Mayor Byrne from her critics among Chicago's "macho" firemen.

About a big thirteen-year-old delinquent: he writes, "I wish I had caught him so I could have given him a few punches," yet in "A Grand Old Hiccup," he savages conservative Republican men who in other Royko columns display a similar longing to use their fists. At base, like all good newspapermen, his philosophy is a non-partisan, compassionate populism.

Royko is at his best, like Mencken, when he is lampooning the social conventions and pretensions of the small set. In "Crisis in a Cool High Rise," he conducts a mock dialogue with "a modern young High Rise man," a different specie, who cannot picture life before air conditioning: "But what about people who were living together. You mean they would be in bed and both would be sweating?' Why yes. 'How uncool. Didn't your hairspray get gummy?" He pokes fun at exercise fanatics as well. When he interviews real people, the results are sometimes even funnier, as when he calls up the man who invented golf putters made from "bull pizzles."

UNFORTUNATELY (or fortunately--take your pick). I have left little space to discuss Andy Rooney's book, Pieces of My Mind. The book does contain some good moments, but they're drowned in a flood of simple-minded nostalgia and self-absorption. Too many of the book's pieces are stereotypical Rooney examinations of the little things in life. The chapter "It's Only a Plate" contains essays titled "A New Kitchen," "Old Appliances," "Buying Clothes," "Shoes," "Wastebaskets," and "Underwear," which contains this immortal line: "One of the pleasures of a vacation is being able to wear your old underwear."

In another essay, Rooney remembers that "when I was twelve, my mother bought me a corduroy suit. It must have been the first real suit with matching pants and jacket that I ever had. It even had a vest." To listen to an old senile relative ramble on like this would be considered an act of charity almost above and beyond the call of duty, but to buy a book full of these uninteresting memories from a stranger is sheer lunacy. They are written as simply and as poorly as first-grade primers: Rooney admits. "I dislike retyping a piece to correct mistakes or rearrange paragraphs."

It's easier to sell a pumpkin to the American public than a lime: Rooney's book, unlike Royko's, is on The New York Times Best Seller List, number four for the week ending October 31. I can only hope that Halloween had something to do with it, but people this month, too, are preferring the trick to the treat. Royko should expect this, though, for it was Mencken who noted. "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people."

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