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The Literary Satirist is Still Around

THE RISING GORGE, by S.J. Perelman. Simon and Schuster. $4.50.287 pp.

By Michael S. Lottman

ALMOST nobody writes humorous essays any more, perhaps because the world has become too serious a place. Robert Benchley is gone, and James Thurber is gone, but S.J. Perelman comes forth periodically to reassure us that the art is not yet dead.

Of course, Perelman is not quite like the others. His humor is subtler, his vocabulary larger, his style more sophisticated; and the weird world he inhabits is a creation all his own. But he is like Benchley and Thurber in that he is funny. Perelman is quite probably the funniest man around.

In his latest book, The Rising Gorge, Perelman's humor seems broader than in the past. He indulges frequently in the kind of wisecrack that makes the reader laugh out loud, instead of trying to evoke only nods and smiles. "And look at me today. How old a man would you say I was?" a health faddist asks Perelman.

"'Er--eighty-five?' I hazarded.

"'Forty-six,' he said triumphantly."

In "Eine Kleine Mothmusik," a fascinating correspondence between Perelman and Mr. S. Merlin of Busy Bee Cleaners, Merlin writes that Perelman's maid "says you need a bulldozer, not a servant, and the pay is so small she can do better on relief." Throughout The Rising Gorge, Perelman allows himself this sort of knee-slapper somewhat more often than, as I remember, he did in his earlier pieces, and the result is an even more enjoyable brand of humor.

The Perelman pieces I always liked least were those in which he would take some real or imagined news release and construct an episode around it, to point out its utter absurdity, All too often the absurdity was quite evident at the outset, and the pieces were eminently predictable. Flailing dead turkeys as long as Perelman sometimes flails them gets to be pretty unfunny. Unfortunately, there are a few of these labored take-offs in The Rising Gorge.

On the other hand, probably the best pieces in the book are the accounts of Perelman's travels, especially a seven-part series entitled "Dr. Perelman, I Presume, or Small Bore in Africa." The first piece, "This Is the Forest Primeval?" presents the meeting of Perelman, a cringing coward, with the bluff, devil-may-care British explorer group.

Spending the night in a tree house in Kenya, land of the Mau Mau, Perelman, as he so often seems to do, becomes alarmed:

"'But listen,' I said in an urgent undertone, trying not to alarm the rest of the group. 'What prevents them from, say, setting fire to this tree and smoking us out like a nest of bees?'

"'Quite, quite,' (Mothersill) agreed. 'A very feasible idea. I certainly hope it doesn't occur to them. However, no use borrowing trouble. Here, do try one of these rock buns--they're frightfully good.'"

Perelman's misadventures, his total inability to cope with any given situation, and his slowly slipping grip on sanity make hilarious reading. He is at his best describing his own efforts to come to terms with the world around him, a world swarming with zany people and beyond rational control. And though he introduces many engaging and diverting personalities, his best creation is himself--the craven coward, the hesitant man of the world, the would-be lady killer, who really just wants to finish reading Motley's Rise of the Dutch Republic.

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