WHEN IT COMES to the little shnook who keeps us other shnooks laughing, one has to cut through the anxieties with the relentlessness of a hedgecutter slicing through spam. Here is an ugly redhead who is not only rich, famous and unhappy, but considered also to be sexually attractive by many beautiful women, some of whom do not have analysts. Stranger things have happened of course. One has difficulty remembering what they are.
How can one fail to laugh at a writer who discerns between the merely clever and the simply hilarious? A pundit who deploys verbs like "fumfering" and "obsessing," and adjectives like "guileness?" A knish of a man whose favorite characters are Tiffany and Eino Shmeederer and Sidney and Daphne Kuglemass? A clown who ridicules Plato and Kafka while laughin over the lascivious portions of Emma Bovary? Woody Allen, whose "one regret in life is that he is not someone else?"
On page 22 of this collection of stories and essays, he writes:
The truth was that pinchik had not felt comfortable in the shoes but he could never bring himself to say no to a salesman. "I want to be liked," he admitted to Blanche. "Once I bought a live wildebeest because I couldn't say no." (Note: O.F. Krumgold has written a brilliant paper about certain tribes in Borneo that do not have a word for "no" in their language and consequently turn down requests by nodding their heads and saying, "I'll get back to you." This corroborates his earlier theories that the urge to be liked at any cost is not socially adaptive but genetic, much the same as the ability to sit through operetta.)
THE POOR MENSCH has been analyzed to death. His children by his first analyst, Dr. Chomsky, are now attending college. To cover expenses he has sold his table at Elaine's and moved into a kibbutz on 94th St. where the sabras have taken to wearing thick glasses and tweed sports jackets. He has confused life with his underwear, sex with lust, and death with a bag lady waving a machete at the fountain in Central Park.
Allen on Death: "When you're dead and somebody yells, 'Everybody up, it's morning,' it's very hard to find your slippers."
On Democracy: "In a democracy at least, civil liberties are upheld. No citizen can be wantonly tortured, imprisoned, or made to sit through certain Broadway shows."
On Politics: "I was then brought into a room where President Gerald Ford shook my hand and asked me if I would follow him around the country and take a shot at him now and then, being careful to miss. He said it would give him a chance to act bravely and could serve as a distraction from genuine issues, which he felt unequipped to deal with."
On Justice: "To me, it was the most erotic and satisfying night of sex I had ever had, and as she lay in my arms afterward, relaxed and fulfilled, I wondered exactly how Fate was going to extract its inevitable dues. Would I soon go blind? Or become a paraplegic? What hideous vigorish would Harold Cohen be forced to pony up so the cosmos might continue in its harmonious rounds."
On His First Wife: "My first wife was brilliant, but she had no sense of humor. Of the Marx Brothers, she was convinced the amusing one was Zeppo."
Of course he repeats himself. But why keep silent when the frenetic lives of all the Moskowitzes, Fishbeins and Koppelmans in Brooklyn are kvetching around in your head? If a paragraph misses, one goes on to the next; to an essay on scientists experimenting with anti-choking methods:
January 7. Today was a productive one for Shulamith and me. Working around the clock, we induced strangulation in a mouse. This was accomplished by coaxing the rodent to ingest healthy portions of Gouda cheese and then making it laugh. Predictably, the food went down the wrong pipe, and choking occurred. Grasping the mouse firmly by the tail, I snapped it like a small whip, and the morsel of cheese came loose. Shulamith and I made voluminous notes on the experiment. If we can transfer the tailsnap procedure to humans, we may have something. Too early to tell.
IN THE NEW YORKER, he is a meatball amidst the linguinous prose of Pauline Kael, et al, and in book form his essays stand up well. They are not meant to be read all together at one sitting, but to be savored, like stuffed peppers in chili sauce. If one dare bother to complain, Allen may not be clever enough. His stories are a form of verbal slapstick; he is desperately self-conscious when he puns.
On the other hand, his allusions and allegories flow unceasingly, as anyone familiar with Getting Even, Without Feathers, or any of the movies can attest. For instance, Allen on Camus: "The night was windy and dark, and Cloquet had a split second to decide if he would risk his life to save a stranger. Unwilling to make such a momentous decision on an empty stomach, he went to a restaurant and dined." And a few sentences later, on Sartre: "A feeling of nausea swept over him as he contemplated the implications of his action. This was an existential nausea, caused by his intense awareness of the contingency of life, and could not be relieved with an ordinary Alka-Seltzer. What was required was an Existential Alka-Seltzer--a product sold in many Left Bank drugstores."
On the other hand, some stories are better than others, like the uproarious "Kugelmass Episode;" or "The Shallowest Man in the World," which is unusual in its focus and its restrained tone. But either way, Allen is superb. The final paragraph of "Retribution" best expresses this tortured man trapped in his own body:
"I sat on the bed and stared out the window into infinite space. I thought of my parents and wondered if I should abandon the theatre and return to rabbinical school. Through the half-open door I saw Connie and also Emily, both laughing and chatting with guests, and all I could mutter to myself as I remained a limp, hunched figure was an age-old line of my grandfather's which goes 'Oy vey.' "