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Laughter on the Left

With All Disrespect; More Uncivil Liberties By Calvin Trillin Ticknor and Fields; 230 pages; $14.95

By Paul DUKE Jr.

Trillin is like Paul Revere's ride--a little light in the belfry.

THAT LIFE IS patently absurd is an accepted fact of modern times. What else can explain the statement by a president of the United States claiming that the Soviet Union was feeding its population a starvation diet of sawdus'?

But while life's absurdity can be tiring and annoying, it also produces its pleasures. Calvin Trillin is one of them. Among columnists today he has the most highly developed sense of how the swirling currents of history are usually the scene of the common mans belly-flop. It is a talent that prompts him to write sentences like, "My grandfather grew up in one of those European towns that used to change countries every week or ten days and the only claim to distinction I ever heard him make was that he had deserted two separate armies."

This is in a piece in which Trillin explains his reaction to an offer in the mail of a replica of his family's Coat of Arms. "It's got a lovely border, with a bribed immigration officer looking away from it. The center section has crossed steerage tickets rampant on a field of greenhorns."

I mentioned that Trillin is a columnist. He is not particularly well-known, however, because he writes his satirical columns for The Nation, the far-left weekly magazine (a "pinko rag" the author calls it, perhaps covering himself as a patriotic infiltrator for the next Red Scare) that hides in the rear racks at Out-of-Town News and has a circulation which competes neck and neck with The Crimson's. Thus the great virtue, of this predictably superb sampling of his column, Uncivil Liberties: you actually get to read the pieces, rather than hear about them second-hand from a friend who managed to get a look at the Lamont copy before it was filched by an impoverished revolutionary.

Those who follow the column will rejoice at this second helping of Trillin's Nation material (the first collection of these columns, Uncivil Liberties, was published in 1982). But I would be remiss if I did not mention that there is reason to believe Trillin is becoming, as my mother used to put it, "a bit like Paul Revere's ride--a little light in the belfry."

For one thing, he is beginning to show the signs of an affliction peculiar to liberal-left wits--Podhoretz fixation. Norman Podhoretz and the magazine he has carried to the political right since the 60s, Commentary, make a number of appearances in the book.

Of an academic acquaintance, Big Grant Beckerman, who is blessed with a remarkable ability to trim his grant proposals to the prevailing political winds. Trillin writes, "When Reagan named a neo-conservative to chair the NEH, Big Grant submitted a history proposal with a thesis that amounted to this: slavery was bad, of course, but could the slaves be said to have suffered compared to the Yeshiva student on Norman Podhoretz's block in Brooklyn who lived in constant peril of being ridiculed by black teen-agers for throwing like a girl?"

Why the pre-occupation with Podhoretz, one wonders? Intellectual rivalry? Is Trillin a fifth-column neocon? Passages like the following certainly raise speculation: "Looking for ways to ease my mind about signs that the danger of nuclear war is increasing. I stumbled across one comforting thought: maybe the Russian missiles won't work. I realize that the possibility of a simple malfunction is a thin reed upon which to hang the survival of the species. Still, it's what I have for now, and I'm going with it."

More likely, Podhoretz fixation is simply a complication arising from Navasky wags-slave syndrome, a disease Trillin has exhibited for years. Trillin has constantly jibed Victor S. Navasky, the editor of The Nation, for underpaying his staffers. One wonders how the Commentary pay scale compares Whatever the case, Navasky syndrome is more prevalent than ever in With All Disrespect

Ever since [the first collection] was published of course the wily and parsimonious Victor S. Navasky has complained to me that it portrays him as the sort of person who pays columnists only sixty-five dollars a shot when in fact he is going a full one hundred or what I prefer to think of as a century Ironically it was Navasky who insisted that I promise never to reveal that he finally agreed to come across with a C-note for each column it might give the other fellows ideas he said I promised.

In another column Trillin learns from a Nation Statter that Navasky is off on Martha's Vineyard.

Martha's Vineyard I figured that Navasky was back at work Martha's Vineyard the summer home of a lot of left-wing intellectuals is also known as the single most difficult place on the Atlantic coast for a non property owner to get to the beach--a place where renowned writers of a progressive bent use their gifts to compose No Trespassing signs. I could imagine Navasky in the thick of the story--interviewing disgruntled day-trippers who had been driven off the beach at gunpoint by civil liberties lawyers and contributors to the New York Review of Books, burrowing in courthouse records to find instances of scallop fishermen being snookered out of their land by neo-Keynesian economists.

"I suppose he's up there exposing the hypocrisy of the Landed Left," I said.

"Not unless he's trying to embarrass them by showing up at all their cocktail parties."

You get the picture. Trillin is a funny guy. He is a political Woody Allen, a populist at heart who sees foolishness teamed with greed and punctures the pomposities of that combination with more wit than any writer around today.

There is a larger point to make here though and it's this: as Trillin feared, the absurdity of reality is catching up on him. In the introduction to Uncivil Liberties, Trillin explains that the challenge to an American humorist is to "concoct a situation so bizarre that it may not actually come to pass while his article is still on the presses ... in other words ... when Ronald Reagan appointed as Deputy Secretary of State a man who could not name the Prime Minister of South Africa, some Sunday newspaper satirist somewhere in America was groaning at having his joke ruined by the legally constituted authorities."

Thus a passage like the following, from the new book, fails to produce laughter--not because it's unfunny, but because it's very nearly true: Whenever you read that someone in the Reagan administration is pragmatic, what you're really being told is that he is not crazy. Reporters have their ways of gauging such things. Let's say, for instance, that a new wizard of supply-side economics is received at the White House to demonstrate his theory that poverty can be eliminated simply by eliminating all tax on capital gains a theory he illustrates with an impressive array of graphs, even though his performance is marred a bit by his tendency to twitch uncontrollably at times and by the fact that he is costumed as the French dauphin--and at the end of the presentation, James Baker says. "Are you sure it will work? Pragmatism.

On the other hand, there could be a salutary aspect to the escalation of absurdity. May be those Russian missles actually won't work. Let's hope so, if only that Calvin Trillin can keep writing

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