Wednesday, November 11, 2009

That Old Feeling: Perelmania


Am I alone these days in regarding S.J. Perelman as a formative font of 20th century wit?

...summon his name on Google, and you will find only about a third as many references for him as for his brother-in-law, Nathanael West, who published only four short novels in a six-year career, compared to 20-some volumes in Perelman's public half-century. Ransacking the Internet, I could discover no Perelman parties, no memorial readings from the canon, no revivals of the Broadway shows he worked on, no retrospectives of the films he helped write. I think of the Perelman story, "Who Stole My Golden Metaphor?" and wonder: who buried my Perelman beyond price?

But, kids, before you consign one of my favorite comedy writers to Corliss' mausoleum of lost causes, take a moment to roll naked in some Perelman prose. I choose, almost at random, a few verses from the "Acres and Pains," his magnum opus — or minimum opus, for it consumes fewer than 40 pages when reprinted. The book is Perelman's account of a city boy who, in 1932, acquired and tried to run a rural property in Bucks County, Pa.:

"A farm is an irregular patch of nettles bound by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn't know enough to stay in the city."

"I began my career as a country squire with nothing but a high heart, a flask of citronella, and a fork for toasting marshmallows in case supplies ran low. In a scant fifteen years I have acquired a superb library of mortgages, mostly first editions, and the finest case of sacroiliac known to science.... I also learned that to lock horns with Nature, the only equipment you really need is the constitution of Paul Bunyan and the basic training of a commando."

"When I first settled down on a heap of shale in the Delaware Valley, I too had a romantic picture of myself. For about a month I was a spare, sinewy frontiersman in fringed buckskin, with crinkly little lines about the eyes and a slow laconic drawl.... After I almost blew off a toe cleaning an air rifle, though, I decided I was more the honest rural type. I started wearing patched blue jeans [and] mopped my forehead with a red banana (I found out later it should have been a red bandanna).... One day, while stretched out on the porch, I realized I needed only a mint julep to become a real dyed-in-the-wool, Seagram's V.V.O. Southern planter.... I sent to New York for a broad-brimmed hat and a string tie, and at enormous expense trained the local idiot to fan me with a palmetto leaf."

"Today, thanks to unremitting study, I can change a fuse so deftly that it plunges the entire county into darkness.... The power company has offered me as high as fifteen thousand dollars a year to stay out of my own cellar."

I don't see today's kids busting their allowance to find buy Perelman books on ebay; in fact, the name name retrieves only 12 items, and four of them are other Perelmans. I think I know why the writer's short comic pieces, so influential in the last century, have little resonance in this one. It's because they are written in a dead language: English.

I should refer to it as Perelman English: a cocktail of Victorian and Edwardian sentence structure, Jazz Age slang whose sell-by date had long since expired, and a veritable Mount Meron of Yiddishisms. "Sid commands a vocabulary that is the despair (and joy) of every writing man," proclaimed his New Yorker colleague E.B. White. "He is like a Roxy organ that has three decks, 50 stops and a pride of petals under the bench. When he wants a word it's there.... His ears are as busy as an ant's feelers. No word ever gets by him." The language was, for Perelman, a gentleman's orgy, and he was Petronius, knowing which wench to peel, which grace to savor.

His stock of references could have filled the Great Library of Alexandria, if that august edifice had housed every copy of Cap'n Billy's Whizbang. Even those introduced to Perelman in his prime had to cram for antique references. The man was an instant anachronist, peppering his stories with allusions to Greek and Roman mythology, vaudeville dialect comics like Gallagher and Shean (Al Shean was the Marx Brothers' uncle), silent movies, and "the exact method of quarrying peat out of a bog at the time of the Irish Corn Laws." Add 50 years to these arcana, toss them at a collegiate today and he�ll expect a translation on the recto. (Buck up, young scholar. That's what Google's for.)

In his time, though — and why shouldn't that time be now, again? — Perelman was called America's foremost humorist, a comic genius, mein Yiddishe Aristophanes, a gift from Providence (he was reared in Rhode Island), but Perelman preferred the simple designation "writer." Even when his feuilletons don't stir a Gorgon to chuckle, they educe awe for the Wallenda grace of his prose, his solving of sentences. Attend to the choice of verbs in this relatively simple description: "Struggling into a robe, he reeled across the room, fumbled with the chain latch, and wrenched open the door." Action words, picture words, funny words.

Perelman's free-associative style spun fantasias out of girdle ads, tabloid tattle, sleazy pulp fiction and recipe prose. He was a Charlie Parker on tenor Underwood, running bizarre and beautiful variations on the tritest themes. With a difference: Perelman's prose was improv with agony. He perspired platelets to make it read cucumber-cool.

Richard Corliss

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