Thursday, December 01, 2005

Just Read: U.S. Journal by Calvin Trillin

Yet more New Yorker stuff; I seem to be in a rut.

This is nearly the last Calvin Trillin book for me; I still haven't gotten An Education in Georgia, his first book, but I'm in no real hurry. (That one is the story of the integration of somewhere-or-other, which does not particularly interest me forty years later.)

U.S. Journal is a collection of medium-length articles, all from the New Yorker, all of the "why don't I go to this interesting place and write up what's happening there" variety. Unfortunately from my point of view, these pieces were originally written in 1967-1970, so it's mostly a parade of racial issues and Vietnam War stuff (with a side order of early environmentalism and just a smidgen of other things). There is an excellent piece on the then-new 747, called "A Traveling Person on a Beautiful Place," but U.S. Journal mostly features Trillin playing it straight, keeping himself out of the story and not cracking wise. Since what I like best about Trillin is how he thrusts himself into the story and cracks wise, this is not optimal for me.

As with Funny Money, I'm finding that straight reportage doesn't age very well. It can be useful as research (though, even there, these books wouldn't be considered primary sources), but, out of the historical context the authors didn't need to spell out for their original readers, they're just pieces of stories that start in the middle, go on for a while, and then end in the middle. Some of the Vietnam pieces were interesting as parallax to current events, of course, but the kinds of protests, the politics of the supporters of the war, and just the world the people inhabit was so different then that there really aren't any direct parallels. The environmental and racial/poverty pieces just made me realize, once again, how horrible most of humanity is most of the time.

I'm not sorry I read it, but it's not what I was hoping for (another book as good as his later reportage collections Killings and American Stories). And it doesn't stack up with his other best work, such as the hilarious novel Floater, the many volumes of his collected columns, and, above all, The Tummy Trilogy and Travels With Alice. But it does show that even a writer as sly and enticing as Trillin had to start somewhere; that he was just pretty good at this point is only a slam if you compare it to his later work.

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