• U.S.

Books: S.J. Perelman

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He resembled a dapper cross between Groucho Marx and Rudyard Kipling; the same dark, emphatic brows, bristle-broom mustache, prognathic jaw and mordant cast of eye behind steel-rimmed glasses. But when he described himself, there was no mistaking the original style of the most literate, widely traveled humorist of his time: “Button-cute, rapier-keen, wafer-thin and pauper-poor is S.J. Perelman, whose tall, stooping figure is better known to the twilit half-world of five continents than to Publishers’ Row. That he possesses the power to become invisible to finance companies; that his laboratory is tooled up to manufacture Frankenstein-type monsters on an incredible scale; and that he owns one of the rare mouths in which butter has never melted are legends treasured by every schoolboy.”

The schoolboys in question have been around since the early ’30s, when Sidney Joseph Perelman first began publishing his superbly crafted hilarity in the pages of The New Yorker. The magazine’s readers soon developed a tart tooth for Perelman’s brand of satire, a mix of burlesque and Joycean wordplay boldly colored by a fastidious disdain for the fake, the tawdry and the pompous. Even the titles of Perelman’s “bits of embroidery,” as he called his pieces, set new boundaries for comic absurdity: Somewhere a Roscoe; Beat Me, Post-Impressionist Daddy; Amo, Amas, Amat, Amamus, Amatis, Enough; Insert Flap “A” and Throw Away; No Starch in the Dhoti, S’ll Vous Plait; Methinks He Doth Protein Too Much. His death last week in New York at 75 closed the page on a generation of American humorists that included Frank Sullivan, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and H. Allen Smith. Yet as Humorist Russell Baker observes, Perelman’s work was not typically American: “His writing had a certain English fineness in it. There is a love of language and an extensive vocabulary. He is hard to type. He is sui gen eris. I plagiarize a lot but I could not steal anything from him. The best you could do is a third-rate imitation and anyone could spot it.”

Perelman’s cosmopolitan imagination had a definite surreal twist to it. In “low dudgeon,” he viewed the world’s quirky moving parts as threats to his safety, sanity and solvency. Acres and Pains was a 1947 collection of mock-Thoreauvian japes inspired by the author’s four dec ades of semirustication on 100 stony acres in Bucks County, Pa. His definition of a gentleman’s farm: “An irregular patch of nettles bounded by short-term notes, containing a fool and his wife who didn’t know enough to stay in the city.”

Though he was born in Brooklyn, the city of Perelman’s childhood and youth was Providence. His parents were Jewish immigrants from Russia. At Brown University one of his best friends was Nathanael West, the future author of Miss Lonelyhearts and The Day of the Locust, and a future brother-in-law.

Perelman married West’s sister Laura in 1929. He began his career drawing and writing for Judge and College Humor; the Depression found him in Hollywood writing gags for the Marx Brothers. He also co-authored a number of plays, including One Touch of Venus with Ogden Nash, and in 1956 shared an Academy Award for his work on the film Around the World in 80 Days.

Perelman himself was a dauntless traveler; his work is full of pungent foreignisms and exotic locales. After his wife’s death in 1970, he sold his farm and moved to London. Within two years he returned to New York complaining that he had been sated by British couth and was hungry for New York rye bread. The city’s literati welcomed him home with special awards and rave reviews. Perhaps thinking of his early story Don’t Bring Me Oscars (When It’s Shoesies That I Need), the author went quietly back to work. “It’s a strange way for an adult to make a living,” he once confessed. “What I really am, you see, is a crank. I deplore the passing of the word crank from our language.

I’m highly irritable and my senses bruise easily, and when they are bruised, I write.” The result was a major stylist in a minor form whose value cannot be overestimated. On those days when the plumbing fails, the TV grows indistinguishable from the garbage compactor and the dry cleaner has French fried the flannels, Perelman will remain one of American letters’ most reliable alternate energy sources.

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