Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.

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Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

About Alice

Calvin Trillin's About Alice had the misfortune of appearing after The Year of Magical Thinking. This was more than obviously ironic, as Trillin was good friends with John Gregory Dunne. The two attended Yale together, keeping up a lively correspondence thereafter, documented by Dunne in Regards.

Trillin was married to Alice just shy of forty years, and his elegy is as amusing in spots as it is heartrending. While temptingly convenient to compare his book to Didion's, their similarities begin and end at losing a spouse. Trillin, even in grief, quotes the one condolence letter that makes him--and us--laugh. If there's a mite of humor in Magical, I hereby charge the lit crit brigade to find it.

Alice Stewart Trillin's mother was Jewish, a consolation to Calvin's mother. Yet what one notices in the book's two photographs is what Trillin calls her "prettiness" and what the rest of us would call stunning beauty. The Alice shown on the back jacket flap of this slim volume is striding, hand-in-hand, with the man she married moments before. She wears the kind of outfit any woman over age twenty-five recognizes as classic, and very, very expensive: an understated plaid skirt, a matching car coat with 3/4 sleeves, a light turtleneck sweater and beret. Leather gloves, dark pumps. She is that rare thing: a natural blonde. Had she chosen to do so, she could have modeled (she did, a bit, early on) or become one of those actors who doesn't need to act.

But Alice's looks bedeviled her, for "they were exacerbated by the fact that Alice didn't look like who she was." (20) She was an intellect, teacher, and fine writer herself. Trillin describes the sort of people who reacted to her negatively--men anticipating a beautiful woman's haughty grandeur, jealous women. Precisely because Alice was so nice, and because Trillin describes this kindness so well, even those of us with-less-than Alice appearances feel genuinely sorry for her.

Alice was also forthright. One of memior's best moments transpires at a meeting of Yale Alumni. George Pataki has just given a rousing speech about his own Yale experience--that of a postal worker's son. When Pataki returns to his seat at the Trillin's table, Alice turns to him and says:

"That was one of the best speeches I've ever heard. Why in the world are you a Republican?" (43)

She had an ingrained sense of fairness. She taught remedial English in the New York College system, ignoring the outraged shrieks from those who felt people in need of remedial teaching didn't belong in higher education. She believed everyone beyond a set income level should be levied "the Alice Tax." She helped those in need, caring for her ailing, bankrupt parents, writing movingly to a young woman recovering from assault. Her letters to young Bruno Navatsky, diagnosed with a malignant lung tumor, became the book Dear Bruno. Sixteen years later, Bruno wrote: "Thanks for your letter. I really should have answered sooner, but I've been so busy...There was high school to finish, then college. For a few years, I was living in Japan." (72)

Alice was not so fortunate. In 1976, this cigarette-loathing woman got lung cancer. Incredibly, she recovered, but years later--on September 11th, 2001--the damage from radiation treatment exacted its final toll on her generous heart.

At seventy-eight pages, About Alice is a marvel of brevity. Yet the emotional current lends it expansivesess. Trillin deftly sidesteps memoir's worst pitfalls by sticking to the facts. There are four mentions of his sadness: the opening lines, his granddaughter Izzy's resemblance to Alice ("which may be one reason I sometimes have trouble taking my eyes off her.") (12), and this sudden realization in an airport, years after Alice's first illness and recovery:

"I was walking through an airport to catch a plane to New York, when, apropos of nothing, the possibility that things could have gone the other way in 1976 burst into my mind...I think I literally staggered...I was in a condition my father would have called poleaxed. A couple people stopped to ask if I was all right. I must have said yes. After a while, the pictures faded from my mind. I...caught my flight...Alice was there. The girls were there. Everything was all right." (71)

The final moment closes the book. Alice, that incorrigible optimist, would have called living twenty-five years beyond a death sentence meant wonderful luck.

"I try to think of it in those terms. Some days I can and some days I can't." (78)

Calvin Trillin: About Alice. New York: Random House. 2006.

For my neighbor, Ceasar, who died two weeks ago, and his mother, who took such wonderful care of him.

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