The Chicken Always Wins

In this grab bag of previously published work, essayist and journalist Calvin Trillin offers a wide-ranging assortment of writings—travel and food pieces, political commentary, poetry, memoir, and excerpts from a novel—united by their ability to make the reader laugh, and laugh hard. For those new to Trillin, this volume is a convenient introduction to his prodigious body of work; for those already familiar with that work, it serves as a reminder of why some view him as one of America’s greatest humorists.

Trillin’s devotion to food serves as the basis for much of his funniest writing. In the essay “Missing Links” he extols the virtues of the Cajun sausage known as boudin, which he first encountered while reporting from the South in the 1960s. Back home in New York City, with boudin in short supply, Trillin secured a regular supply from a visiting Louisiana friend who would arrive with an ice chest full of Cajun foodstuffs. “I was so eager to get my hands on the boudin that I often ate it right in the kitchen,” Trillin writes, “rather than make the experience more authentic by searching for something appropriate to lean against. In Lower Manhattan, after all, it could take a while to find a pickup truck.” In “Eating with the Pilgrims” he argues that since scholars cannot be sure what the Pilgrims ate at the first Thanksgiving, there is no reason for turkey (which he dislikes) to be the default meal for the holiday. As a substitute he suggests spaghetti carbonara—then goes on to offer alternate Thanksgiving legends and traditions, including his version of the historic first gathering, where Indians contribute “a dish their ancestors had learned many generations before from none other than Christopher Columbus, who was known to the Indians as ‘the big Italian fella.’”

Included in the volume are excerpts from Trillin’s novel of New York life, Tepper Isn’t Going Out, starring Murray Tepper, a Manhattanite who spends much of his free time locating (and using) free parking spaces. That might seem a slender reed on which to base a novel, yet residents of Manhattan are sure to understand, and will share Tepper’s joy as he finds the ideal spot, parks—then sits in his car, not going out, infuriating other motorists searching for their own elusive space. In one episode, “Tepper Parked in Front of Russ and Daughters,” Trillin grants his comic hero an open space in front of that legendary purveyor of smoked fish. Soon Tepper encounters a beleaguered Russ and Daughters counterman who waxes eloquent about the tribulations of attending to the whitefish needs of an unappreciative public, especially those who ask him for a “nice” whitefish. “Well I’m glad you said that,” is his response to such customers, “because I wasn’t going to get you a nice whitefish. If you hadn’t said that, I would have looked for a whitefish that’s been sitting there since last Tisha B’Av—an old, greasy, farshtunken whitefish. Because that’s what we serve here mostly.” Sensing that the beleaguered counterman needs a break, Tepper offers him a seat in his car, providing a few minutes of peace as they both sit quietly, not going out.

Since 1990 Trillin has been a “deadline poet,” writing a weekly poem for the Nation. The gig began when he penned a catchy piece of verse, “If You Knew What Sununu,” making mock with the name of then-President George H. W. Bush’s chief of staff. The Nation’s editor Victor S. Navasky followed with an intriguing proposition—a poem a week, for $100 per. “What I realized instantly,” Trillin writes, “was that I would be getting the same money for a poem as I’d gotten for an eleven-hundred-word column.” Navasky’s one condition? “Don’t tell any of the real poets you’re getting that much.” Trillin agreed, and since then has produced a steady stream of topical, humorous, and often barbed poems, many of them collected in this volume. His versified take on twenty years of political history is tart. “An Optimist Greets the New Speaker,” from 2010, demonstrates both his nimble skill and his prescience: “It’s true for greed this has to be a gainer / (To lobbyists John Boehner’s on retainer). / Can anything be said for Speaker Boehner? / Yes. Others in his party are insaner.” At $3.33 a word, it’s a work all poets can envy. But the windfall poem in this volume is the 1995 classic “The Sociological, Political, and Psychological Implications of the O. J. Simpson Case,” that reads as follows: “O. J.? / Oy Vay!” At $33.33 per word (minus the title) this isn’t poetry writing, it’s more like lawyering.

A highlight of Quite Enough is the 1993 piece, “The Playing Fields of Mott Street,” in which Trillin recounts taking out-of-town guests to Chinatown where, in a loud video arcade, they came face to beak with the famed tic-tac-toe-playing chicken: a bird, trained according to B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist theory, that took on all challengers at fifty cents a try. Seeing no gracious way to refuse, and anticipating their coming humiliation, his guests would complain: “The chicken gets to go first.” “But he’s a chicken,” Tillin would reply; “You’re a human being. Surely there should be some advantage in that.” The chicken never loses; and to the “animal people” whose complaints eventually quashed the spectacle, Trillin makes quick work of the claim that the contest was demeaning to the bird. “Demeaning?” he asks. “I never saw the chicken lose a game.”

Game-playing chickens, national political figures, headline-grabbing criminals, parking-space-seeking New Yorkers: such characters and their merry hijinks are just a small sample of what this fun and funny book contains. Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin: a sly title for a book that leaves you wanting more.

Published in the 2011-10-21 issue: 
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Jeffrey Seymour teaches English and history at Masuk High School in Monroe, Connecticut

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