W.C. Fields, move over; Social Studies, by Fran Lebowitz.New York: Random House. $9.95.
Linguini with clam sauce is mankind's crowning achievement.m Fran Lebowitz This woman makes W. C. Fields look like St. Francis of Assisi. Among other things, Fran Lebowitz does not like dogs, children, the rich, the poor, Los Angeles, nature, algebra, sportscasters, freedom of thought, the early 19th century, nonfiction novels, airlines, Esperanto, and brunch. She has obviously gone too far. Kids, sure; pets, no problem; but brunch?m the civilized world shudders.
Miss Lebowitz is a professional New Yorker. On her off hours, in between napping and avoiding the sun, she sits in front of a typewriter and tries not to write. Invariably the threats of a desperate editor break her concentration, and she is forced to produce a short piece of humor. These often appear in Mademoiselle or Andy Warhol's Interview. How first book, "Metropolitan Life," contained such penetrating essays as "The Right of Eminent Domain Versus the Rightful Dominion of the Eminent" and "Why I Love Sleep." It brought its author acclaim and a better level of creature comfort. "Social Studies," her second collection, is not a junior high textbook. Rather, it attempts to answer the question "How can we find meaning in a world where the world 'collectible' is often used as a noun?"
"I started with a humor puschart on Delancey Street -- comic essays, forty cents apiece, four for a dollar," Lebowitz writes. "It was tough out there on the street; competition was cutthroat, but it was the best education in the world because on Delancey "mildly amusing' was not enough -- you had to be funny."m
It is easy to imagine the young Lebowitz, a streetwise gamin, out there with the produce carts, hawking puns. Perhaps it was during these formative years that she developed her writer's ear. The heart of many essays in "Social Studies" is ordinary speech, snipped from its context and then framed with sarcasm.
"Below you will find the complete and un-abriged record of the general conversation of the general public since time immemorial:
a. Hi, how are you"?
b. I did not.
c. Good. Now you know how I felt.
d. Do you mind if I go ahead of you? I only have this one thing."
Her first book was peppered with remarkable aphorisms, including the memorable "the outside is something to pass through on your way from your apartment to a taxicab." This new volume seems to have fewer such bits, though the best ones are as good as any of her work. Many deal with general advice about the problems we encounter in modern society. Bulging waistline? Try reading "The Fran Lebowitz High Stress Diet." Confused about your role as a parent? Remember, "never allow your child to call you by your first name. He hasn't known you long enough." About to take a trip? "If you're going to America, bring your own food."
This last tip does raise a crucial point. Lebowitz is, above all, a New Yorker; as far as she is concerned, America is a foreign country. A hardship post, to boot. Not everyone likes New York, and not everyone may think Fran Lebowitz is funny. To find out your Lebowitz Tolerance quotient, take the following simple quiz:
1. Do you think Woody Allen really isn't amusing at all?
2. Do you enjoy watching made-for-TV movies?
3. Is "quiche" the name of an exotic breed of lap dog?
4. Do you decorate your correspondence with cute crayoned drawings?
5. Were you the last on your block to stop wearing a leisure suit?
If you marked all five of the above, "no," congratulations. A very funny experience awaits.
But if you answered "yes" to three or more, "Social Studies" might offend you.
Then again, as Lebowitz says, "Being offended is the natural consequence of leaving one's home."