Madness in his method; The Last Laugh, by S. J. Perelman.New York: Simon & Schuster. $12.95.
Harold Ross, The New Yorker's first editor, was quick to point out that his magazine was not intended for the now-infamous" little old lady from Dubuque." Groucho Marx, ever attentive to the intersection between a joke and a laugh, worried of his material, "What'll this mean to the barber in Peru [Ind.]?" For both these appraisers of American taste, S. J. Perelman provided his remarkable, superannuated stories. Not the smallest compliment that springs to mind to pay him is that he was able to tread his way through these mythical demands and simultaneously to amuse Marx and his barber and Ross -- and yet to have successfully ignored the dour Iowa matron.
"The Last Laugh" is his first posthumous volume, and the 15 pieces included sound to my ear to be a consistently excellent, intriguing, and cheerful as any he has done. His book is filled with both literal and fanciful reminiscence, youthful and middle-aged hope, reasonable and foolish love, and comeuppances galore. "The Last Laugh" most certainly includes his characteristic, at times astonishing, wordplay. But the heart of a Perelman oyster is in its ability to produce its gem as a result of the frequent, linked abrasions that occur when dreams bump and scrape against reality. At least two-thirds of these stories have the brilliance we have come to expect from such a process.
For example, in "The Frost Is on the Noggin," he begins with an account of a pursuit Dashiell Hammett supposedly recounted to Perelman and from this rapidly turns his eye to an account in The Times (of London) concerning the fact that West Germans ". . . are rapidly becoming a nation of shoplifters," and that their indiscretions are achieved by hiding the booty under their hats. From this disclosure we are whirled away to an encounter in which Perelman discovers, Hammett-like, that one Eban Locnil has been shoplifting butterball turkeys, no less. (Eban Locnil, we later learn, is an anagram for Abe Lincoln, under whose famous hat there is almost enough room for the famous turkey.) Amid the tumult and pleasure of the narrative leaps and twists are parodies of detective stories , Lincoln, delicatessens, West Germans, turykes, The Times, Hammett, and, of course, Perelman himself.
And after close, amazed scrutiny of dozens of his stories over a period of dozens of years, I've seen certain patterns emerge. By explicitly citing his source, a characteristic common to most of his stories, he accomplishes a couple of tasks. He calls attention to himself and entices us to view the process of his manufacture. By inviting us to do so, he permits further conclusions and discoveries as well. And finally, we become aware that Perelman is a writer who is most gifted at summarizing, not narrating, stories, that the substance of his narrative is repetition, abbreviation, and variation. There is not only a method to his madness but a madness in his method.
Whether he is improvising on themes that have to do with travel, food, Hollywood, Broadway, or elsewhere; writing explicitly about himself, as it is in the last fourth of this book in a fine section called "The Hindsight Saga"; fantasizing; moralizing; or remembering -- the result is worth the attention. It is altogether likely that the full measure of his worth has not yet been assessed. Certainly, he calls to mind the likes of Thurber, White, and Benchley , but might one not also be reminded of the likes of Borges, Calvino, and Marquez, as well? I think so.