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New Yorker wit in a Midwest accent. Calvin Trillin writes from front lines of America's back roads

By Jonathan RoweStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 3, 1987


CALVIN TRILLIN is one reporter who won't be following the presidential aspirants through New Hampshire this winter. The New Yorker writer and syndicated humorist says he finds most political reporting ``astonishing.'' ``Probably 80 to 90 percent is devoted to who is likely to win the election - something everybody's going to know the night of the election.''

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Often, journalists call the election wrong. ``But what if they were right?'' he says, voice rising with incredulity. ``I mean, it doesn't make any difference.''

So while his peers pack the press buses in New Hampshire, Mr. Trillin will be out by himself on the back roads of the American experience, writing about people and events considered inconsequential by the national press. (Including the eating events for which he is best known.) When he does write about the candidates, it's in his humor columns, the third collection of which has just been published as ``If You Can't Say Something Nice.''

Trillin is the resolute provincial of American journalism, the big-city guy who still keeps time by what he calls ``Kansas City Mean.'' It's true that he went to Yale and lives in Greenwich Village. And that for 25 years, he has written for a magazine that features ads for $245 paperweights and watches that cost almost as much as the Strategic Defense Initiative.

But, writes Trillin, ``for Midwesterners, a hometown has no statute of limitations.''

In photographs, Trillin appears dour and imposing. An avid enthusiast of Chinese food (along with just about every other kind that isn't ``natural''), he wears the chronic expression of a man who has just finished a mediocre Shrimp in Lobster Sauce, which the waiter suggested, only to see a memorable Twice Fried Beef arrive at the next table.

In person, though, he's just a few inches above elfin, with a good-humored chattiness that helps explain why small-town folks open up to him. He clearly loves an audience for his best one-liners and cockamamie theories, such as the way the Vietnam war improved the lot of Oriental food lovers like himself. He imagines the American choppers hovering over Saigon in the final days of the war, with GIs shouting frantically, ``Get the chefs. Get the chefs.''

Trillin's New Yorker pieces are the polar opposites of the ``impact journalism'' of a Time or Newsweek cover story. There are no new trends, no ``hooks'' to matters of national concern. They are simply sketches of life in America. The story, for example, of a young Navajo man in Gallup, N.M., who kidnapped the local mayor, explores Indian-Anglo relations, but only incidentally.

``Washington reporters are interested in people, what they are like, only insofar as it might be an indication of how they'll vote,'' he says. ``I'm only interested in how they'll vote for what it says about what they're like.''

``Where others see events of mild interest and little consequence,'' wrote Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post, ``he sees stories that help us understand ourselves.''

Trillin turned to food for comic relief from the sometimes grim local occurrences. Shunning linen tablecloths and anything called ``cuisine,'' he celebrates places Americans go to eat rather than to dine, from Cincinnati chili parlors to Yonah Shimmel's wondrous knish bakery on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

In these paeans to the provincial palate, Trillin casts himself as a man who is either eating or thinking about what he will eat next. His wife, Alice, in real life a producer of educational films, enters as his comic foil. She's a woman with a ``weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day'' - a defect somewhat balanced by a ``broad view of what constitutes an hors d'oeuvre.''

Trillin began his humor column 10 years ago, for the Nation magazine. While writing seriously about everyday Americans, he could now poke fun at the high and mighty. ``I think of myself as someone standing off here making a living insulting his betters,'' Trillin says.