Sometimes grumps have the best punch lines

The Portable Curmudgeon, compiled and edited by John Winokur; illustrated by Everett Pecker. New York: NAL Books. 299 pp. $15.95. A curmudgeon is halfway between an iconoclast and a grump. It is a way of life founded on a screening out of hypocrisy and pretense and commenting on everything in what you think is a witty way, usually losing your friends in the process.

This little book, produced in a stubby, grumpy 6-by-6-inch shape, will give you the thoughts of the most famous curmudgeons. You can carry the book around with you in case you want to become one yourself.

Helpfully, the compiler, who admits to being in a bad mood since 1971, has arranged things alphabetically. Thus if someone sighs that she is in love, you can quickly thumb to the L's and quote Ambrose Bierce. Love, he said, was ``insanity curable by marriage.'' Naturally this won't make you very popular, but curmudgeons don't care about that.

Or if someone speaks glowingly of honesty, you turn to where Mark Twain tells you how to determine whether a man is honest. ``Ask him; if he says yes, you know he's crooked.''

Famous curmudgeons are profiled in interchapters, including William Claude Dukenfield (W.C. Fields to you), who was caught reading the Bible while ill, ``Just looking for loopholes,'' he explained. And there's Calvin Trillin, Oscar Levant, Dorothy Parker, Groucho, Royko, Mencken, and others.

Among the best of the grumpiest is Georges Clemenceau on America, which he said had gone ``from barbarism to degeneration without the usual interval of civilization.'' Oh, yeah? Well, France, said Billy Wilder, ``is the only country where the money falls apart and you can't tear the toilet paper.''

See? Even these cudmudgeons can't get along. Others are funnier. For example Fran Lebowitz, who said her favorite animal was ``steak.'' And Fred Allen, who defined Hollywood as ``a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for movie stars.'' And Oscar Levant, who complained to his wife after dinner at the White House, ``Now I suppose we'll have to have the Trumans over to our house.''

The book is habit-forming and should be left out for periodic review. It makes a great gift for cranks in need of a lift. If nothing else it is comforting to know that you're not alone when you feel antipathy toward things everyone else seems to love. Television, for example, an invention ``that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home'' (David Frost). Or children. ``The secret of dealing successfully with a child is not to be its parent'' (Mel Lazarus).

My favorite is Fred Allen's comment on Boston. ``I have just returned from Boston,'' he said. ``It is the only thing to do if you find yourself up there.''

Jeff Danziger is the Monitor's editorial cartoonist.

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