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Classic review: Tepper Isn't Going Out

Calvin Trillin serves up a novel "as deightful as finding a free spot in Time Square."

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"Tell her that I'm on Forty-third Street," Tepper says.

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A clerk at a nearby delicatessen knows just how he feels - or thinks he does. He joins Tepper during a break to chat. Then a small item about the eccentric parker appears in a weekly alternative paper. Soon, he's attracting a group of people who line up to spend a few minutes in the front seat of his Chevy Malibu. Though Tepper offers nothing beyond cordial patter and a few noncommittal pleasantries, they hear great wisdom and leave comforted, enlightened.

As the word spreads, more stories follow - newspaper features, television interviews, profiles in a magazine for parkers called Beautiful Spot. Tepper, the ultimate anticelebrity, remains entirely unimpressed, but that restraint only increases his appeal.

Inevitably, his "patients" clash with angry drivers who want Tepper's spot, and that disturbance attracts the attention of law-and-order Mayor Frank Ducavelli. Il Duce, as the papers refer to him, is a Hitlerian character who considers parking regulations "the bedrock upon which modern urban civilization has to be built."

Trillin, a longtime columnist for The New Yorker and The Nation, treats the Big Apple with the droll wit of his predecessor James Thurber. His satire is more acupuncture than surgery, and this comic celebration is the best gift an author could give to a city trying to heal. But the thinly veiled parody of Rudolph Giuliani was obviously composed before the terrorist attacks and the mayor's canonization.

After Sept. 11, it's harder to giggle at Il Duce's mad obsession with security, the tangle of barbed wire around City Hall, the multiple checkpoints, or even the now-imaginable "body-orifice scanner." Recent history has blanched some of the comedy from what would have been such fun just a few months ago.

The real humor here, though, can't be shaken. Trillin knows human nature the way Tepper knows parking spots. The frenzy that attends Tepper's conflict with the mayor introduces some classic characters: the pompous agent who plans a series of ghost-written books and a movie based on Tepper's advice; the ACLU lawyer who defends Tepper's right to park by invoking Magna Carta; the political lackey who offers Tepper zoning favors if he'll get off the streets.

None of this troubles Tepper, who knows "it's always something." His perfect blend of resistance and amusement is an inoculation against cynicism in this crazy world. He isn't going out, but you should go get him.

Ron Charles is a former Monitor book editor.

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