If you drive a car in a major city, you know that the success of an evening has nothing to do with the charm of your date, the taste of the food, or the brilliance of the theater. It's all about the quality of your parking space.
With "Tepper Isn't Going Out," Calvin Trillin has written a novel that's as delightful as finding a free spot in Times Square. His gentle hero is Murray Tepper, a kind of Chauncey Gardiner with a driver's license.
Tepper has spent his life in New York City. And he knows where to park. He knows where the fire hydrants lurk, where he can leave his car overnight, where he must switch sides by 11 a.m., and even where "Diplomatic Plates Only" signs cause special problems. "There were nights when he was totally confident of finding a spot," Trillin writes. "There were nights when he could almost imagine himself with a large tattoo on his arm that said, BORN TO PARK."
As the cofounder of Worldwide Lists, a mailing-list brokerage firm, Tepper spends his workdays trying to discern the mysterious connections between apparently disparate groups of people. Will buyers of nose-hair cutters go for lettuce dryers? His goal is to find the "magic button," the list of people who will buy anything. But in the evenings, he likes to spend an hour or so in his car next to a paid-up meter, reading the paper.
So begins Trillin's perpetually amusing fable of a simple man with a simple pastime who disrupts America's biggest city.
Sent to see what's the matter, his daughter pulls alongside and asks, "What if I asked a fairly direct question: What, exactly, are you doing here?"
"I was reading the Post," Tepper replies. "I've got a dollar and a half invested in this spot. So there's good reason to be here at least until I get my money's worth."
When others pull up alongside to ask, "Are you going out?" Tepper dismisses them with an assortment of carefully studied waves and flicks, but never anything obscene. His "hobby" is an outrage to city drivers desperate for a spot, but the swearing, the honking, and the angry glares don't trouble him.
This strange behavior does trouble his friends and family, however, who worry that it may indicate some ominous development. Is he having a mid-life crisis, is he having an affair, is he proving something to himself, is he "trying to exert some meaningful control over his environment"?
"What should I tell Mom?" his daughter pleads.
"Tell her that I'm on Forty-third Street," Tepper says.
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 the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com.