Trillin, Calvin (1935—)

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Trillin, Calvin (1935—)

Calvin Trillin, journalist and storyteller of the American scene, has introduced his readers to friends in unlikely places like Horse Cave, Kentucky, exposed several small-town scandals, and revealed a great many of his own idiosyncrasies along the way. Readers know a little bit about the way he thinks and a lot about the way he eats from the pages of his self-titled "tummy trilogy," American Fried (1974), Alice, Let's Eat (1978), and Third Helpings (1983). We've also met his family: his wife Alice, who "has a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day," and his two daughters, Abigail and Sarah, the latter of whom "refused to enter a Chinese restaurant unless she was carrying a bagel in reserve…'just in case.'" (Alice, Let's Eat). Since many of these pieces originated as columns in the New Yorker and other magazines, Trillin's cast of characters has become a memorable and anxiously awaited feature for regular readers. Trillin enthusiasts have also developed an appetite for the best barbecue in the world, available only in his hometown, Kansas City, Missouri. Trillin writes about food not as an expert nor, indeed, as a cook—we learn that Alice does the cooking at home—but as the owner of a prodigious appetite for foods that the doctor generally does not recommend.

Calvin Trillin's journalistic career began after his graduation from Yale in 1957 and a subsequent stint in the U.S. Army. From 1960 to 1963 he worked as an Atlanta correspondent for Time, as well as in various other departments of the magazine, until he was invited by editor William Shawn to join the New Yorker staff. His initial assignment for the New Yorker led to his first book, An Education in Georgia (1964), about the forced integration of the University of Georgia at Athens. Trillin continued to demonstrate his reportorial ability in his regular New Yorker feature, "U.S. Journal," in which he recorded the experiences of ordinary American people in times of stress. Many of these articles later appeared in book collections such as Killings (1984), a compilation of short pieces on wrongful deaths and suicides, and American Stories (1991), which includes a few more tales of crime mixed in with profiles of favorite Trillin characters like Fats Goldberg, the formerly fat pizza baron who shuttles between New York and Kansas City, Missouri, where he always stops for a chili dog at Kresge's.

Trillin is equally at home in many genres. His short satirical commentaries from The Nation are collected in Uncivil Liberties (1982) and With All Disrespect: More Civil Liberties (1985). He has also written fiction, including three compilations of short stories "written for Alice" and a novel entitled Runestruck (1977), the story of a pre-Columbian artifact discovered in a small town in Maine. Trillin has tried his hand at light verse as well in Deadline Poet (1995). His more ruminative side is shown in memoirs like Remembering Denny (1993), about a Yale friend who never lived up to his initial promise as a "golden boy" and eventually killed himself.

As a journalist, Trillin knows the value of a good lead, in both senses of the word: as story idea and as reader enticement. A few examples of the latter:

Not long ago, I ran across a man who pulls his own teeth. ("Ouch," With All Disrespect, 55)

Not long ago, I became preoccupied with the cost of the wristwatches worn by the New Jersey State Legislature. ("The Dark Side," Uncivil Liberties, 75).

In my version of a melancholy walk on the waterfront, I find myself walking through a cold Atlantic mist along the docks of some East Coast city, wearing a turned up trenchcoat, making the best approximation of footsteps echoing on the cobblestones that can be expected from a man wearing crepe-soled shoes, and ducking into a passage that turns out to be the entrance to a gourmet kitchen-supply shop called something like the Wondrous Whisk—where I soberly inspect imported French cherry pitters and antique butter molds and Swedish meat slicers. ("Weekends for Two," Alice, Let's Eat, 155)

Like Kansas City barbecue, Calvin Trillin's writing can be addictive.

—Sue Russell

Further Reading:

Trillin, Calvin. Alice, Let's Eat: Further Adventures of a Happy Eater. New York, Random House, 1978.

——. American Stories. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1991.

——. Uncivil Liberties. New Haven, CT, Ticknor & Fields, 1982.

——. With All Disrespect: More Uncivil Liberties. New York, Ticknor & Fields, 1985.