Calvin Trillin has written for the NEW YORKER and other major magazines for decades, and has become the master of the humorous personal essay. FAMILY MAN takes pieces he has written elsewhere and pulls them together into one delightful book. The sixteen chapters (each really a short essay) introduce Trillin, his wife, Alice, and his two daughters, Sarah and Abigail, in various adventures they have had over the last thirty years. The subjects are those of any contemporary American family: schools, holidays, pets, talent shows, etc.
What is special about Trillin is the way that he conveys these topics with humor and love. “Diaper Daddy” describes the difficulties of the pre-Pamper family. (What kept them to two children, Trillin insists, was “buttons and zippers on snowsuits.”) “Memories of an Ax Murderer” recounts the Trillin family adventures on Halloween (including their annual neighborhood Grenwich Village parade). “Thanksgiving Wanderings” includes Trillin’s so far unsuccessful attempt to replace turkey on the national menu with spaghetti carbonara.
What gives a humorous edge to Trillin’s writing is his essentially midwestern outlook. Raised in Kansas City, every summer Trillin and his family return to rural Nova Scotia. The adventures of the Trillin family thus resonate with a Manhattan sophistication—and something essentially middle American. Alice, for example, “believes that if your child is in a school play and you don’t go to every performance, including the special Thursday matinee for the fourth grade, the county will come and take the child.” His advice to expectant parents: “Try to get one that doesn’t spit up. Otherwise, you’re on your own.” Trillin’s humor comes out of the tension of an older America facing the contemporary world. As his family motto growing up expressed it, “Zip your jacket up.”