S. J. Perelman Essay - Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) (Vol. 5)

Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) (Vol. 5)

Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) 1904–

A contributor to The New Yorker since 1930, Perelman is one of America's best-loved humorists. In addition to his satirical occasional pieces on almost every aspect of contemporary society, he has written plays and scripts.

One marvels that a man whose summits of wit appear to be "our son which he is home from Yale" (Eastern division) and "at the intersection of La Paloma and Alte Yenta Boulevards" (Western division) should have become a so-called major humorist, and, more amazing yet, one whose humor is said to be based on linguistic prowess. (p. 123)

John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1974 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), November 18, 1974.

There exist persons in the world to whom the very sight of Perelman's byline is enough to make them ready to guffaw and smirk at things that would draw sullen sighs were they perpetrated by any other writer. That this reviewer is such a person must be admitted at once…. In short, it is difficult to write about good Perelman and bad Perelman, when it is not the content of what Perelman writes that matters, or the jokes, but something so slippery as the tone: the arrogant sneer, the social bite, the mock-heroic posture that is likely to turn at any moment to sniveling, the elegant language likely to be brought down to earth any instant by an attack of Yiddish….

For Perelman readers, the new collection Vinegar Puss will be an occasion for joy; for others, it is an opportunity to take up an addiction more beneficial than most that one could name. (p. 26)

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in Saturday Review (copyright © 1975 by Saturday Review/World, Inc.; reprinted with permission), March 22, 1975.

"Vinegar Puss" is Perelman's 19th book; he is now 71. If you want to familiarize yourself with his work, you probably shouldn't try to read all 19 books at once; one's vocabulary can take just so much enriching, or diminishing, as the case may be, by words you'll never use, "mommixed," "buttinsky," "goodge," "arble-bargle"; exclamations you'll never exclaim, "let a snarl be your umbrella," "she's the bee's knees," "everything is leeches and cream," "no man ever buckled a better swash"; and ripostes you'll never riposte, "hie yourself to an asylum, my old," "don't be a sherbet, Herbert," "don't you know there's a peace on," "numquam iterum, Carolus (never again, Charlie)."…

The book consists of 22 pieces; I won't call it a gallimaufry, but it's pretty varied. I liked some of the shorter pieces and by-the-way bits and mise en scènes best. A famous Indian film star flees the country, leaving 17 partially completed films in the lurch, "I've been a naughty girl," pursued by various "handkerchief heads … hugging cans of films." She knows they'll catch up with her, "You don't know Indian vengeance like I know Indian vengeance." A gentleman dining alone, buttonholed by a stranger, finally just faints dead away from boredom … that sort of thing….

Some of the pieces seem pretty slight, and the book offers fewer surprises, embellishments, somersaults, all the rest, than are generally found in some of those amazing earlier books of Perelman's. Yet actually I think "Vinegar Puss" yields more laughs and unexpected turns than did the last book ["Baby, It's Cold Inside"], which was rather heavy with social criticism. Perelman still takes a dim view of just about everything,… but overall he's less high dudgeoned this time around….

It may be true that fine words butter no parsnips, but one still reads him very slowly, sentence by sentence, from start—"of a wild and windy night this winter, any noctambule pausing to light his cheroot (or extinguish it; it comes to the same thing) outside a public house off Shaftesbury Avenue called the Haunch of Pastrami might have observed two individuals of no special distinction descending from an equipage before the premises"—to finish. (pp. 6-7)

Robert M. Strozier, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 23, 1975.

Ever since Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge broke on an unsuspecting public in 1929, S. J. Perelman devotees have been lapping up his lapidary prose, scurrying to net his wild allusions, guarding against whiplash injuries from his abrupt twists of logic, and following his riotously disoriented express through Bucks County, Hollywood, Africa, Asia and paranomasia. As a long time member of the Perelman legion, I am more inclined to celebrate than criticize [Vinegar Puss] his first new book in five years….

[For] the past 10 or 15 years, Perelman has been treated with the the sort of extreme unction usually lavished on humorists only after death. He has been enshrined along-side such golden '20s fellow-alchemists as Benchley, Lardner, Thurber and Kaufman, ranked with Balzac, James (both Henry and Joyce), Conrad, Roethke and Juvenal, and lofted from the category of humorist to the empyrean of nihilist, dadaist and surrealist. All of which has left him blushing and digging his toes into the hot sand, muttering that he writes to satisfy the grocer sitting on his shoulder and to amuse himself.

Perelman seems to have recognized his last from the first and stuck to it. Despite the pundits who feel that humor could only be legitimated by a larding of redeeming social value, he has retained his '20s/'20s vision and resolutely lived off the fatuities of the land. His inspirations have been drawn from advertisements, health journals, women's magazines, old novels and movies, and a preposterous series of personal pratfalls, all done to a turn and served in such small pieces that his oeuvres might best be described as hors d'oeuvres. Yet given a platter of his Bucks County antipastorales, only a cad could ask for meat and potatoes. His targets, from the start, have been the pompous, the absurd and the phony; he has attacked them with a bounding erudition, an unabridged vocabulary, a superb mastery of style, and a wild sardonic wit that shredded pretension into a lunatic fringe and dismembered linear thinking a generation before McLuhan.

Vinegar Puss … runs true to form. The Perelman face, so often drawn by Hirschfeld and quartered by his own pen ("bespectacled and snaffle-toothed, nervously scratching a chin you could hang a lantern on"), still shines from the pages with a king-sized leer; the familiar Perelman persona still capers along the newly cast lines ("Quixotic? Headlong? Possibly. But then such is my nature") with all the old braggadocio of Le Sid.

The material in his new book is cut from the same bolt as its predecessors and tailored, perhaps a trifle more soberly than in the past, to the classic Perelman patterns: parody, capsule drama, disastrous hegira, ludicrous adventure, improbable reminiscence. And the needlework is still so deft that nothing ever comes apart at the seams but the reader….

His work continues to defy every sort of analysis including the psycho-, but Perelman is perdurable. Long may his feuilletons be collected. And recollected.

Felicia Lamport, "The Perils of Perelman," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1975 by The New Republic, Inc.), March 29, 1975, p. 23.

Perelman is in immediate danger of becoming solemnized, a process that begins as a stiffening in the joints where criticism is written, and is likely to end with an untenured English instructor laboring on "Laundry and Dry Cleaning as Objective Correlatives in the Humor of S. J. Perelman." The humorist himself quite possible anticipated this situation 25 years ago when he titled one of his essays Don't Bring Me Oscars (When It's Shoesies That I Need). (p. 76)

Perelman is one of the great nibblers of the mother tongue. In his impeccably cut parodies, words like wattles and dottle, boffin and horripilating are used in ways that have caused two generations of grown men with attaché cases to break up in solitary laughter on public transport. (pp. 78, K8)

With a few sparkling exceptions, the pieces collected in Vinergar Puss (written mostly during the past five years) show Perelman at his second best. But this is usually the case in humor collections: the author is always made to look as if he is playing Can You Top This? with himself. Pieces that look good in the casual format of a weekly magazine are rudely upstaged by the handful that are very good.

Around the Bend in 80 Days is only good…. Few writers can get away with first-degree malice as well as Perelman: "I drew a deep breath, brushed a small, many-legged Arab off my sleeves and went down to unpack." Most of the other lines, though, could have been written for Groucho Marx and perhaps were: "I was tempted to fling him a lakh of rupees with a princely gesture. Not knowing how many rupees there were to a lakh, though, I had to content myself with the princely gesture."…

Anatomists of the Perelman corpus may detect a slight twice-breathed air here, as well as in "Nostasia in Asia," the five-part piece that concludes the collection. Some of the ground and most of the mock dudgeon are reminiscent of Westward Ha! (1948). That magnificent Middle Eastern curse, "May you live a thousand years and a trolley car grow in your stomach annually!" appeared at least once before in The Rising Gorge (1961).

But I Have Nothing to Declare but My Genius is full of fizz and vinegar. It is a magnificently spiteful spoof about a rich, prolific hack written by a man who frequently describes himself as a bleeder and a firm believer "that easy writing makes hard reading." The hack is the kind of man who dashes off a few mysteries before breakfast and boasts of popularizing Shakespeare so that he will be "comprehensible to the veriest moron … to even a rock fan." He is also a painter with a worldwide reputation. "One has long enough been acquainted with your eminence in the belletristic sphere," André Malraux writes him in English. "Now we are overturned to uncover you as a painterly ace …" This is Perelman at his best, inspired by the pompous, the fake and tawdry, and hell-bent for leatherette. (p. K8)

R. Z. Sheppard, "Idiom Savant," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), April 7, 1975, pp. 76, K8.