S. J. Perelman Essay - Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) (Vol. 3)

Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) (Vol. 3)

Perelman, S(idney) J(oseph) 1904–

Perelman is one of America's best-loved humorists, and his satirization of nearly every aspect of contemporary society has delighted New Yorker readers for decades. He has also written scripts and plays.

The best American humorists of this century? Not everyone would agree, of course. Certainly Lardner, Benchley, and Thurber would get the vote from most readers. And they are all dead. Add a fourth? A fairly strong consensus among connoisseurs would place S. J. Perelman alongside these illustrious three. And, for a bonus, he's still living. His eminence, however, is lonely and likely to remain so, as there is simply no young or middle-aged humorist now writing who might be expected to achieve his stature….

The world of Perelman is a thoroughly subjective one. Essentially his only subject is himself. Of course that embroidered self has numerous protean forms of personae (such as Sidney Namlerep—Perelman spelled backwards), disguises, fantasy, and tangential autobiography (e.g., S. G. Prebleman). Via the first-person point of view we are taken, with esoteric sophistication, amidst the glamor of Hollywood, Las Vegas, New York, London, Paris, the African safari, the stage, the cinema, and resort life, where we follow the brittle adventures of the affluent and their phony imitators. Yet despite its subjectivity, it is an outward, exterior world, all surface, reflecting undoubtedly Perelman's own assessment of the civilization around us. Seemingly it does not sour him. He goes on with bland, proliferative zaniness—ridiculing sham, naïveté, and mechanization, but harboring no Swiftian anger and revealing no hope of changing things for the better. One may even be tempted to feel that he is glad things are as they are, demanding no obeisance to a rigid life style and allowing him rich opportunities for playful, sophisticated satire.

Considerable understanding of the Perelman makeup can be gained by a glance at his acknowledged influences: Ade, Lardner, Leacock, Benchley, and James Joyce. In Perelman's jaunty and sophisticated slanginess we may glimpse the same outstanding quality as is found in George Ade's best work, his fables. In Perelman's partiality for the sardonic, we may see the Lardner influence, though with less of the bleak, disillusioned bitterness of Lardner's character drawing. From Benchley and Leacock, Perelman may have taken his tendency to self-mockery and surrealism. And from Joyce, what but the thrill of unleashing a dazzling array of verbal pyrotechnics?…

The first-person pieces that Perelman characteristically does are in the broad genre of the essay accented by personal narrative and liberally dramatized by dialogue. Often, perhaps too often, they begin with a brief reprint of a news item, paralleling which Perelman continues with a made-up playlet satirizing the experience related in the epigraph. As a device of self-mockery he sometimes opens a piece in the third person about a character shown in an awkward situation and then quietly, slyly, as if unconsciously, changes the third person to "I." Of course the reader is on his own in these pieces as to what is fact, what is embroidery, and what is made up out of whole synthetic fabric…. Nihilism characterizes his view of life. His is a keen, zany mind with no abiding beliefs of any weight. His only balance wheel is reason, itself following a shallow modernity….

[Verbal] devices run the gamut. Puns, all-out clichés, non sequiturs, wild imaginings abound. There is no brooding introspection, but an external, frothy, streamlined style. Metaphor crops up like marijuana growing wild in Mexico: A four-hour trip over a "corduroy highway" had reduced him to "library paste." For a headache he stole off and "gulped down some nirvana powder."…

In the aspects of style that are larger than diction, Perelman must rate with the best parodists. Read a handful of his essays and narrative experiences, and you will encounter a variety of styles in which the sophisticated reader will detect satire of popular, formularized, best-selling, cliché writing….

Almost thirty years ago, S. J. Perelman was tabbed the most proficient surrealist. The tab is still good. So, too, is Clifton Fadiman's label for him, "America's most precious lunatic." He is an entertainer sui generis. In the course of his career, however, including his 1970 volume (Baby, It's Cold Inside), his audacity has gradually run less to recklessness, less to brave, inspired nonsense and wild intoxicating ramblings out of reality; his verbal clowning is less likely to miss the trapeze and bite the sawdust. In fact, his whole performance is of the same order as a circus except that it maintains a continuous sophistication. The experience is projected with wry and subtle mockery. The reader is never allowed to accept wholly a suspension of disbelief that would yield the illusion of reality. One gets the paradoxical idea instead that reality itself is illusory.

Without the elan of his earlier work, the later Perelman pieces are nevertheless shaped and controlled by a mature guiding hand. They deal in what may be called the reasoned absurd. At times the humor is flavored by an excess of the reasoned and not enough of the fanciful absurd. Yet while the absurd of itself can never be humorous—and humor is Perelman's raison d'être—he always provides enough stylistic playfulness to keep the absurd from becoming merely absurd.

The characteristic temper of Perelman's work is effervescent, with some of the tang of club soda. Perhaps only the wit of Peter De Vries among today's humorists equals his…. And to keep the record honest, let it be acknowledged that there are readers of more than average discrimination who are not among Perelman's admirers—readers who are in fact greatly irritated by his brilliant idiocy….

It may be fortunate for us the readers, that his positive values, whatever they are, do not emerge. His failure to engage us at the level of serious ideas allows us to enjoy the crazy roll of his dice without being concerned over the ethics of the management. At the same time, his writing has the defect of its virtue, which is ultimately a thinness of substance that gravely perils its permanence, despite his deft sophistication, his kangaroo mind, and his novel charm.

Louis Hasley, "The Kangaroo Mind of S. J. Perelman," in South Atlantic Quarterly (copyright 1973, Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Winter, 1973, pp. 115-21.