Style and Technique
All the elements that have made Perelman not only one of the best American humorists but also one of the most distinctive literary stylists are on display here. He has the largest working vocabulary of any American writer, rivaled only by Vladimir Nabokov, and, with boyish glee, he works the most uncommon words into his narrative: “bayaderes,” “equinoctial,” “lubricity,” “midden,” “palliate,” “yokefellow,” “zeugma.” He also employs more familiar words in unusual senses: “blinked” to mean ignored.
Perelman’s main subject is language, and he finds as much pleasure in the vernacular as in the esoteric. He glories in such clichés as “cheek by jowl” and “grain of sense.” Even the occasional slang term such as “moola” slips in. The slang, clichés, and elevated language are not that amusing in themselves but rather in the masterful way that Perelman juxtaposes them. He is a literary vaudevillian, constantly juggling the sophisticated and the sophomoric.
Non sequiturs and plain silliness abound in “A Critical Introduction to The Best of S. J. Perelman by Sidney Namlerep.” Mysteries of science include not only the common cold but also mixed bathing, and Namlerep describes the anger of the aroused author: “At the least suspicion of an affront, Perelman, who has the pride of a Spanish grandee, has been known to whip out his sword-cane and hide in the nearest closet.”
Central to Perelman’s style is hyperbole: “With fiendish nonchalance and a complete lack of reverence for good form, he plucks words out of context, ravishes them, and makes off whistling as his victims sob brokenly into the bolster.” Namlerep charges that “what Flaubert did to the French bourgeois in Bouvard and Pecuchet, what Pizarro did to the Incas, what Jack Dempsey did to Paolino Uzcudun, S. J. Perelman has done to American belles-lettres.” The latter example also illustrates the humorist’s penchant for allusions, for the incongruous grouping of the famous and infamous, for the bizarre name.
“A Critical Introduction to The Best of S. J. Perelman by Sidney Namlerep” is a virtual catalog of this slapstick linguist’s stylistic devices. It ends appropriately with the last of a long series of puns: “A plague on all his grouses!” Perelman epitomizes the joy of lexicology.