Russell Baker Phil Elderkin - Essay

Phil Elderkin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Reading "Poor Russell's Almanac" is a lot like visiting the Internal Revenue Service—with somebody else's tax return!

If you have ever changed a flat tire in the rain, tripped over the flowers on the rug or spilled gravy on your Aunt Agatha's canary, then this book is for you.

Actually, it is not really a book at all but a collection of essays. Russell Baker, the author, is extremely talented at stroking a platitude until it purrs like an epigram.

While Baker tries to pass himself off a genuine character in most interviews, he is really a self-styled one. No man who describes himself as a decaying boy, and still has to duck his head to clear any doorway under six feet, two inches, is not to be trusted.

But if an author can sell his book by first selling himself, I suppose this comes under the heading of good business. Baker has traveled extensively and there isn't much in the way of newspaper writing which he hasn't done. Fortunately it shows.

I highly recommend some of Poor Russell's more literary passages, such as "How to use the FBI to settle a dispute with your plumber." It also has such goody oneliners as: "Security is a suntan in February."

I must admit, after reading this, that, I immediately began thumbing through the rest of the book for pictures of Snoopy and was disappointed.

Nevertheless, this is the kind of all-purpose book which can be picked up, a few articles read while waiting for the bus, and then put down. It has the kind of clever humor which makes one think rather than chuckle.

It pokes fun at a lot of people and a lot of things—both real and imagined. But most of the time its poker is dipped in satire rather than poison….

I warn you. "Poor Russell's Almanac" is a series of literary boobytraps. The best way to handle them is to read all 212 pages.

Phil Elderkin, "Tripping Over the Gravy," in The Christian Science Monitor, February 3, 1972, p. 11.