(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Parody, satire, and verbal wit characterize S. J. Perelman’s works. Most of them are very short and tend to begin as conversational essays that develop into narrative or mock dramatic episodes and sometimes return to essay. Perelman called them feuilletons (little leaves), “comic essays of a particular type.” They seem formally related to the earliest American forms of short story, Benjamin Franklin’s bagatelles and early American humor. Norris Yates best summarizes the worldview reflected in Perelman’s work: Perelman values normal life, “integrity, sincerity, skepticism, taste, a respect for competence, a striving after the golden mean, and a longing for better communication and understanding among men.” Yates sees Perelman’s typical persona (the “I” of the pieces) as a Little Man resisting the forces of American cultural life which would “invade and corrupt his personality and impel him toward neuroses,” the forces which seem determined to destroy the values Perelman holds. According to Yates, these forces manifest themselves for Perelman most decisively in “the mass media, which are, on the whole, the offspring of technology’s unconsecrated marriage with Big Business.”

Perelman’s “autobiographical” work reveals his version of the Little Man. A favorite type of The New Yorker humorists, the Little Man is a caricature of a typical middle-class, early twentieth century American male, usually represented as helpless before the complexities of technological society, cowed by its crass commercialism, dominated by desperate, unfulfilled women, sustaining himself on heroic fantasies of a bygone or imaginary era. James Thurber’s Walter Mitty has become the classic presentation of this character type. Perelman’s personae seem related to the type, but vary in several significant ways.

Acres and Pains

In Acres and Pains, the major collection of his adventures on his farm, he makes his persona into a city dweller who has naïvely tried to realize a romantic agrarian dream on his country estate, but who has come to see the error of his ways. Perelman uses this reversal of the rube in the city to debunk a sentimental picture of country life by exaggerating his trials. Many episodes show good country people betraying the ideal with which they are associated. Contractors, antique dealers, and barn painters rob him of purse and peace. “Perelman” differs from the Little Man type in that, although he may at any time fall victim to another illusion, he knows and admits that country life is no romance. In these sketches, he also differs from the Little Man type in his relationship to wife and family. He is not dominated by a frustrated woman. He and his wife are usually mutual victims of pastoral illusion, although often she suffers more than he.

This “Perelman” is most like the typical Little Man when he deals with machines. For example, when his water pump goes berserk during a dinner party, he handles the problem with successful incompetence: “By exerting a slight leverage, I succeeded in prying off the gasket or outer jacket of the pump, exactly as you would a baked potato. This gave me room to poke around the innards with a sharp stick. I cleaned the pump thoroughly and, as a final precaution, opened the windows to allow the water to drain down the slope.” The major difference between this persona and Walter Mitty is that the former is competent; he escapes neurosis and resists with some success his crazy world. By splitting the narrator into a present sophisticate (a mask that often slips) and a former fool, he tends to shift the butt of humor away from the present narrator and toward the man who believes in romantic ideals and toward the people who so completely fail to live up to any admirable ideals. The latter are typified by the contractor who digs “Perelman’s” pool in a bad place although he knows the best place for it. Asked why he offered his advice when the pool was dynamited rather than before it was begun, he virtuously replies. “It don’t pay to poke your nose in other people’s business.” Implied in these tall tales of mock pastoral life are criticisms of the values which oppose those Yates lists: dishonesty, hypocrisy, greed, naïveté, incompetence, overenthusiasm, deliberately created confusion, and lying.

Looking over the full range of Perelman’s first-person sketches, one sees significant variation in the presentation of the persona. In Acres and Pains, the narrator is much more concrete than in many other sketches in which the “I” is virtually an empty mind waiting to take shape under the power of some absurd...

(The entire section is 1916 words.)