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S(idney) J(oseph) Perelman 1904–1979
American humorist, dramatist, and scriptwriter.
A contributor to The New Yorker for almost fifty years, Perelman is one of America's best-loved humorists. Perelman began his career writing whimsical sketches and remained loyal to the sketch form throughout his lifetime. Even in his longer works, plot and character are less important than the interwoven scenarios that point up human silliness and pretension. Admiring critics have often expressed regret that Perelman never abandoned this approach to write a full-length satire.
In addition to his brilliant occasional pieces on almost every aspect of contemporary society, Perelman wrote several Hollywood screenplays—most notably Monkey Business and Around the World in Eighty Days. He was awarded a special National Book Award in 1978 for his contribution to American letters.
A recent addition to the Perelman canon is the posthumous The Last Laugh, which most Perelman admirers read with affection.
(See also CLC, Vols. 3, 5, 9, 15 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76, 89-92 [obituary].)
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Last year, entirely on his own, Perelman perpetrated "Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge," a fine, mad book…. And now he has produced from his lunatic depths a second and better volume, "Parlor, Bedlam and Bath."…
The book is good, though it falls occasionally into a bog. Essentially it is like nothing else that we know, in spite of passages and attitudes that remind us of McEvoy, Sullivan, Stewart, Lardner, Benchley, Groucho Marx, and Joe Cook. Anyone to whom this list is a rollcall of the well-beloved will be thoroughly delighted with Perelman. He is never really derivative, though it is plain to see where he went to school. His humor is completely up-to-the-minute: allusive, intelligent, urban—and above all, mad. But that is the way we take it these days, and like it. A generation from now it will be largely indecipherable and thoroughly inane, but here and now it's grand good stuff. (p. 1195)
The chapter headings are pure gold, of an indescribable waggishness. Throughout, there is a delightful dwelling on the lighter aspects of drinking and of Prohibition. Some of the pages might, indeed, have come from the Bartender's Guide, and the descriptions of various speakeasies are magnificent.
Sympathetic souls—and there are many of them—will have a better summer for Perelman's high spirited nonsense. (p. 1196)
"The New Books: 'Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath'," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1930 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. VI, No. 51, July 12, 1930, pp. 1195-96.
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Reader, S. J. Perelman has struck again.
"Great, fatuous booby that I was"—these are the words of Perelman himself—"I imagined advertising would be destroyed from the outside. It won't; it's going to bubble and heave and finally expire in the arms of two nuns, like Oscar Wilde." Not if S. J. Perelman can help it, it won't. In fact, here lies the body before us now, with a sign left pinned to its jacket saying "Crazy Like a Fox."
Advertising is not the only victim of this man. With his Dyak-like tread he has crept up on the movies, on Corn, on Jitter-bugging, Bee-keeping, Fashion, then Chichi, and with a maniacal glitter in his eye has done his deadly work….
The strange part is, Perelman refers to his deeds as "prose." But Perelman's "prose" was never a simple thing, like mother love, or even like other prose. It is highly complex, deviously organized—the work of some master brain being undoubtedly behind it—and is more like jiu-jitsu than any prose most of us have ever seen.
There is, for instance, that sudden materializing of figures of speech, calculated to throw the bystander, or reader, over the head of the sentence and press a little nerve at the back of his ear….
By Perelman's evil plot every too-familiar name of this world is going to get caught in an insidious tangle from which it is doubtful, now, that any will ever become extricated….
There are those who think that Perelman no longer slays with the old abandon. They declare that some of that fine early madness is missing, and that one day the Fox may be caught. These are optimists. There is both old and new evidence in the forty-eight pieces here collected—and though Perelman may not scatter the red herrings to which we have become accustomed, something mighty like a herring, and mighty frisky, goes scampering across all 269 pages…. Or perhaps it is not a red herring but that which, or whom, Perelman calls "Pandemonium, the upstairs girl."
Eudora Welty, "Strictly Perelman," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1944 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 2, 1944, p. 6.
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As a humorist, Perelman is a pixie. He walks you down the garden path of simple declarative sentences, then smacks you with a load of double-jointed linguistics. He hits you on the shin with syntax, and when you double over, he steps in to clout you over the head with a hidden hieroglyphic. If you are a fan dating back to "Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge," you'll find ["Westward, Ha!"], in these days of global consciousness, gives Perelman nothing less than a whole world to play with. If, on the other hand, you're new on the beat, let me warn you that the man sneaks up on you like four martinis. It all looks so pleasant and amiable, and all of sudden there you are rolling on the floor.
Horace Sutton, "Durante of Discourse," in The Saturday Review of Literature (copyright © 1948 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXI, No. 32, August 7, 1948, p. 17.
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Perelman prose at its pure best, as everybody knows, is highly concentrated stuff. Every line and word count; it is as deadly accurate, as carefully organized and as impressionistic as high comedy or poetry. When this special stuff is given us in its natural form—the set piece—it is wonderful. But when it's made to cover a world journey [as it is in "Westward Ha!: Around the World in 80 Cliches"] it loses its charms with its shape. When writing that's really a high comic performance has to serve for a long sustained account of a trip, taking us over actual hill and dale and following true-life narratives and the known maps, not to mention keeping two strange characters—Perelman and [illustrator Al Hirschfeld]—alive and in recognizable human guise before us, then the demand on the prose is not a fair one….
We ought not to look for anything unmitigated in this day and time, they tell us—especially joy. But, it would have been nice to have our Perelman straight, not constricted by a job to fulfill.
Eudora Welty, "High Jinks Travelogue," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1948 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 8, 1948, p. 5.
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Humor to me, Heaven help me, takes in many things. There must be courage; there must be no awe. There must be criticism, for humor, to my mind, is encapsulated in criticism. There must be a disciplined eye and a wild mind. There must be a magnificent disregard of your reader, for if he cannot follow you, there is nothing you can do about it. There must be some lagniappe in the fact that the humorist has read something written before 1918. There must be, in short, S. J. Perelman.
Mr. Perelman stands alone in this day of humorists. Mr. Perelman—there he is. Robert Benchley, who was probably nearest to Perelman, and Ring Lardner, who was nearest to nobody, are gone, and so Mr. Perelman stands by himself. Lonely he may be—but there he is….
His latest book, "The Road to Miltown, or Under the Spreading Atrophy," seems to me by far his best; but that is what everybody says about a Perelman latest book. The only snide thing I can find to say about this one—and I had to strain to dig that up—is that I find the subtitle unnecessary, and in no way up to the title proper. I have been told often, and I know and have known that one should not read through at a sitting a book of short pieces. Well, it turns out that those who told me were fools and so was I, for you can go right through "The Road to Miltown." There is in this compilation a variety that knocks you dizzy.
Mr. Perelman has bounded over continents and seas, and come back to put it all before you—not quietly, not sweetly, nothing about the messes of nations, but just right there. Mr. Perelman every time he writes takes a leap that causes you to say, "Now wait a minute," but it is so well worth waiting for. Mr. Perelman, went around the world, of course, but he took the world by the tail and slung it casually over his shoulder.
These pieces in "The Road to Miltown" have been in The New Yorker and, I think, Holiday, but you never have a feeling of having read any of it before. (p. 1)
Mr. Perelman does not tilt at windmills …: he goes after the big nasty ones, the cruel, the ignorant, the mean. He is not frightened by the rich and the idiotic. As he says, "I don't know anything about medicine, but I know what I like."
Well, I think that Mr. Perelman's book, "The Road to Miltown," is fine. That's all I meant to say.
A week or two ago Mr. Perelman had pressed on his humid brow a wreath of laurels for being the best screen writer of the year (for "Around the World in 80 Days"). I think I may say that Mr. Perelman never wanted to be a great screen writer, never saw screen writing as a goal. Still, if you're going to be a screen writer, it must be a satisfaction to be the best. And that is also true of a humorist writer. (p. 36)
Dorothy Parker, "Humor Takes in Many Things," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1957 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), January 20, 1957, pp. 1, 36.
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Reading S. J. Perelman's latest book "The Road to Miltown," the professional humorist is apt to experience sensations similar to those known to pianists who listen to an Art Tatum recording. He feels, in other words, like giving up.
Perelman is simply too good. The suspicion arises that there is no real Perelman any more, but that some diabolically ingenious technician has succeeded in equipping a Univac machine with a complete supply of the world's literary clichés, a vocabulary ranging from Chaucer to Madison Avenuese, a fund of what is commonly regarded as the British gift for understatement, counterbalanced by consummate mastery of what is commonly regarded as the American gift for overstatement, a jolt of Groucho Marxish lunacy … and the perception of a philosopher, and that this fantastic device simply keeps Simon & Schuster supplied with an endless stack of funny essays, constructed along certain predictable but always eminently successful lines.
The machine never falters. Year after year it hews to the formula. The writing style is basically tongue-in-cheek-turn-of-the-century, studded with jewels of contemporary phraseology that consistently catch the reader by surprise. Color is added by profligate use of words that could be in no real human's vocabulary except that old British colonel the late C. Aubrey Smith always seemed to be playing.
The machine isolates a phenomenon of our culture (an intrinsically silly one, but few besides Perelman would perceive the silliness) and then extends it to the ultimate degree of absurdity. (p. 16)
Steve Allen, "Philosophic Lunacy," in The Saturday Review, New York (copyright © 1957 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XL, No. 5, February 2, 1957, pp. 16-17.
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S. J. Perelman is the most durable and, over the long haul, possibly the most brilliant of that familiar group of humorists whose wit fructified in the Twenties and Thirties and who found a spiritual home in the pages of The New Yorker. His new collection, "The Rising Gorge" (perhaps the most revealing of all Perelman book titles), substantiates the well-established opinion that the Master's forte is without question a biting, sardonic prose style, at times almost Dadaistic in its emphasis on the sound of words as an end in itself. Like Vladimir Nabokov, whom he most resembles in manner and technique, Perelman is at his best when creating sharp capsule sketches of human gargoyles….
All of the pieces in this collection are presented in some form of satire or parody…. The pieces on Hollywood are outrageously funny, mainly because Perelman, through his superb sense of mimicry, lets the stock types—producer, agent, mindless Brando imitator, vacuous starlet … parody themselves as they welter in pagan lushness…. [The travel sketches] are a refreshing antidote to the nonsense of the Robert Ruarks, and would be even better if the author had detached himself further from the Mitty-like narrator.
Three of the pieces in this collection are so good that one may feel compelled to read them aloud to any audience he can muster. "Small Is My Cinema, Deep My Doze" is a long overdue satire, and a fine one, on the excesses and avant-garde pretensions of the numerous art cinemas that have mushroomed recently in cities all over the country. "Eine Kleine Mothmusik" exploits the author's almost Freudian preoccupation with clothes through an absolutely believable correspondence between S. J. Perelman and the owner of a dry-cleaning establishment in Greenwich Village over whether or not a certain suit was put into cold storage for the summer…. Finally, there is "Impresario on the Lam," a beautifully sustained sketch dealing with a producer who insists, against overwhelming odds, on doing an "intimate revue." Combining the frenetic pace of a Mack Sennett silent with sharp social observation and an unrestrained description of one of the funniest drunk scenes in print, this mad slice of Broadwayana has all the ingredients of an imperishable classic.
For the sake of honest perspective it must be said that "Is You or Is You Ain't, Goober Man?" and "I Declare, Under Penalty of Milkshake" simply do not come off, period. It must also be said that the author's technique of using a far-out news item as a springboard to a satiric playlet has become a trifle threadbare. Conclusion: Mr. Perelman, who has a deadly eye and ear for other people's clichés, may have to do some hatchet work on one of his own.
That being done with, a final truism comes to mind. Humor, as someone said, is a serious business; and, in finishing this collection, one is left with the impression that S. J. Perelman is an absolutely sane, rational man, awash in a world irretrievably out of joint.
Burling Lowrey, "Wizard of Disenchantment," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1961 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIV, No. 38, September 23, 1961, p. 48.
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Most of the sketches in [The Rising Gorge] have appeared before, in The New Yorker…. [Mr. Perelman] deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with James Thurber, Peter De Vries and other celebrated contributors to that magazine. In common with them he is high-spirited, imaginative and versatile. Puns, parodies, pratfalls are all in his compass…. He is, like Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West, a connoisseur of the bizarre and the corrupt, the Hollywood-Broadway-Miami axis, places that have an atmosphere of "immense, weedy lethargy, reminiscent of a bankrupt miniature golf course".
But something often goes wrong with his humour….
His opening paragraphs are usually brilliant bits of pastiche. But then he loses direction. He tries too hard for a laugh: witness the frenetic titles he favours, which tend to be as brassy as the things he is supposed to be mocking…. Perhaps Mr. Perelman is a comedian rather than a humorist—or, more particularly, a gagman, adept at producing comic scripts. They might be glorious material for some comic actor. Failing him, they do not come to life. Another way of putting this would be to say that the author is absent from most of the sketches, whereas Thurber is present, directly or indirectly, in Thurber sketches.
It is true that Mr. Perelman often exposes his narrator to ignominy and defeat, in the classic tradition of comedy. But the process seems mechanical, like Groucho Marx on the printed page. The deficiency is most apparent in several sketches facetiously entitled "Dr. Perelman, I Presume, Or Small-Bore in Africa". These seems to be based on an actual visit to Kenya. But the mixture of fantasy and authenticity is disturbing, especially when the real/pseudo Mr. Perelman discusses the Mau-Mau. One feels that the whole visit was a gag, in intention, and that Mr. Perelman is exposed as a small-bore humorist indeed, the victim of his own remarkable facility at producing wisecracks when humour of a deeper dimension is needed.
"Gagman Extraordinary," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1962; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3170, November 30, 1962, p. 941.
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S. J. Perelman is one of those humorists—he prefers to think of himself as a writer of "the sportive essay"—who hits the reader on the after-beat. He catches up to you going away from the joke, innocently unsuspecting, with the cream pie of the jest already smeared across your face. He puts you into stitches by a kind of kint one, Perel two technique….
The long fuse Perelman strings to his jokes is quintessentially verbal. He uses syntax the way a silent comedian uses the double take. (A typical delayed-action sentence: "He departed ere we could grapple for the check.")
The Perelman style—its eminent reasonableness, its barely-mock dignity, its subtly staged collisions between gentility and slang—allows him to keep cover until the last possible moment. Round and round those half-crouching sentences spiral until the reader feels like a besieged straight man in a Marx Brothers movie.
What are [the "sportive essays" in "Chicken Inspector No. 23"] about? If, with a reviewer's version of Perelman tactics, we have delayed till now to answer, it is because content is the least of Perelman. He is not a real satirist. The most ordinary, even stereotyped targets will do; swimming-pool Hollywood, hard-sell Madison Avenue.
What sets him off is far less important than the fact that he and his zany sentences are spinning. He is not interested in suggesting that a particular part of the world is all crazy—that would be satire—but that all of the world is at least partly mad, which makes him a surrealist….
[He] survives, above all, because he deserves to. Old surrealists never die, they just hallucinate away—coming closer and closer to reporting all the time.
Melvin Maddocks, "The Cream Pie of the Jest," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1966 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), September 1, 1966, p. 11.
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What I predict now could really be put in the form of a nomination: that S. J. Perelman be declared a living national treasure. This would be a good time for it. He has a new book today ["Baby, It's Cold Inside"] and we need the treasure….
Mr. Perelman has always taken aim at the same target. His aim is perfect, but human folly of course is deathless. It just changes shape. (p. 1)
["Baby, It's Cold Inside"] has the brilliance we expect. If the insouciance of the early Perelman—"I had gone into a Corn Exchange bank to exchange some corn." "I have Bright's disease and he has mine"—is not as evident here, nobody could keep up that effervescence…. In its place is a mood very much of its times, and all the more telling in its effects.
Folly is perennial, but something has happened to parody. Life has caught up with it. When Mr. Perelman wrote the superbly hilarious pieces of the thirties and forties, our misuse of the language was in its own vintage years, or so it seems in retrospect. The misuse had its natural place in the movie dialogue, the advertising pages and the sentimental fiction of the day….
Now the misuse has proliferated and spread everywhere, and, to make it more menacing, it is taken seriously. Promoters of products, promoters of causes, promoters of self have a common language, though one with a small vocabulary….
The value of the word has declined. Parody is among the early casualties of this disaster, for it comes to be no longer recognizable apart from its subject. Parody makes its point by its precision and strictness in use of the word, probing to expose the distinction between the true and the false, the real and the synthetic. It's a demanding and exacting art, and there are few with the gift of penetration, and the temerity, let alone the wit and the style, to practice it. Right now, it's in danger of becoming a lost cause. The only writer I know who can save it is the author of this book. He stands alone. We already owe him a great deal for years of utter delight, but we own him even more now.
Not for nothing is the new book called "Baby, It's Cold Inside." Back of some of these pieces, and not very far, lies deep sadness, lies outrage. What an achievement Mr. S. J. Perelman makes today, that out of our own sadness and outrage we are brought, in these little leaves, to laugh at ourselves once more. (p. 25)
Eudora Welty, "S. J. Perelman Should Be Declared a Living National Treasure," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 30, 1970, pp. 1, 25.
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Perelman has every right to be a bit bushed by now, forty-one years and eighteen books after his debut, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, which crashed into public notice coincidentally with the stock market. Yet aside from the title, which he seems to have thought of in about five minutes while lying in a hammock, Baby, It's Cold Inside (remember that song?) shows the Bubba of Bucks County as alert to cliché, as pugnacious to pretense, as frenetic and fallible as ever….
The manic mixtures of levels of diction (a freshman sin, but Perelman's chief stylistic glory), the outrageous puns …, the poetic names (Charismé Ismay, President Butterfoss, Irene Nemesis), are as piquant as ever….
You don't hardly find writing like that any more, but the sad fact is that Perelman—or maybe his peculiar genre—is rather irrelevant and dated. A sense of strain, a clutching for effect does mark these pieces from the mainstream of recent humor, which tends to be cooler, more casual, less uptight, and above all, more public….
For all his up-to-date references and lapidary craftsmanship, even the newest Perelman reads like something you'd be happy to find in the time capsule buried at the 1939 World's Fair.
Richard Freedman, "Last of the Classy American Humorists," in Book World—Chicago Tribune (© 1970 Postrib Corp.; reprinted by permission of Chicago Tribune and The Washington Post), September 6, 1970, p. 9.
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S. J. Perelman, it turns out, left behind four chapters of an autobiography when he died in 1979. He planned to call it "The Hindsight Saga," a perelmaniacal spin off "The Forsythe Saga." These bits of memoir, published for the first time in "The Last Laugh," are the tailpiece to a collection of 17 of Perelman's comic sketches for The New Yorker. Even in its fragmentary state, "The Hindsight Saga" strikes me as the best thing Perelman ever wrote….
Perelman wrote steadily until the day he died at the age of 75, and from the beginning of his career to the end he was capable of being the funniest writer in America—over the quarter-horse distance of 1,500 words. Reading his little sketches, I grew used to hearing myself laugh out loud during the opening romp. Then, before I knew it, I would find my fingers rustling through the pages ahead to see how long it was going to be before he finished.
And why? For a start, the typical Perelman story is pure farce. He seldom pauses to develop his characters. For that matter, he doesn't even expect the reader to care about them. They, like the stories themselves, are but the stage for the big show: S. J. Perelman's virtuosity as a stylist. And a virtuoso he was. Yet his stylistic devices were neither wide-ranging nor profound.
His peculiar tone was a parody of the grandiloquence of the late 19th-century prose that high school and college students were steeped in during his youth. Even the best writers of the late Victorian era, such as Thomas Hardy and Henry James, seemed to regard circumlocution as a necessary mark of cultivation…. Not only S. J. Perelman, but also H. L. Mencken, Westbrook Pegler, James Branch Cabell, Malcolm Muggeridge, Joseph Hergesheimer, John P. Marquand and A. J. Liebling enjoyed sending up this antique style by inflating the circumlocutions until they burst with silliness and irony or else puncturing them with sudden insertions of slang. But only S. J. Perelman carried the joke to such extremes—or so far forward into the second half of the 20th century. (p. 1)
In "The Hindsight Saga" [Perelman's often astonishing linguistic stunts] are, at last, put in the service of real situations and real characters. True, most of the characters are idiots, but they are genuine idiots, nonetheless….
The theme of much of "The Hindsight Saga" is a familiar one in Hollywood memoirs: the sophisticated but needy artist from the East at the mercy of golden boors of the West….
Throughout, we learn next to nothing about S. J. Perelman himself. His "preoccupation with clichés, baroque language, and elegant variation," as he characterized it, like his preoccupation with English clothes and English manners, from Mayfair to Belgravia, created a screen through which neither readers nor casual acquaintances could get a very clear picture of the soul of S. J. Perelman. That screen remains intact in "The Hindsight Saga." Yet his picture of the world begins to take on definite edges and long shadows. For the first time, in my opinion, he truly becomes a satirist….
There are those who regard Perelman as one of American literature's perfect but limited talents. A corollary notion is that if you tamper with the limits, you also tamper with the perfection. All the same I, for one, would have liked to have seen El Sid make a warrior's heedless charge into realism. In these few pages of "The Hindsight Saga" we get some idea of the greater El Dorado he might have led us to. (p. 16)
Tom Wolfe, "The Exploits of El Sid," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), July 19, 1981, pp. 1, 16.
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Perelman was never restrained but always reticent. You might think his posthumous book, The Last Laugh, would break new ground, especially since it includes a few sketches from his proposed but incomplete autobiography.
Here, the avid Perelman reader might think, we shall get down to the nitty-gritty of life. But the sketches of Nathanael West, his brother-in-law, and of Dorothy Parker, whom he knew for years and years, are curiously impersonal and might have been written (as far as emotional intensity is concerned) by any interviewer from a newspaper who had spent an afternoon with them.
This does not mean his last book is inferior to his other work, not at all. It is more of the same. And that, in this age so prone to tedium in letters, is a gift worth having….
The question arises, with Perelman, why people can be found who quite dislike his work, but the answer (an instant's reflection shows) is of course apparent. Many readers are drudges, like mine donkeys. You hook the story to them and off they go, with ponderous steps and slow, dragging it behind them. They do not like, these readers, any surprises on the route. They do not like strange sounds, new commands, or any visitors from outer space, so of course they do not like Perelman.
He intimidates many by his vocabulary. Even literate folk will find about three words in every Perelman piece they do not know: 10, if he's into his deli or Yiddish mode. These words are invariably jewels, and Perelman is not one to settle for a single diamond when he's got a whole vaultfull.
The traditional Perelman pattern holds in his last book: he commences with some gripping sentence which almost immediately bifurcates then spawns reticulations so that by the second page you cannot remember, to save your soul, what the first two paragraphs were about.
Now, many resist this. They want to go on with the original topic and see it embroidered and developed as they chew over it after supper by the fireside…. It disconcerts them that by a series of somewhat graceless transitions Perelman proceeds from A to M to 347. He is a great one for mixed style, in which carefully heard conversation suddenly flowers into literate English then into bombast and euphuism, to say nothing of hyperbole.
It is the technic of poetry, in which deep springs not the trifling logic of the brain feed the supply, and all Perelman plots are deep-fed and deep-sprung.
He continued to the last to love a pun. Genuine admirers of good writing, without exception, love puns. Although persons who cannot work them properly sit disgruntled in their corners and fume about low wit.
You may wonder, when you have given due and enormous thanks for the work of Perelman, why so much of the sparkle is on the surface. That is chiefly because sparkle is a surface phenomenon, after all….
The voice you hear again and again in Perelman is the voice of—these insights tend to flash upon one at 2 in the morning, unbidden and surprisingly accurate—Petronius.
The same abrupt shifts of style, the same marvelous ear for conversation, the same accurate observation of pretense and sham. Only, in Perelman you are not going to be moved very deeply, and in Petronius you are.
But take him for what he is. Bright, ears-up, tail-wagging, sassy, unheroic, street-smart, involuted, suspicious, sophisticated, word-struck, irreverent, and a trifle timid, perhaps, of the hurly of life's burly.
The exact sort of writer who will never last much past his own time. How clever and how prudent we have been to have lived within it.
Henry Mitchell, "The Wizard of Wit," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1981, The Washington Post), August 2, 1981, p. 4.
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[Only] now, reading The Last Laugh, which appears a year and a half after Perelman's death, have I considered the real, concealed value of his work. Parents could do far worse than to leave The Most of S. J. Perelman lying around the house, because its author demonstrates that it is possible to be funny and write well at the same time, a lesson that is not to be taken lightly in an age when so much humor—whether in print, the movies, or on television—has segregated itself from the literary by its predictability and its graceless pandering to the easy guffaw…. Perelman's sentences, however ornamented or clogged with relative clauses, are as well tailored as were his Savile Row tweeds. His vocabulary is so large as to be fetishistic; it combines the arcane and idiomatic without the sesquipedalian. Even in his lesser pieces, which resemble private gardens overgrown with silly vegetation, the lines are always tended with a Flaubertian care. (p. 37)
Although the autobiographical excerpts [in The Last Laugh] are portraits rendered with typical Perelmanesque finesse … and metaphorical exactitude …, it is the fluttery but well-aimed knuckler, which only looks easy, that Perelman was born to throw. Perelman may have referred to himself as "a species of journalist," but his reportorial genius was for a world located more in his querulous imagination than anywhere else. Newspaper fillers, advertisements, and well wishers supplied him with the bulk of his pieces' comic germs, and The Last Laugh again shows what happens to them after incubating in a mind so fine that every idea violated it. Whether or not Perelman was a true satirist …, his work demonstrates the link between humor and venom; of the latter, he sometimes discharged so much, particularly where Hollywood was concerned, that one occasionally feels the target is being over-complimented.
I don't know whether it is a question of my advancing age, or his, but in The Last Laugh Perelman does seem to miss the strike zone more than usual. He is so adept at putting spin on clichés that when he doesn't … one feels that something has gone wrong. There are the usual contorted leads, connected to the body of his pieces by tenuous threads, that lend his tales the right offhand air, but he proves too often in his collection how baffled he was by endings. He makes too much of obscure references that only his contemporaries can appreciate. And then there are his women; he was never very good at rescuing them from hard-boiled stereotype. (pp. 37-8)
Despite his limitations (like magicians, humorists often seem merely to be keeping up the patter while preparing their various tricks), Perelman still brought to humor-writing a suppleness and color—brio was his term—beyond the reach of most contemporary writers…. Like Perelman, many humorists today derive their voices in part from commercial and bureaucratic idioms, but the product gives the impression of being assembled rather than written. Even Woody Allen relies on non sequitur … and bathetic aphorisms … whereas Perelman always strove to be funny in the context of narrative; that is, you feel with Perelman that even if the best "lines" were removed, you'd still enjoy the story. Of course, he can ramble on—to the extent that this is possible in 1,500 or 2,000 words—but where so much modern humor depends on the suppression of language, Perelman honored, at every turn, its flexibility. (p. 38)
R. D. Rosen, "Literate Wit," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1981 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 185, No. 3486, November 4, 1981, pp. 37-8.
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People who came to Perelman late commonly had difficulty understanding the zeal of earlier converts and, by chance, I could see why; I myself read his books in the wrong order and underwent the strange experience of being somewhat tired of him before I became a fan. A bit too mechanical, I thought of his later stuff.
To my mind almost all his best work is crammed into one volume—Crazy Like a Fox, first published in 1944 but spanning his oeuvre from 1931 to then. This was an awkward belief to hold during his later lifetime, because one didn't want to go about droning, "Don't read his latest." Yet it might have done his reputation a service, as it might many a slipped writer's, and it should certainly be said now….
[Perelman's] literal latest, The Last Laugh, should perhaps be read when you get round to it, but only in the glow of Crazy Like a Fox. There are several new pieces that could almost have been written by the same man—most notably one called "Scram you made the Pants too Short," in which he rounds on the Bloomsbury racket in his old oblique way….
The ingredients are familiar, especially the mustache-bristling fury, and the plot twists in which everything comes unstuck—setting, point of view, meaning itself—except the pants. Also, the phrasing is fresher and less contrived than in much of his later work….
In some of the lesser pieces, one senses the master shying away from a quaint phrase because he may have used it before, or something just like it. There are more flat lines in The Last Laugh than there used to be. Perelman's verbal resources were never near exhausted, but he had to dig for them now, instead of just tapping the ground.
Having formed this theory, I already find the books funnier than I did, but always in a reminiscent sense: they remind me of Perelman. Since Perelman's decline (if that's what it was, and not just a tired reader talking) was that American rarity, a decline not eased along by drink or megalomania—he avoided megalomania like the plague—one has to conclude that there was a limit built into the very thing he was doing, and that it was time to try something else.
Hence the autobiographical essays tacked onto the ending of The Last Laugh. These are too skimpy (forty-five pages) to tell us much, but what they do tell is not encouraging. Years of writing the Mock-Ornate had left him almost as ill at ease with the straight sentence as W. C. Fields…. Perelman's prose was distorted like a pitcher's elbow from unnatural use. (p. 36)
It's tough to tell where his memoirs would have gone had he lived. From the way he dawdled over them it seems possible that they wouldn't have gone anywhere. Of all the names that inhibited him, his own came first. He had used it so often as a comic device that he wasn't about to spill any serious beans about it. And writing about oneself was just one more vulgarity. So all we might have got is more leftover anecdotes—ones that he hadn't already teased into fictions. (p. 37)
Wilfrid Sheed, "No Need for Names," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1981 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. XXVIII, No. 17, November 5, 1981, pp. 36-7.
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[By the early 1930s Perelman] had found the mature style and the form (the five-page sketch) that he would never desert….
The style eventually proved somewhat inflexible, as the autobiographical material [in The Last Laugh] shows. He became incapable of dealing directly with his experience in writing. His travel pieces are almost entirely fiction: he moved around the world mainly on the tourist circuit, the journeys being as much a way of assuaging his chronic restlessness as of stirring his imagination…. The truth … is that Perelman couldn't abide chaos or discomfort; the calamities he could handle as a writer were imaginary ones, the comic mountains he dreamt up from serious molehills. Whenever he was questioned about some appalling experience recounted in a book or article, it turned out to have happened to someone else, or been invented….
Apart from the lucrative forays to Hollywood and the occasional, mostly unsuccessful, ventures on to Broadway, Perelman stuck to his last for fifty years, and in the process helped alter the face of comedy in the English-speaking world. Few people engaged in comic writing today would not acknowledge some debt to him—one thinks particularly of Woody Allen, Russell Baker and Art Buchwald in America, of Alan Coren, Tom Stoppard, Frank Muir and Dennis Norden in this country….
The Last Laugh is his eighteenth book, and like its predecessors is made up largely of previously published pieces, along with some fragments from the autobiography, The Hindsight Saga, which he had spoken about more often than he'd worked on. There are, as always, words one has never heard of or cannot exactly place—jabots, ichors, lamisters, coryphées. There is even a word that the editors of the Oxford English Dictionary appear unacquainted with…. The use of obscure words and the references to long-forgotten figures from cultural history were part of Perelman's stock-in-trade; it is unlikely that the practice would now be tolerated from anyone else….
Most of the pieces stand up well, and none better than "Scram! You Made the Pants Too Short", a characteristic squib that uses a reference to the shortness of E. M. Forster's trousers by Ms Glendinning in a TLS review of Lady Ottoline's Album, as point of departure for a heroic quest for the late novelist's pants that leads Perelman from King's College, Cambridge, to Kentish Town. The initial tone is waspish, and there is a querulousness running through the book, an anger directed at publishers, young cinéastes, would-be writers, nostalgists, anyone connected with the movie business and Hollywood, that belies the claims made by Paul Theroux in his introduction that Perelman was "a cheery soul" of equable disposition….
Nearly all the pieces start brilliantly, some of them peter out … and they are better taken twice a day after good meals than all together on an empty stomach.
Philip French, "The Comedy of Calamity," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1981; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 4108, December 25, 1981, p. 1500.