If You Can’t Say Something Nice

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Calvin Trillin knows that there is nothing consistent about the world in which he lives--least of all about himself--so he refuses to take anything at face value. Should people trust the calorie count of food labels? His wife--often used as a “straight man"--assures Trillin that the caloric content of these foods has been been arrived at scientifically. He suggests, however, that it would be a “liberating possibility” if a scoop of low-fat cottage cheese were in fact equal in calories to “a four-ounce Italian sausage on a roll with fried onions and peppers, plus a couple of cans of beer.” So much seems bogus in contemporary society that perhaps these calorie counts are made up by “a couple of ex-vaudeville hoofers with a one-room office in Buffalo,” Trillin tells his wife. At any rate, he thinks that it is more scientific not to accept the claims made by companies, politicians, and other organizations that manipulate public opinion.

Whether Trillin is making fun of President Ronald Reagan, the seriousness of friends such as “Harold the Committed,” the avant-garde in his Greenwich Village neighborhood, Wall Street, or whatever else catches his fancy, he is amusingly adamant about not accepting the significance others read into things. Small doses of Trillin make the best reading. His whimsy can become wearing and his one-liners either provoke instant hilarity or fall flat.