A Review of Crazy Like a Fox and Cloudland Revisited

A Review of Crazy Like a Fox and Cloudland Revisited

Daniel Elkind
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I could have sworn that the humorist S. J. Perelman was one of those Saul Bellow protagonists who came from Russia or Poland on a boat and took New York City by storm using the strength of his wit alone. But as it turns out, Sidney Joseph—not Seymour Joshua, as I had imagined—Perelman was born in 1904, in Brooklyn, New York, and made it big on both coasts by never saying “New York City” when “the Big Apple” was up for grabs. He was the kind of writer who thought nothing of setting a bit in an immigrant butcher shop where what’s butchered (get it?) is the English language, or titling a story “Psst, Partner, Your Peristalsis Is Showing.”

Two new Library of America editions of Perelmania, Crazy Like a Fox and Cloudland Revisited, aim to introduce the humorist and his zany shtick to a new generation of readers. Though he pokes fun at publications, especially the obscure and overspecialized ones, many of the pieces collected here were originally published in magazines only slightly less parochial in their tastes than Oral Hygiene.

Here’s a not-atypical example, from “Beauty and the Bee”: “Both the Corset and Underwear Review and the American Bee Journal are concerned with honeys; although I am beast enough to prefer a photograph of a succulent nymph in satin Lastex Girdleiere with Thrill Plus Bra to the most dramatic snapshot of an apiary, each has its place in my scheme.”

If this frenetic Yankee style was promoted to demonstrate that Americans were, unlike their godless Soviet counterparts, true individuals—a special “overseas” edition of Crazy Like a Fox was published for American soldiers in 1944—it likewise demonstrated precisely the opposite, laying bare the air-conditioned nightmare of a consumer society where Lastex Girdleieres and Thrill Plus Bras seemed to enjoy a more real existence than the average Perelman.

I confess that I’ve always been brand-shy and am loath to drop trademarks; even writing the words “He entered a Chick-fil-A” at one time required me to gird my loins. But Mr. Perelman never seems to experience any qualms on this front, and he embraces the commercial swarm rather unsqueamishly. Though you’ll come across terms like beldam, cacoëthes, objurgation, and coryphée in these pages, Perelman was equally fluent in the stilted argot of comic books and hardboiled gumshoe-ese, embracing the full spectrum of what Adam Gopnik labels “American vulgarity.” Words beget words, syllepsis begets syllepsis: the Julian calendar turns into an old acquaintance named Julian Callender, the evening’s violet hush turns into a seductive companion named (what else?) Violet Hush, and walking past rows of female film extras turns into a stroll down Mammary Lane.

The other register on display here can be summarized only as erudite kvetching—a dry, collegiate sense of humor, perpetually put-upon, that reminded me of the kinds of conversations no doubt occurring around this time in the more polite parts of suburban St. Louis. It’s a less hip forerunner of the improbable style Woody Allen came up with in New Yorker pieces like “The Whore of Mensa.” Recalling his youthful adventures in pulp fiction—from tales like The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu to silent films like the Lillian Gish picture Way Down East—Perelman manages, in his Cloudland columns, to evoke the heady formative years of an artist’s life, with all its strange joys and intimacies intact.

To re-read Perelman is to return emphatically to another time: a time when magazines had money to spend on writers, when readers were well read, or at least read widely, and humor writing was an occupation that could support a family of four.

The jokes may be cheap, but at least the humorist usually gets the last laugh. “There is practically no problem so simple,” Perelman writes, “that it cannot confuse a dentist.”

Publisher: Library of America Page count: 312 (Crazy Like a Fox); 250 (Cloudland Revisited) Price: $15.95 Key quote: “You may be a bore to your own family, but you’re worth your weight in piastres to the picture business.” Shelve next to: Groucho Marx, Jean Shepherd, Mickey Spillane Unscientifically calculated reading time: Two crowns, three cavities, or one very long root canal

Daniel Elkind
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