Calvin Trillin discussed his new book About Alice on January 31, although the book is almost identical to a magazine article published in The New Yorker last March. I read both and didn’t immediately detect any of the differences in the book. It is probably the most moving piece of short nonfiction I’ve read, and dealt honestly and cleanly with a subject that could easily have descended in sentimentality, and would have in lesser hands but never did in his. The large crowd came because of that, and when I say large I mean it: I arrived just before Trillin started speaking and had to wedge myself between some bookcases toward the back of the reading area at the University Book Store.
Instead of jumping right into About Alice, Trillin first read some other pieces where she played a starring role; before he discussed Alice as she passed he discussed Alice as she lived, but the questions focused on his new book. I started. In About Alice, Trillin says that he met Alice when she was engaged—well, apparently just a few weeks from being married—so I asked if he’d still knew the guy or if he knew whether the guy’s reaction to About Alice. His answer—all one word of it—made the crowd crack up: “No.” But the crowd was already in a good mood, and I wonder how many standup comedians have so appreciative a group.
Some of their goodwill must have come from the way Trillin mixed genuine feeling with humor, since the latter is so often bound up with cynicism or cruel irony. Hearing something different is startling, and from About Alice and other books one can hear and feel how Trillin feels about Alice. I could even hear it in his discussion, and this is a greater accomplishment than it seems because Trillin talks almost in a monotone and relies primarily on words for his delivery.
A few people asked questions that seemed like they were out of advice columns lite; one woman asked about whether Trillin found closure and the like, as though his writing is just a version of therapy, while another asked how Trillin “transubstantiates” everyday experience into writing. In other words, he was asking how to be funny. Trillin was patient with them, as I guess authors have to be, though he did seem to poke a little bit and gently at some questions—after all, he makes humor out of life. It was very much worth hearing him—even if it meant being stuck between bookcases.