ABE TRILLIN was not one for intimate talks. When he took his young son on long drives to the Kansas City produce market or the Golden Gloves amateur boxing tournament, the trips generally passed in silence. When the son, years later, phoned home from Yale, his mother did the talking while Abe confined himself to terse phrases - "Well, OK" - that signaled it was time to hang up. Even in his late 50s, near the end of his life, Abe avoided soul-baring conversations. "I went home regularly," the son, Calvin Trillin, writes in his new book, Messages From My Father, "but my father and I were still not in the habit of using our time together for heart-to-hearts."
All the same, Abe managed to get plenty across to his son, beginning with "the fact that he considered me a special case." In this loving, nostalgic and hilarious memoir, Trillin makes it clear that his father was a special case, too.
"Messages from My Father" first appeared in The New Yorker two years ago, where it reportedly drew more mail than anything else the prolific Trillin has written. No wonder. There are bits of Abe Trillin in everyone's father - everyone, at least, who has known a father's love, been molded by a father's dream, cracked up at a father's antics. It is a measure of Trillin's skill as an essayist that this slim volume is both a detailed portrait of one particular dad and a meditation on American fatherhood that comes close to being universal.
As his son recalls him, Abe Trillin was scrupulously honest and extremely hard-working; he was also mulishly stubborn and given to certain mad theories. He was convinced, for example, that good teeth in a woman are the key to a happy marriage. That movies are inherently superior to plays. That coffee -- which he never once drank - tastes the same with or without milk. That all butchers are insane. (Asked once about a butcher who seemed perfectly normal, he replied: "It just hasn't shown up yet.")
He decided, at some point, that he would wear only yellow ties. The way to stand out from the crowd, he told his son, was to adopt a signature; yellow neckties would be his. "It struck me as a pretty dumb idea -- actually, somewhere between dumb and embarrassing," Trillin remarks. "What was so great about having someone say, 'Oh, yes, Abe Trillin -- the guy with the yellow ties'? "
But he was also the guy with classic American ideals. Abe was an immigrant - the Trilinskys left Russia when he was 2 - and like a lot of immigrants, he worked hard at being American. His son, growing up in Kansas City with neighbors who talked like Harry Truman and had pet dogs named Buck and Spike, always "took it for granted that we were as American as anyone else." His father never did. Abe changed his name to Trillin because it sounded more American, made his son join the Boy Scouts because "American boys were Boy Scouts," took his family on car trips across the country because that's how Americans went on vacation.
Those vacations, and his father's resolute Americanism, left their imprint. Years afterward, Trillin was to earn his living as a roving correspondent for The New Yorker, filing "a 3,000-word piece from somewhere in the United States every three weeks." That, he knew, would have pleased his father. "What more appropriate beat could a real American have?"
In Remembering Denny, his haunting elegy on a once dazzlingly popular Yale classmate who committed suicide in 1991, Trillin mused on his father's determination to send him to Yale. In an era when college was out of the question for most young men - let alone most young men whose fathers were Jewish immigrant Midwestern grocers -- Abe started saving up the tuition before his son was born. "It was a first-generation American dream of surpassing corniness," Trillin wrote, "and I don't think it ever occurred to my father that it might not work out." He adds in "Messages from My Father" that while he was grateful for his father's aspirations, he never shared Abe's view that the purpose of attending Yale was to become successful. It was, he thought obvious, to become educated.
Then, one day, 15 years out of college, it suddenly hit Trillin that almost all the successful writers he knew had "been to the same sort of colleges that I had been to." Was there a connection?
"I put my own work history into reverse, and realized that it had flowed naturally from a summer job at Time. And what had led to the summer job? The Yale Daily News. For the first time, I realized that my father's vision of how all of this was supposed to work out might not have been as simplistic as I had always assumed. 'My God!' I said to Alice on the way home that night. 'Could he have been right?' "
What grown son hasn't, at some point, been jolted by the same thought?
Messages From My Father is affecting and affectionate, a book for sons and for the fathers of sons. It is also a reminder that there is no statute of limitations on a parent's power to teach. Nearly 30 years after Abe Trillin's death, his son still remembers the condolence calls following the funeral. "A lot of the men who came to our house during those days came up to me before they left," he writes, "and asked if they could have one of my father's yellow ties to remember him by."
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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