S. J. Perelman: Writings (slipcased edition)
One of the most original stylists in American literature—and one of the funniest—Sidney Joseph Perelman wrote gags for the Marx Brothers, won an Oscar for screenwriting, and wrote or collaborated on five Broadway plays. But nowhere is his zany and pyrotechnic humor more hilariously on display than in the one-of-a-kind sketches and satires (Perelman called them feuilletons) he wrote for The New Yorker and other magazines. Their “great subject is singular and simply defined,” writes editor Adam Gopnik in his introduction to this volume: “American vulgarity, flowing up and down like waves of electricity through a cat in a cartoon, exposing its innards even as it shocks our sensibilities.”
Gopnik presents here the best of them—parodies, social satires, autobiographical pieces, and a selection from the celebrated “Cloudland Revisited” series, in which Perelman reminisces about books and movies encountered in youth and describes the rude shock of revisiting them as an adult. In the early, Joycean piece called “Scenario,” Perelman offers a surrealistic take on a Hollywood pitch meeting—a collage of on- and off-screen clichés, show biz argot, and popular slang that rolls on in one continuous paragraph. In “Farewell, My Lovely Appetizer,” he sends up the hardboiled detective fiction of Raymond Chandler: “I kicked open the bottom drawer of her desk, let two inches of rye trickle down my craw, kissed Birdie square on her lush, red mouth, and set fire to a cigarette.” “No Starch in My Dhoti, S’il Vous Plaît” imagines an exchange of letters between Jawaharlal Nehru’s increasingly irate father and a snooty Parisian launderer over a pair of damaged drawers.
Also included in this volume is Perelman’s most sustained piece of writing, his two-act comedy, The Beauty Part, which opened on December 26, 1962, at New York’s Music Box Theatre and closed shortly afterward, the casualty of an unfortunately timed newspaper strike. The idea for this outrageous spoof about money, art, and the ubiquitous desire for self-expression, Perelman was fond of saying, came to him one day when he was riding the elevator of Manhattan’s Sutton Hotel: the operator stopped the car between floors and announced, “I’m having trouble with my second act.”
Rounding out the volume are profiles of the Marx Brothers, Dorothy Parker, and his brother-in-law Nathanael West from the unfinished autobiography, “The Hindsight Saga,” and a selection of letters written to correspondents such as Edmund Wilson, Groucho Marx, and Paul Theroux.
Adam Gopnik is a staff writer at The New Yorker; he has written for the magazine since 1986. He has three National Magazine awards for essays and for criticism and a George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. In 2013, Gopnik was awarded the medal of Chevalier of the Order of Arts and Letters, and in 2021 was made an Officer of the Légion d’Honneur. The author of numerous best-selling books, including Paris to the Moon, he lives in New York City.
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