Cyril Connolly once observed that even P.G. Wodehouse might have profited from being told which of his books was better than which. But nobody wants to review a humorist. Such notices as the funnymen get are generally either facetious, because the reviewer dreads seeming pompous, or vaguely eulogistic. “Another whatnot by the inimitable…need one say more?”
Whether criticism ever really helps anybody, it can, by its sheer mass, make a writer seem impressive, like stuffing in a dress shirt. So it is sobering to realize that a writer of the late S.J. Perelman’s eminence probably went through life without any serious criticism at all, unless I’ve missed something in German.
Perhaps it just can’t be done. Humor may simply be the Great Unexplainable—to be judged precisely for its quotient of unexplainability. A bad joke can be taken apart and put together again like a watch, until you learn the trick and can open your own watch factory. But the parts of a good joke tell you nothing. Take Perelman. “Ever since the days of Buffon the naturalist,” he writes, “it has gone without saying that the first thing you do on seeing a buffalo is shout and wave your arms and hat. But this isn’t good enough for a certain pig in Wapping Old Stairs. No need to mention names.” And so into one of his incalculable flights. There is no danger of Henny Youngman stealing this kind of thing, or learning from it. (Looking up the exact lines, I find that I have actually run two quotes together; Perelman’s tonal effects can drift in memory into arresting new patterns. Youngman’s probably cannot.)
The unexplainability factor may be the best we can do with Perelman right now. Anyway it’s a start. People who came to Perelman late commonly had difficulty understanding the zeal of earlier converts and, by chance, I could see why; I myself read his books in the wrong order and underwent the strange experience of being somewhat tired of him before I became a fan. A bit too mechanical, I thought of his later stuff.
To my mind almost all his best work is crammed into one volume—Crazy Like a Fox, first published in 1944 but spanning his oeuvre from 1931 to then. This was an awkward belief to hold during his later lifetime, because one didn’t want to go about droning, “Don’t read his latest.” Yet it might have done his reputation a service, as it might many a slipped writer’s, and it should certainly be said now.
Humorists are prisoners of their period, and when that runs down they tend to run down with it. Vulgarity was preeminently Perelman’s subject, and the Thirties hold a special place in the history of that substance; not that vulgarity hadn’t been around forever, bless it, but it had never seemed so unavoidable and so charmless. Mass-produced by semiliterates in the mills …