It should be said at the outset that Calvin Trillin and I have been friends for over thirty years. It should further be said that I once dedicated a book to him and his wife, Alice, and that he, somewhat more problematically, dedicated a book to me. Or to be more precise, included in his novel Floater—loosely based on our days together at Time—what he called a “Claimer” (as opposed to “Disclaimer”): “The character of Andy Wolferman is based on John Gregory Dunne, though it tends to flatter.” When I asked Mr. Trillin how his portrait of the pathological gossip Wolferman might in any way have been flattering, he said, “I made you Jewish.”
Since he left Time in 1963 to write, at the invitation of The New Yorker’s late editor William Shawn, about the integration of the University of Georgia (a three-part article that became his first book, An Education in Georgia), Mr. Trillin has been the quintessential New Yorker writer, the author of approximately three hundred bylined pieces, casuals, and stories, so many that neither he nor the magazine is able to come up with an exact count. For fifteen years, from the late 1960s to the early 1980s, he reported every three weeks on some aspect of the American scene, traveling to most of the country’s major cities and to rural venues and crossroads as diverse as Gees Bend, Alabama, New Glarus, Wisconsin, Mamou, Louisiana, Locke, California, Lander, Wyoming, and Biddeford, Maine.
Human interest has never been his game. “I wasn’t interested in doing what is sometimes called Americana—stories about people like the last fellow in Jasper County, Georgia, who can whittle worth a damn,” he wrote in the introduction to Killings, titled appropriately after sixteen murders he had written about over the years. “I didn’t want to do stories about typical or representative Americans…. I didn’t do stories that could be called ‘Boston at Three Hundred’ or ‘Is The New South Really New?”’
What did interest Mr. Trillin was what Edith Wharton called the underside of the social tapestry where the threads are knotted and the loose ends hang. His America is informed more by Sherwood Anderson than by Garrison Keillor; he is attracted to stories about people who behave if not exactly badly then certainly not well, with the result that many of his pieces, especially when they are read one after another (as in Killings), appear to be drawn from a deeply conservative reserve that seems at times almost melancholic. The prose is spare and unadorned, like a tree in late autumn stripped of its leaves; it is without ego—in his reporting the pronoun “I” almost never appears—and without tricks. Of course making it seem without tricks is the biggest trick of all.
His curiosity, like his wanderlust, is prodigious. Picking a jury in Brooklyn. A General Motors stockholders meeting in Detroit. A Yale-educated former philosophy professor turned private detective in California. A …