The First Laugh

That Old Gang O' Mine: The Early and Essential S.J. Perelman

edited by Richard Marschall
Morrow, 160 pp., $12.95

S.J. Perelman in his time moved more book reviewers to confess incontinence than any other author in the West. While not myself finding this appropriate as a measuring stick, I don’t mean to sneer. Indeed, I see now why Antony wanted to bury Caesar, but not to praise him. The task is awesome for reasons neatly captured by a friend of mine who said, when it looked as if I might actually meet the man, “Gee, not only does he know S.J. Perelman—he is S.J. Perelman.”

Just so, That Old Gang O’ Mine is one book that won’t be heretically compared to Perelman: it is Perelman. The book includes about a third of his postgraduate output between 1926 and 1931, both cartoons and writing, before he began publishing in The New Yorker, but there’s nothing quaint or dusty about it. It may well be Perelman in embryo, but that’s just the point: we get to see what the wild overgrowth of his youthful imagination looked like before he took up topiary work.

I once asked him if his parents thought he was funny, and he answered by saying that as a boy he’d come across a caption in a book of photographs—“The Herring Fleet at Wick”—that sent him into gales of laughter. When enough time had passed with no letup, Mrs. Perelman asked him to leave the house. His early work, he said, had had much the same effect on him, but as he got older it grew harder and harder to bust his own gussets. That Old Gang, in its high silliness, its gay and manic exuberance, is a hefty dose of what, in those pre-income-tax days, could still tickle him.

Michael Wood has said of Perelman’s grown-up work that it was criticism “in the special, literary sense which makes criticism a record of acts of reading.” In the period covered by That Old Gang, Perelman would appear to have been reading a great deal of the kind of trash about which he never complained and never apologized. Yet these short takes are, by and large, not really criticisms, since their point of departure is usually writing (Victorian “horsehair-sofa locutions,” as Richard Marschall says in his foreword) that is already too overblown to require attack. That Old Gang is like a book of exercises in which Perelman systematically overpaints the purple prose of an era until it comes out a flaming chartreuse.

One by one we tiptoed cautiously from the room, leaving Ives Bamberger alone to plight his throat with Velma Watkins. Somewhere in the glen the poignant sweetness of an avocado sounded high above the noice of the grackles. The skirling of the war-pipes was hashed; the spears of the Bamberger and Watkins clans had fallen before the bow of Cupid, the roguish God of Love.

Part of the workout involves trying on as many masks as possible. If the best actors are slightly androgynous (says Olivier), it doesn’t hurt humorists any either. Here Perelman…

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