In Memoriam

Even when she is reminiscing about pleasant times in the past, Joan Didion’s focus in “The Year of Magical Thinking” is the rip of grief and loss, portrayed as she does with such dramatic eloquence, against the subtext of the suddenness in which life can change so irrevocably. Not long after John Gregory Dunne, her husband of 40 years, had died of a heart attack as she was preparing their dinner, a man she describes in “The Year” as a friend arrives at her apartment, bearing a container of soup. She mentions the friend with affection as one who came to offer support against the shattering loss.

Later, during a television interview, Didion identified the friend as Calvin Trillin (1935-), a journalist, humorist, and novelist. Trillin knew a thing or two about loss himself; his wife Alice, died in 2001, ending a marriage nearly as long and certainly as devoted as Didion’s with Dunne. Alice Trillin died waiting for a heart transplant, her heart of birth having been exhausted from radiation and chemotherapy used to fight off earlier bouts of lung cancer.

I can already detect the signs of you, looking for an exit. Two wrenching deaths in two paragraphs. Why not a threefer? What about John Bayley’s eulogy to his wife, Iris Murdoch? A prolific novelist, Murdoch began to complain of a pesky writer's block. More like Alzheimer’s, of which she died in 1999.

Didion’s work, although more a textbook of grief and how to deal with it, is by all accounts a memoir. No question about Bayley’s “Elegy for Iris”; the title tells it all, presenting those of us who know Iris Murdoch only through her novels and the occasional critical piece on the range of her artistic investigations with a sense of her as witnessed through Bayley’s reconstruction of portions of their life together. The very least we can call “About Alice” is a graceful memoir. The remarkable thing about all three books is the way each author has moved beyond the merest hint of self-pity, into the realm of the evocation of the subject at hand.

Trillin, an accomplished writer whose work invariably seems simpler than it is, learned well one of the basic tricks of humor – the buddy system. At least as far back as Aristophanes’s play “The Frogs,” writers understood the range of fun, mischief, and support available from having a stooge, second banana, or amanuensis on hand to provide or provoke humorous undercurrents. In some of Trillin’s most widely read commentary, his foods-eating adventure chronicles extending throughout America, Alice became his go-to person. For perspective, consider Alice a bright, guileless, straightforward Gracie Allen. Bringing Alice into a number of his food and eating pieces, Trillin had found the exact chemistry of narrative edge to make his copy sing.

Alice had put her time in as a copy editor and a content editor, one of many reasons why Trillin grew into the habit of showing her early drafts of everything he wrote. A number of his many books bear the acknowledgment of having been written for Alice. Soon another unspoken aspect of narrative technique reared its highly personalized head. Everything Trillin wrote, whether for books, for his staff job at The New Yorker, or for the more overtly political of his writings for his old friend, Victor Navasky, of The Nation, was consciously or not written for Alice.

A lovely digression offers itself here (“When you come to a fork in the road – take it,” said Yogi Berra). Much if not all of Pat Conroy’s early and middle work was written at or against his late father, so ably represented as the hot-shot jet fighter pilot in “The Great Santini.” When Conroy’s father died, so in effect did Conroy’s career. He literally had no one to write at or against. Instead, Conroy began having lively, intimate conversations with bottles and bad luck with subsequent narratives. Until. Until he fell into reminiscences in which he could reprise his father, reconnecting with the equation of Pat Conroy as Ahab, his father as the great white whale. Check out Conroy’s “return” to writing with “My Losing Season,” nonfiction, featuring Conroy’s time as a college basketball player and the reactions to his miserable performance, not by his coach but by Conroy, Sr.

Now the digression pays off, two-fold. Writers frequently write to someone, as Calvin Trillin did to Alice. Just as frequently, writers write at someone, as Conroy does to Conroy, Sr. The poignant thing to observe all through “About Alice” is the way Trillin still writes to Alice, as though the very special presence of her is watching over his shoulder.

“About Alice” first appeared in shorter form in The New Yorker, bringing forth an avalanche of positive comments from readers, causing one to reveal that she had given a copy to her boyfriend, wondering, “will he [the boyfriend] love me like Calvin loves Alice?”

It is a no-brainer to do a take-off on Heraclitus (575-435 BC) and his argument about the constant movement of things – everything is in flux; change is real, stability is illusion – the famous “No one can wade in the same river twice.” Our modern version: No two readers see exactly the same book. Indeed, although most reviews of “Alice” are unstinting in their admiration, they all appear to be praising a different book, which speaks to the evocative quality both of Trillin’s descriptions of his time with Alice and of his overall narrative tone. He began writing, he tells us, “not sure whether I understood what the book was about.”

Calvin Trillin’s observation neatly places him in the now lonely gloom of the apartment Joan Didion shared with John Gregory Dunne, a good friend bringing a gift of comfort food and the sense of a human presence to momentarily fill in a wrenching gap as Didion began to sort out remembered events to make sense of them – for herself and for us.

Clearly, Calvin Trillin still loves Alice.

Clearly, what he has written is, even though he did not plan to at the outset, a description of a splendid marriage.

Alice Trillin lived long enough to see both her daughters married to husbands she considered good for the long haul. Calvin Trillin wrote: “I know what Alice, the incorrigible and ridiculous optimist, would have said about a deal that allowed her to see her girls grow up: ‘Twenty-five years! [the amount of time she had left after being first diagnosed, then treated for aggressive lung cancer] ‘I’m so lucky!’ I try to think of it in those terms, too. Some days I can and some days I can’t.”

Each of the chapters of this short, remarkable text, begins with an epigram about Alice, taken from one of Trillin’s earlier books. Through these words – the epigrams and related narrative that follows – a door opens, allowing you a glimpse of something special.