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University turning point


The cover of S. J. Perelman's Crazy Like a Fox features a cartoonish depiction of a foxTowards the end of my first year at Melbourne University — a time of exquisite confusion and crippling diffidence for me as I flailed from one to another of the four subjects I was tackling — I was given a book by an older student whom I greatly admired. The only way I could see to climb the mountain of difficulties my studies seemed to present was to work harder and so, as examinations loomed, I stayed back each evening and worked late in the university library. It was after one of these stints, over a cup of the 'caf's' execrable coffee, that my friend gave me the book.

'Don't read it on the tram going home,' he said, 'you might embarrass yourself.'

But I had a long journey ahead and of course I opened it the moment I sat down in the draughty middle section of the nearly empty tram. The book was S. J. Perelman's Crazy Like a Fox and my generous friend was Bruce Dawe. And I did embarrass myself because, within a page or so, I was laughing out loud and attracting the attention of the few late night travellers as they clattered home through the windy dark. Someone buckling with mirth was probably the last thing they needed.

Crazy Like a Fox is a collection of Perelman pieces mostly from the New Yorker. I opened the slim volume at random and began reading 'The Idol's Eye' — 'Four of us had cycled down from London together: Gossip Gabrilowitsch, the Polish pianist; Downey Couch, the Irish tenor; Frank Falcovsky, the Jewish prowler; and myself, Clay Modeling.' They are visiting Gabriel Snubbers at his villa, 'The Acacias', the west wing of which burns down as they arrive. As Clay Modeling notes, Snubbers' eyes 'were set in deep rolls of fat for our arrival'.

After 'a spot of whisky and soda' — 'Littlejohn, Snubbers' butler, brought in a spot of whisky on a piece of paper which we all examined with interest' — they listen to the story of how Snubbers' great-grandfather left Poona and, 'living almost entirely on cameo brooches and the few ptarmigan that fell to the ptrigger of his pfowlingpiece' at last reached 'Ishpeming, the Holy City of the Surds and Cosines'.

A vast, laconically displayed literary range of reference, a restless imagination, an insatiably curious mind and an unerring eye for the phony, the kitsch and the pretentious are ingredients of Perelman's genius. He described himself as 'a writer of what the French call feuilletons — that is, a writer of little leaves ... comic essays of a particular type', but he was also a storyteller. He could lure a reader with the deceptively self-deprecating tone and frank admission of the memoirist.

His piece on pulp fiction 'Somewhere a Roscoe ...' begins, 'About two years ago I was moody, discontented, restless, almost a character in a Russian novel.' Then, picking up on the Russian novel reference, 'I used to lie on my bed for days drinking tea out of a glass (I was one of the first in this country to drink tea out of a glass; at that time fashionable people drank from their cupped hands).'

And then, the story: deciding he is stale and introspective, in need of 'new vistas', he acts decisively. 'I bustled about, threw some things into a bag — orange peel, apple cores and the like — and went out for a walk. A few minutes later I picked up from a park bench a tattered pulp magazine called Spicy Detective ... Talk about your turning points!'

Perelman has discovered the world of Dan Turner, lascivious detective, and his ever-ready roscoe, which spits its deadly bullets with a sharp 'Kachow' in 'Dark Star of Death', 'Brunette Bump-off', 'Find That Corpse' and other treasures, all of which he hilariously analyses.

In one of our late night talks, Bruce told me, 'If you're going to write, you have to write at least a hundred words every day.' He followed his own rule and produced No Fixed Address, his first volume of poetry, towards the end of that year. I reviewed it for a magazine called Prospect — my very first review. Another time Bruce gave me a venerable edition of Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, introducing me to a kind of poetry I'd never before encountered. It sits on my shelf still, its ageless epitaphs every now and then re-read for this or that purpose.

But my Perelman encounter on the East Brighton tram was for me Bruce's masterstroke. By the time I had laughed my way to the terminus and stepped down into the warm dark, I felt released somehow from the weight and vague gloom that I had assumed was part of the student life.

I haven't seen Bruce for years, but I remember with affection his long-ago mentorship, and I salute his tremendous poetic achievements and well-deserved honours. I still try to write 'a hundred words a day', and my battered copy of Crazy Like a Fox has survived half a century of culls.

Talk about your turning points.

Brian Matthews headshotBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, Bruce Dawe, S. J. Perelman



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Existing comments

A delicious snippet. How wonderful! Bruce Dawe did you a real favour.

Edward F | 10 October 2013  

When we drive from our house to Sydney, we pass through an incredibly beautiful place called Foxground. There's a crazy maze there and this Bruce Dawe poem reminds me of the place: From "Provincial City" - Climbing the range/your ears pop like champagne/and your heart distends/with something other than relief./You can smell the peace up here./The proportion, the narrowness.

Pam | 10 October 2013  

Brian, what a lovely gift for a Friday morning. Thank you.

alex nelson | 11 October 2013  

Thank you Brian for this article and for introducing me to Perelman back in 1958

jim evans | 14 October 2013  

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