The Bard of Bucks County

I wonder how many of you have ever read any S. J. Perelman, or even know the name. In his heyday he was pretty much a household world, at least in New York and Hollywood, but fewer and fewer people that I mention him to even seem to know who he was.

Sidney Joseph Perelman, who was born in 1904 and died in 1979, was a humorist and screenwriter, who was perhaps best known as a regular contributor to The New Yorker. He also co-wrote the screenplays for the Marx Brothers films Monkey Business and Horsefeathers, and the film Around the World in Eighty Days, which won an Academy Award.

Perelman’s forte was the comic short story, and in my opinion he was the best ever at this delightful form. His great gift was his astonishing virtuosity of language. He had an immense vocabulary, and no other writer (save Wodehouse) could touch him for playful sophistication. Often the seed of his stories would be some found object – a newspaper headline or snip of text from a magazine – and from that he would confect an imaginary back-story a few pages long; just a perfect little bon-bon to lighten one’s weary lot. He was an enormous influence on Woody Allen, whose humorous writings are simply tributes to Perelman’s incomparable body of work.

I particularly enjoy the paragraphs that open his stories. Some samples below:

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“Please don’t give it another thought!” I shouted at my vis-à-vis over the uproar of the cocktail party. “It’s perfectly all right!”

“I can’t hear you!” she shouted back, her nose wrinkling in frustration. “What did you say?” She was an angular hyper-thyroid in green herringbone, with a fur piece slung across her jib, and we stood glued to one another amid the crush like lovers in an Indian erotic sculpture, but without the intimacy. My left sleeve, down which she had just emptied two-thirds of her highball, was waterlogged, and a fearful premonition gripped me that I might spend eternity bonded to this afreet unless some miracle intervened. Providentially, it did; somewhere in the hurly-burly a drunk sagged to the floor, the axis of the party shifted, and I found myself confronting Stanley Prang.

– from A Soft Answer Turneth Away Royalties

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Had you been a turkey buzzard lazily circling over Tinicum Township in eastern Bucks County last Friday – a possibility, by the way, that shouldn’t be excluded until you can establish proof to the contrary – you might have observed beneath your talons the prelude to a dramatic event that occurred later that morning. A portly householder whose nose resembled an exploded boysenberry was engaged in clearing away the snow piled against the entrance of his stone dwelling, his pulses throbbing in the dry, frosty air like the royal Watusi drums. One two, one two, the shovel flew in a great flashing arc at the behest of arms that put toothpicks to shame. At the count of six he straightened up, exhaled, and, carefully placing the shovel behind a syringa bush where it would be available for the spring planting, went into the house.

I mention this because, in a roundabout way, it gives an insight into the dark intricacies of the feminine mind. Hardly had I scuffed the snow from my boots, brewed a milk punch, and curled up before the fire with Palgrave’s Golden Treasury, concealed within it a photomontage of Balinese maidens hulling rice, when my wife entered. Before I could wipe the steam from my bifocals, she had launched into a philippic worthy of Cicero or Senator Dirksen.
…”Goodness, my dear Xanthippe, you look upset,” I said. “Whatever is the matter – or is it only the ravages of time?”

– from Samson Shorn, or the Slave of Love

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