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Jack Smith

Civilization may be in decline, but at least the art of writing biting essays rests in the hands of an A-plus fellow

March 24, 1987|Jack Smith

Burt Prelutsky is a television writer. You have probably seen some of his shows, but you wouldn't have noticed his name in the credits, any more than you would have noticed that "War and Peace" was based on a novel by Leo Tolstoy.

Prelutsky is also an essayist. His essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The Times.

His themes are the decline of civilization, the injustices of life, the superiority of women, the frustrations of being Prelutsky and the oppression of the common man by government, sex, novelists, mothers and science.

Prelutsky's style reminds me of the galvanizing wordplay of the late S. J. Perelman, and it reflects his conviction that the world is absurd. You have to have a strong will to resist or you'll die laughing.

Now he has published a book of his work, "Civilization and Welcome to It" (Capra Press, Santa Barbara), in which he rides off in all directions, sparing none of his demons.

At the outset he says he didn't start out to be a columnist or an essayist. " That perverse I'm not," he says, summing up our common profession. "I mean, does anyone really set out to be inconsequential. . . ?"

He says, "Nobody is more surprised than I that this, my first book, isn't a 900-page novel in the great Russian tradition. . . . But let's face it, if I were the second coming of Dostoevsky, you wouldn't be reading this. . . . It's just the way things are. Dostoevsky had his century, I have mine. . . ."

Prelutsky learned something about literary integrity in the fifth grade when a teacher gave him an A-plus for an essay on the movie "Grapes of Wrath" but refused to enter the grade until he had cut out the word pregnant and substituted "in the family way."

His mother pressured him into obeying. He did. "I got my A, OK; but, like Hester Prynne's, it was scarlet and shameful."

That taught Prelutsky who he was and what he wanted to be. "A-plusses, I discovered at that early age, are cheap; principles are dear. It is the last time as a writer or as a person that I have ever consciously betrayed my own beliefs."

I'm ready to believe that none of Prelutsky's beliefs are betrayed in "Civilization and Welcome to It."

Prelutsky is a cynic and a skeptic, much as I am, though he has more courage in his convictions. He tends not to believe things most people do believe.

"I don't believe a human being has ever walked on the moon. I've seen the pictures, but pictures can be doctored. Sure, they say it's the moon, but it could just as easily be Death Valley or Bakersfield, and who'd be the wiser?"

I suspect that Prelutsky is just practicing here. Working out. He knows that men walked on the moon just as well as you do, but he's letting us know that he isn't easily taken in. Either that or he's just taking a crack at Bakersfield.

He believes most men's devotion to sports comes from their own failure as kids. "I'm dead certain all male neuroses can be traced to a childhood incident when the individual struck out, fumbled, dropped a pass, or missed a free throw."

Showing how far he can go in perversity, Prelutsky argues that most criticism of TV is hypocritical. "What really astonishes me is that folks go on about TV as if there were some mystical level of perfection that the medium, almost out of spite, has failed to achieve. . . . The question we don't seem to ask is how it is that TV is supposed to be so perfect, but we're not supposed to be. . . ."

Prelutsky deplores the notion that bigger is better, or best. "It should be obvious that the only chance the Earth has of accommodating an ever-increasing number of inhabitants would be if those people came in ever-diminishing dimensions. . . .

"The absurd idea that biggest is best not only is destroying the planet, it's mucking up something really important; namely, basketball. There was a time when basketball was a game of skill and grace and guile. But thanks to the coming of the giants, it has become just another contact sport. It's football played in underwear."

Prelutsky even has his doubts about the assertions of scientists, whom we believe, he says, just because they are scientists.

"I'm not claiming that all scientists are working a colossal con game on the rest of us; I'm only suggesting that if Einstein were half the pixie he appeared to be, the theory of relativity could well be an egghead's idea of a practical joke. And we'd never be the wiser."

Prelutsky has a point. I myself have read numerous explanations, written clearly for the layman, of Einstein's theories, and I still have no idea what he meant by relativity or the fourth dimension. I have to take it on faith, which is pretty much how a Christian takes the Apocalypse.

Just the other day I read in the paper that we are being bombarded by diamonds so tiny that trillions can lie on the head of a pin. Do you believe that?

On the other hand, those guys who said they walked on the moon brought home some funny rocks, didn't they?

And if Einstein's little equation about mass and energy was right on the mark, more's the pity.

But if there's one person in the world who isn't insane, it's Prelutsky.

His book may not be A-plus, but it's the truth, on Prelutsky's honor.

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