"When nonsense is good, it is divine," E. B. White observed years ago. "Nonsense that doesn't quite come off is the dreariest stuff in the world."
Some of the most inspired nonsense of the day, White said, was being written by S. J. Perelman. Clifton Fadiman also observed years ago that he "scorns wet hens because he is so much madder than they are. . . . Perelman is very, very funny but he is not so funny as to obscure the fact that he is also an extraordinary prose writer."
Sidney Joseph Perelman, who died in 1979 at age 75, probably inspired more young writers to unavailing imitation than any humorist since Robert Benchley. His vocabulary and his range of allusion represented a kind of effortless ransacking of dictionaries domestic and foreign, embellished by an evidently total recall of the lesser offerings of stage, screen and radio for decades, and further adorned by his own life experiences from Providence, R.I., to darkest London and the inns and outbacks of all the world.
His character names make a wondrous litany: Prof. Henri Manatee-Dugong, a French doctor; Harry Hubris, a producer at Fox; Rob Roy Fruitwell, an actor; Irving Stonehenge, a novelist; Diego Satchel, a Mexican muralist; and Velveeta, a tall, flamboyant divorcee he met when their dogs flirted at obedience class.
Penguin has now reprinted three of his collections. "The Swiss Family Perelman" (1950) is a series of travel pieces, fantastic embroideries upon a nine-month, 25,000-mile around-the-world he took, with his family, for Ted Patrick of Holiday Magazine. The small exasperations of touring are fed into Perelman's marvelous mental multiplier and emerge as bizarre, three-ring catastrophes. Al Hirschfeld's ornate representations have their own matchless curvilinear charm.
"The Rising Gorge" (1961) has several of Perelman's free-standing pieces from The New Yorker, his earliest and most frequent venue, and some more travel items: a series of explorations in Africa ("Dr. Perelman, I Presume") and visits to Florida and California ("Go Now, Splendid Wayfarer").
For all wild and winging hyperbole, Perelman still puts you in the picture. His evocations of weather, architecture and social atmosphere are sometimes captured in a fun house mirror, but you know what you're looking at.
A flossy Bel-Air hotel has a pool "blue as an auctioneer's jowl" and the whole place, "narcotized by the remorseless sun," has "an immense, weedy lethargy, reminiscent of a bankrupt miniature golf course."
Nonsense that is about nothing is what is finally tedious, even if it is cleverly written, which it usually isn't. But the enduring amusement of Perelman's work is that the exquisite word-play almost invariably has an object in view, something requiring only a slight, deft push to reveal its intrinsic absurdity, like the urge to travel in the grand style, cushioned against contact with the realities you have come to investigate.
"Baby, It's Cold Inside" (1970) contains an assortment of pieces from the '60s, and the tone, I think, grows sharper. The comic mask conceals less well the angry man behind it. The tone is still a brilliantly ornamented exaggerated scorn, yet the face and figure of Sid Perelman are easier to discern, rapier in hand, but a hint of melancholy in the eyes.
This may be to an extent the reader's reading-in. Some of Perelman's private griefs had made the newspapers. He re-settled, alone, in the London he had loved. But as love affairs will, it went flat. He returned to New York, writing with the old brilliance but not, I used to feel, with the same extravangant joy.
Perelman's friend Max Wilk last year published a small, affectionate memoir about him, "And Did You Once See Sidney Plain?" (Norton), and it contains some affecting quotes from Perelman.
"I regard my comic writing as serious," he said. "I don't believe in the importance of scale; to me the muralist is no more valid than the miniature painter. In this very large country, where size is all and where Thomas Wolfe outranks Robert Benchley, I am content to stitch away at my embroidery hoop."
There are fine writers of humor among us, but none, as I feel these collections confirm, is yet the master of language that Perelman was.