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The Burden of Promise: REMEMBERING DENNY: By Calvin Trillin (Farrar Straus & Giroux: $19; 210 pp.)

April 04, 1993|RICHARD EDER

At the 1991 memorial service in the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies, some were there for the professor they knew as Roger D. Hansen. Others were there for the man they knew as Denny.

The Roger people--Hansen's colleagues--recalled a tense, solitary figure who suffered from back pain, was prickly and intransigent, and had published a good book on economic development 20 years earlier but no longer wrote much. Despite an unusual mind, he had turned out something of a professional disappointment. He had, furthermore, committed suicide.

The Denny people had a different image. They remembered a golden youth they knew at Yale in the 1950s and in Washington for a few years afterward. He had been an athlete, a brilliant student, a member of Scroll and Keys--the secret society which, like its Skull and Bones rival, is restricted to 15 top seniors--and a Rhodes Scholar. Endowed with warmth and charm, he was the student selected by Life magazine for a graduation profile meant to celebrate Yale's role in forming the nation's leaders. His friends, top Yalies themselves, told each other he was sure to be President.

What became of all the gold? It was the question that the Denny people asked each other at the service, and at a reunion afterward. It is the question around which Calvin Trillin organizes the fluid and sensitive explorations of his "Remembering Denny."

In part, he sounds a traditional theme: the petering out of youthful promise. He touches on the nature of the '50s generation and its oddly passive expectations of inheritance. He touches on the generational skip that hopped over these expectations--we went right from Bush to Clinton--and, more elusively, on the images and implications of American success.

Touches on is the key. Trillin's book is a very personal and intuitive meditation. He was a friend and classmate of Denny's and a fellow member of Scroll and Keys. Like Denny, he came from a modest background--his father was a St. Louis grocer, Denny's a Redwood City marine inspector. As chairman of the Yale Daily News, Trillin also made it into the elite, though less spectacularly and, it turned out, less damagingly. Not only is the author justly celebrated as a fine and perceptive writer, but he is a member of the Yale Corporation, its top governing body. Nobody needs to Remember Calvin; he is the Rememberer.

He explores his classmate's story as far as he can: who he was, what went on under the bright surface, how things began to fade. The result is inconclusive and the image of Denny is almost as impalpable at the end as at the beginning. His time at Oxford was a setback; the professors there didn't find him as brilliant as his Yale professors did.

He moved to Washington, worked as a senatorial aide, and hung out with a number of other Georgetown Yalies and comers. Instead of going into politics, as his friends had hoped, he took a master's degree at Princeton, worked as a beginning television reporter, switched back to academia, held a job briefly and unsuccessfully as a Third World development expert in the Carter Administration, and quit to return to teaching. He avoided his old friends and stopped sending biographical bits to the Yale and Rhodes alumni publications. His colleagues found him stimulating but hard to get along with. He went into analysis at one point to address his problems in dealing with authority, and also because he worried about his homosexual impulses. Toward the end of his life, he had several discreet gay relationships.

Trillin muses on the strain Denny may have been under at Yale in the '50s, when it was unthinkable that an all-American prince could have gay feelings. He reports classmates' recollections of moodiness under the unforgettable smile. He notes that Denny had cut virtually all ties with his family in California. He quotes a graduate student who is distressed by all the allusions to Denny's promise. "The way I see promise is that you have a knapsack, and all the time you're growing up they keep stuffing promise into the knapsack. Pretty soon, it's just too heavy to carry. You have to unpack."

He doesn't lean too heavily on any of this. As we read, in fact, we do not so much perceive a golden promise unfulfilled as wonder what it consisted of. One suspects a certain deliberate irony in Trillin's selection of the more portentous quotes at the service and the subsequent reunion. "In some ways," one friend says, "what we have here is not the death of an ordinary person. What we have here is an extremely complicated tragedy." Another friend speaks of Denny's "inquisitive, energetic and imaginative mind" and "piercing wit."

In fact, Trillin never conveys the piercing wit or imagination. Nor does he communicate to us the image of a shining youth or even of any very distinct youth at all. For a while we may feel oversold, until we realize that this is not what the author is selling.

Elusively, sometimes tangentially, and with a perceptiveness that only occasionally calls attention to itself, Trillin is recording a time, a place and an illusion. The time, of course, was the '50s, when American fortunes seemed secure and the only trick was to get your hands on a piece of them. The place was Yale, which selected and manicured those hands in the confidence that making it at the university meant making it in life. (At Harvard, incidentally, which I went to about the same time, the myth of golden campus heroes was less powerful. There, to be golden was one more subspecialty, like protozoan microbiology or the passion of a student I knew for collecting interurban streetcar schedules.)

The illusion, which Trillin punctures gracefully and not without tenderness, was that success, if you found it young, could become your destination and not an interurban streetcar stop liable at any moment to be discontinued.

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