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There's a Right Way : HOW TO DO THINGS RIGHT: The Revelations of a Fussy Man, By L. Rust Hills (David R. Godine: $22.95 cloth, $15.95 paper; 320 pp.)

August 29, 1993|Noel Perrin | Noel Perrin teaches American literature at Dartmouth

How many people know how to eat an ice-cream cone? Everyone over the age of 2, you may say, plus many babies.

No, but I mean eat one properly. That means not winding up with sticky hands. And not planning so badly that you have the whole boring lower half of the cone left when you finish the ice cream. It means no melted blobs on the sidewalk, even from the overhanging flank of a double scoop.

Few indeed can manage all this.

That's where L. Rust Hills comes in. He is the author of the best essay ever written on ice-cream cones. "Best" means both funniest and in a curious way most useful. You really could learn how to deal with cones (and with family outings to get them) from his six-page essay called "How to Eat an Ice-Cream Cone." You'd be better off laughing, though.

The essay is one of 67 in a book that is like--not a cone, but a brick of what used to be called Neapolitan ice cream. That is, three flavors, each separate. At one end a stripe of strawberry; in the middle a stripe of chocolate; at the other end a stripe of vanilla.

To put it more plainly, Hills' book is really three books, each with a distinctive taste. Each with a history, too. The reader first encounters a section called "How to Do Particular Things Particularly," and that was originally a separate book published in 1972--a slim volume, hardly larger than a book of poems. Then comes a section called "How to Retire at 41" (yes, he really did), and that was its own book back in 1973. And the third? Brace yourself. With utter sang-froid, the third section is called "How to Be Good." Seriously. That slim volume appeared in 1976. Now here they are all together, in size and in wit somewhat like Stephen Potter's tiny trilogy Gamesmanship, One-Upmanship, and Lifemanship. The three together form a book of about 270 pages.

The first volume I would call strawberry. It has a sweet light flavor and a pink view of life. The problems it faces are no worse than how to organize a picnic, or set an alarm clock, or eat a cone. All are funny. Some are just about flawless, like "How to Give a Dinner Party." Some are true originals, like "How to Do Four Dumb Tricks With a Package of Camels." That one is so charming (less sinful in 1972 than now) that as soon as I finished reading it, I went back and read it again.

In general, Hills' approach in this first section is to pay about 10 times more attention to some minor human activity than is usual, using lots of careful logic and keeping his face very straight. Since he is an exceptionally keen observer, the reader keeps getting little shocks of recognition about the problems inherent in folding a road map or giving a trip. They are lovely strawberry essays, all 16 of them. But it has to be added that they are mostly lightweight.

Now comes the chocolate: the 22 essays and mini-essays about retirement. This is my favorite section. Hills keeps his easy, confiding, offhand tone and he is just as funny as in the strawberry section. But he is a good deal profounder.

What, after all, happens to someone who retires at 41? (From a good job, too, as fiction editor of Esquire.) Why, the same thing that happens to someone who retires at 65, only with much greater force. Now that you don't have to do anything, you are forced every single day to decide what you'd like to do. Hills can make you laugh out loud with his deadpan plans for filling up a Wednesday. But you soon realize that under the jokes he is quite serious. Like his hero, Montaigne, he is trying to figure out how to handle freedom. By my count, he tries about 30 approaches, none of which sound in the least like advice from a self-help book. Deeper, sadder, more thoughtful and possibly more useful.

Finally, at the far end is a broad stripe of vanilla. It's still ice cream, mind you--that is, Hills retains his easy-going and totally readable style. He still employs the italics-for-emphasis he has loved since way back when he was editing a book called "New York, New York" in 1965, and his timing with them remains wonderful. But how to be good? How to work out your personal code of morality? Occasionally Hills gets off something glorious, as in his refutation of Kant's categorical imperative. It's wildly funny--and it seems to me a real refutation. But a lot of the time this section is tedious, and sometimes I think it's wrong.

My advice: Eat the chocolate and the strawberry. Then quietly put the vanilla back in the freezer.

Nobody Has All the Answers

While L. Rust Hills is remarkably right about many things, he also recognizes the limits of useful advice. So rather than call his piece "How to Stop Smoking and Drinking," he called it "How to Cut Down on Smoking and Drinking Quite So Much," which we excerpt here. It appears in the section "How to Do Some Particular Things Particularly"--not, we note, in "How to Be Good . "

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