Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Early S. J. Perelman



I am reading a 1929 second edition of S.J. Perelman's Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, published when he was an exuberant 25-year-old. The book, long out of print and obtainable today only by shelling out $179 bucks for a used copy on Amazon, was delivered to me last week by Interlibrary Loan, a network of libraries that is a godsend to those of us enamored with hard-to-find American literature.

The book has a somewhat garish silver cover, decorated with two hearts, rows of butterflies, and a scattering of curious oval lozenges (jewel boxes? cough drops?). Interior markings reveal that the book was originally the property of a Mr. Ernest Torrington. Then the book appears to have been sold for $45 by Universal Bookfinders of Beverly Hills, CA to a branch of the St. Louis Mercantile Library Association, thence making its way to the library of the University of Missouri at St. Louis. The first stamp in the checkout history dates from 1967.

Few, if any, of my readers have had the opportunity to read this early Perelmania. For their benefit, I will push the boundaries of "fair use" and provide some representative samples of these stories and sketches, first published in Judge magazine in the late twenties. Perelman's characteristic satire, wordplay, and flights of fancy are already evident, although you may notice that he sometimes strains to include a wise crack at the expense of the flow of his narrative.

From the lead-off story, Puppets of Passion - A Throbbing Story of Youth's Hot Revolt Against the Conventions:

/-----
Dawn Ginsbergh lay in her enormous sixteenth-century four-poster bed and played tag with her blood pressure.

Oh, it was so good to be alive on this glorious May morning instead of being dead or something. Dawn, you must know, was very fond of being alive. In fact, as she used to remark to Nicky Nussbaum, the most devoted of her lovers:

"I would rather be alive than be Alderman."

Such was Dawn Ginsbergh, impetuous dashing Dawn of the flame-taunted hair and scarlet lips beestung like violet pools and so on at ten cents a word for a page and a half.

. . .

She looked around at the immense room that was her bedroom. It was, she reflected, large enough for the whole Sixty-ninth Regiment. To tell the truth, the Sixty-ninth Regiment was in the room, in undress uniform. Dawn was like that, unconventional.

A knock on the door aroused Dawn from her lethargy. She hastily slipped it off and donned an abstraction. This was Dawn, flitting lightly from lethargy to abstraction and back to precipice again. Or from Beethoven to Bach and Bach to Bach again.

It was her mother, Mrs. Wharton Ginsbergh-Margolies, a slim nervous woman, nervous like a manatee or Firpo. She wore her hair piled high on her head, an odd place one must agree. But then the Ginsberghs were all iconoclasts. They never gave a whoop. When Dawn, at five, had come down with the whooping-cough, not a whoop did she give. Perversely, she broke out with the yellow jack. But she lived.
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From the story Those Charming People - The Latest Report on the Weinbloom Reptile Expedition:

/-----
Eighteen months ago, when Lieut. Buster Weinbloom left with his expedition into the lower ramp of Grand Central to add fresh reptiles to his collection, many wiseacres dubbed his project "ramp foolishness." "Fresh reptiles, indeed!" said they, "as if the reptiles he has now aren't fresh enough! We dub his project ramp foolishness!" But this criticism only succeeded in irritating Lieut. Weinbloom and he soon began to chafe under restraint. The chafing had been barely finished and saltines spread with butter when the Dean appeared with the college whip to flay the offenders. Lieut. Weinbloom was overcome with impatience. "You people make me tired," he said; '"if you must vex somebody, why don't you go home and vex the floors?"
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From My Escape from the Harem - The Amazing Narrative of the Adventures of the Beautiful Half-Caste Armenian Princess Abou Ben Perelman in the Stronghold of the the Sultans

/-----
With the spring, life grew more exciting; there was always a brisk walk in the fields or a smelt-drive if we grew bored. I recall vividly the flushed cheeks and shrill cries of the bewildered smelts as our smelt-beater treed them in a young sapling and the excitement of the kill when one of them would wave aloft the smelt's brush with loud shouts of "Tally-ho!" Then the evenings spent lounging before the fire puffing lazily on my old clay while Alice cleaned and fried the now thoroughly exhausted albeit juicy smelts. And the stories told under the haunting magic of the stars! Stories of life on the great African veldt, stories so realistic and thrilling that I veldt hot and cold all over when I heard them. There was one story that Alice never tired of telling, about the time she took a sleeper from Pittsburgh to Wheeling and there was this traveling man. . . but why attempt to relate an incident which relies wholly on its Turkish idiom for flavor?
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From Over Niagara in a Rotary Washer: (Note: "halma" is a game similar to Chinese checkers)

/-----
Ever since I announced in the columns of the Parthenon last July that I was going to take the trip over Niagara Falls in a rotary washing-machine on Mothers' day next year, there has been a flood of two letters a month pouring in demanding details of all sorts. As this is eating up all the overhead in the office and wearing three stenographers to the nub opening and answering these missiles, I have decided to quench the stream of curiosity and explain my position.

So many people have gone over "Lover's Leap" (Niagara Falls) in barrels and canoes that the thing has almost become a platitude and you might just as well be lying at home in bed playing halma for all the excitement you get. Last year Major Weathercock even made the journey in a gravy boat to prove how easy it was. My plan, however, is to put back a little sport into the old ride, and I figure that if I am whirling in a rotary motion, at the same time descending a four-hundred-foot falls, why perhaps there will be a few moments when I am not bored.
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And finally here is the opening to Perelman's ten-part series How to Make Love:

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What is that Mysterious Force which hastens the breathing, makes the heart tender, the spirit brave, the impulses generous, and the will strong? Yes, children, you are right – Scotch. But there is still another Force which does not retail in four-fifths quart bottles and is infinitely more expensive. This Force is called LOVE. In this series of articles we shall discuss various kinds of LOVE and the proper methods, grips, holds, and punches connected with this fascinating pastime.
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I will return this copy of Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge to Interlibrary Loan in another ten days. Then it will be available for my readers to check out.

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