Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More early S.J. Perelman

I was curious about S.J. Perelman's 1930 novel Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath. Through the help of the Interlibrary Loan organization (bless them), a first edition was sent my way from the California State University – Humboldt. The Humboldtians let me borrow it for only a week, as it is a relatively rare book. You can't lay hands on a used copy for under $400.

S. J. Perelman described the novel during a 1978 interview: "Well, my second book, years and years ago was a collaboration with Quentin Reynolds, the famous reporter, and we wrote a prohibition novel back in the early '30s, which was called Parlor, Bedlam, and Bath. This was based upon a famous play many years before called Parlor, Bedroom, and Bath. And we wrote this together and it perished like a dog. That cured me of any ambitions to write a novel."

Despite Perelman's 1978 disclaimer, the book garnered fairly good reviews. Here is an excerpt from the the Saturday Review of Books (July 12, 1930): "The book is good, though it falls occasionally into a bog. Essentially it is like nothing else that we know, in spite of passages and attitudes that remind us of McEvoy, Sullivan, Stewart, Lardner, Benchley, Groucho Marx, and Joe Cook. Anyone to whom this list is a rollcall of the well-beloved will be thoroughly delighted with Perelman. He is never really derivative, though it is plain to see where he went to school. His humor is completely up-to-the-minute: allusive, intelligent, urban—and above all, mad. But that is the way we take it these days, and like it. A generation from now it will be largely indecipherable and thoroughly inane, but here and now it's grand good stuff."

The book is less a novel than a series of loosely connected episodes in the life of wealthy man-about-town Chester Tattersall. Chester's life is a pendulum oscillating between booze and sex. When he satisfies himself with one, he starts hankering for the other. Perelman and Reynolds squeeze what fun that can be had out of this limited comic material, but I struggled to get through the full 240 pages of Chester's drinking and womanizing.

Let's take a look at some of the highlights.

Down at the other end of the bar a melancholy young man named Rolf Weatherbee had been gazing into an empty glass for the last half hour. Rolf was being very dejected. At the end of a year of married life he was beginning to wonder whether marriage wasn't a gamble. Perhaps the little woman standing beside him that morning in front of the minister had not been a Queen of Hearts but a three of clubs. Rolf was full of a great deal of bitterness and a very small amount of rye. He knew that if he only remained where he was long enough, the ratio between the bitterness and the rye would change. When that happened, Rolf intended to go home and apologize for his hasty words.

Here is a description of Chester's dalliance with a young woman named Lila. The narrative takes a surreal turn into a parody of the Merry Widow. Perelman recycled part of this bit for the script he co-wrote for the Marx Brothers 1931 movie Monkey Business. ("It's midsummer madness. The music is in my temples.... The hot blood of youth. Come, Kapellmeister. Let the violas throb. My regiment leaves at dawn.")

"Chester," said Lila, putting out a cigarette and setting her third whiskey sour down for a brief moment, "you have a swell apartment but where is the haunting saxophone, the rhythmic pulsating beat of the drums, the nostalgic call of the violin, the muted dissonance of the trumpet – in short, please turn on the radio." There being no radio, they were compelled to resort to a makeshift; Chester held a bent pin against a phonograph record and they waltzed. They were both excellent disciples of the terpsichorean art, schooled in those graces for which members of the leisured class are renowned. It was a scene of indescribable gayety and one which would draw enthusiasm from even the most jaded bystander. The girl's eyes were bright with tears as she realized what the morrow must bring; for must not Prince Danilo rejoin his regiment ere the cock crew? She alone amongst those heedless dancers knew sadness. But do not think she passed unobserved as her tear tricked down the front of Danilo's tunic. The old Capelmeister, dreaming over his violin, had taken in the situation at a glance, and at a signal from his capable wand, the enchanting bars of Lehar's immortal "Merry Widow Waltz" teased the toes of the frolickers. Thus an old man who had known Love granted a tender reprieve to the blushing Bertha.

"Darling," said Lila one revolution of the hourhand later, "I must say it is surprising to find a bloke kissing me behind my left ear. Perhaps because he is a strange cove he does not know that my lips are located due south from that tip-tilted petal men call my nose." The somewhat foggy but determined amorist rectified his error forthwith.

Perelman's delight in puns and arcane allusions is displayed later in the scene. The allusion here is to Dwight L. Moody, the late 19th-century evangelist, and his hymnist partner Ira Sankey.

"Lila," he said, "I offer you honorable marriage."

"You're crazy," said Lila after deep thought.

"No, just drunk," corrected Chester and he attempted to stand on his head on the day-bed as proof. His elbows buckled under him and he became moody.

"Why are you moody, sweetheart?" asked Lila tenderly.

"I don't know," said Chester, despairingly. "I used to become sankey when I was younger but now I always become moody." This time nobody laughed, for religion is not a thing to be trifled with.

In this scene at a nightclub Chester Tattersall moves in on a beautiful woman who is having an affair with a married judge. (Note: "Gonif" is a Yiddish word meaning a thief or dishonest person or scoundrel.)

Thirty minutes later the Judge tossed off the last of a second bottle of champagne and arose somewhat heavily, first patting his companion's hand possessively.

"Pardon me a minute, kid, I got – er, promised to call – be back in a minute," he said lamely. Chester and the lady waited until he had disappeared into the other room. They looked at each other; she broke into a clear laugh. Chester felt nervous. What was the next step?

"Come over, nice boy, and tell me the story of your life," she invited. Chester arose in nothing flat and settled smoothly into the chair still warm from the impress of the judiciary. He decided to offer the gentlemanly objection.

"Won't your friend mind if he comes back and finds me here?" he asked doubtfully.

"What, mind my speaking to my old college chum? I should say not. Besides, I wanted to know what you were drinking; it looked so pretty." Chester ordered two of the pretty drinks and she opened the Judge's cigarette case for him.

Two minutes later, Chester felt that he was sure enough of his ground to speak somewhat daringly.

"Listen, honey, how about you and I taking a walkout powder before the law comes back?" he asked.

"You've got an awful nerve calling me that, my boy," the lady remarked, "I might be a policewoman for all you know."

"Well," said Chester, "your friend, the Judge, did, and I thought it was your name." He got the smile and the information he wanted.

"No, it's Wendy," she told him. "And what's yours?"

"It should be Peter, I know, but it's only Chester."

When the Judge reappeared he found the two old college chums laughing together like old college chums and putting away a bottle of champagne which Wendy had ordered and charged to his account. He tried to be stern.

"What is this, young man? What are you doing here?"

"Believe it or not, Judge," offered Chester, "I'm a salesman and I'm trying to sell this nice girl a Tattersall."

"Sit down, big boy," Wendy instructed the puzzled Judge. "This is an old friend from the home town. I haven't seen him since we used to play store together." Chester, on the verge of a remark to the effect that he would not be averse to playing house at this date, decided to save it.

""Well," said Judge Rosen, allowing Chester to hold his fat and gemmed set of fingers, "I guess it's o.k. if he's a pal of yours, but what's a Tattersall?"

"A Tattersall," defined Chester, "is a good deal like a gonif except that it has to be fed drinks constantly. No pretty lady should be without one. Stimulates the imagination and loosens the libido. Talks, walks, and looks well on blondes. In fact..." More puzzled than ever the Judge ordered another bottle of champagne, realizing that when you don't understand people the easiest way out is to offer them a drink.

There are some wonderful nuggets scattered throughout the book if you are up to the task of prospecting for them.

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