The Garden of Curses: Down on the Farm with S.J. Perelman and Nathanael West

Joe Gioia

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Let me propose that American literary humor, in becoming modern, branched in two during the Great Depression. On one side are absurd, language-driven vignettes, short magazine pieces ranging from whimsical to surreal where the narrator tries to make sense of, or at least describe, a crackpot world. This strand was largely created and mainly defined by S.J. Perelman, whose comic genius engendered two of the Marx Brothers’ best movies, Monkey Business (1931) and Horsefeathers (1932), and a steady stream of brilliant short pieces for (mainly) The New Yorker.

The other branch trades in black comic predicaments of grotesque dysfunction: a ridiculous overabundance of misery, of mental and physical illness and often absurd violence. Laughter here is defensive: relief at seeing something so horrible happen to someone else. This strain was best, and arguably first, articulated by Nathanael West, author of the superb short novels Miss Lonelyhearts (1933) and The Day of the Locust (1939), who was, funny enough, Perelman’s brother-in-law.

In Perelman’s camp we find his older contemporaries, James Thurber and Robert Benchley, neither of whom had the idiomatic snap, that aggrieved brilliance and fine timing, that Perelman gave the form. Woody Allen and David Sedaris are his natural heirs, along with—in the sillier episodes with his oddly-named characters—Thomas Pynchon.

West’s example, heaping outlandish misery upon uncomprehending and helpless characters, has gained more followers: among the most notable being Joseph Heller (whose Catch-22 only gained wide recognition after Perelman praised it), Stanley Elkin, and David Foster Wallace.

And though West’s own work has never quite overcome the cult status given it following his untimely 1940 death, his artistry is now acknowledged, his works collected in a Library of America edition in 1997. The Day of the Locust may still be our best novel about Hollywood, made into a major 1975 film directed by John Schlesinger, starring Donald Sutherland and Karen Black, and creating, in one of its characters, a hopeless dope named Homer Simpson.

Perelman’s work has suffered an eclipse, and is now mainly appreciated by a shrinking cadre of connoisseurs. He avoided the long form, content instead to labor at, in his words, “my embroidery hoop.” In a 1963 Paris Review interview he proposed that “the muralist is no more important that the miniature painter”, implying thereby that nothing exists between the sweeping novel and short essay, while conveniently overlooking the novelette form that West mastered.

Perelman’s defense of the essay also obscured his own try at a longer narrative. His finest sustained work, Acres and Pains, has twenty-one chapters, each around 900 words, written about the Bucks County, Pennsylvania farm that Perelman (Sid to his friends) and his wife Laura purchased with “Pep” West (Laura’s brother and Sid’s friend from their days at Brown University) in 1932. After 75 years, it is still a very funny book.

The property in question, 83 acres with house and barn in the town of Erwinna, was sixty miles from the Perelmans’ Greenwich Village apartment. Buying it, mainly with Perelman’s Marx Brothers movie money, was apparently Laura and Pep’s idea, though Sid was the one with actual rural working experience, having spent a glum adolescence on his father’s failing Rhode Island poultry farm. The memory and resentment of that time never left him, and certainly fueled an early, burning drive for self-invention, and a writer’s life in New York City.

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Too young to sit at Algonquin’s Round Table, Perelman was in the vanguard of smart alecs that hit New York after the ’29 Crash. Beginning as a cartoonist at Brown, by 1932, at 28, he’d written a funny and well-received first book, shaped the two Marx Brothers movies, and was about to jump from the pages of College Humor and Judge magazines to The New Yorker.

Laura, tall, gorgeous and living in New York with Nathanael (family name Weinstein), was 18 when she married Sid in 1929, apparently without much thought. “I found her to be very pleasing,” Sid recalled, probably expanding the length of their courtship, “and eventually married her.” The deal included West. “The three of us were a very tight-knit organism”, is how Perelman explained it later. They were fully subscribed members of New York’s speakeasy literary set. And while Sid wasn’t much of a drinker by the standards of the day (preferring coffee and a steady supply of cigarettes) Laura more than held up her end.

Her journal describes a tense marriage. She felt alternately energized and bullied by Perelman. Both she and her brother suffered, she thought, from a fundamental lethargy (“Pep” was an ironic nickname) that Perelman remedied for both. The critic Edmund Wilson, who appears to have been smitten with Laura, sometimes reported on the younger couple in his own Thirties journal, no entry more telling than:

When West and the Perelmans went out to their place in          Pennsylvania, they had to fish dead rabbits out of the well—the looked all right when they first took them out, but immediately fell to pieces. West couldn’t take it and fled, leaving Perelman to deal with the situation.

Sid later told a friend that he cheated on Laura the second night of their marriage, and remained serially unfaithful to her. Laura, on her part, had a quick affair with Dashiell Hammett, another friend of Pep’s, then writing The Thin Man. Friends saw something of Laura in the portrait of Nora Charles; her dog, Asta, also made it into the novel.

It is impossible to say why they were so unhappy, or why they stayed together. Sid let her drink; Laura let him run around. Their bond was fused by tragedy in late December 1940 when West, a notoriously bad driver, was killed instantly with his wife on a rural California highway after running a stop sign. Perelman suspected that they were racing back to Los Angeles from a hunting trip to attend the funeral of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a close friend of Pep and Sid’s, who’d died of a heart attack two days before.

Fitzgerald, trying to reinvent himself as a Hollywood screenwriter, admired West’s novels, and considered Perelman, whom he met through Dorothy Parker at the MGM commissary writer’s table, his best friend in L.A. The saddest journey in American letters might be the train that carried the coffins of Fitzgerald and West, in the baggage car, back east for burial. Perelman accompanied their remains.

Toward the end of his life, Sid attempted a long-deferred try at autobiography, essays on Dorothy Parker, the Marx Brothers, and West that were published after his death. The West memoir mainly describes Pep’s work as a New York hotel manager renowned for helping his indigent writer pals, while completely skipping their life in Hollywood and his death. It details at some length the acquisition of the Erwinna farm, presenting it as both a setting of serene beauty and a backwater snare that Laura and Pep gulled him into buying.

About mid-autumn of 1932 […] West started a campaign of suasion that was a masterpiece of sophistry. The Revolution, he pointed out, was immanent […] He painted a pastoral of the three of us in our  bee-loud glade, my wife contentedly humming as she bottled raspberry jam, he and I churning out an unending stream of prose. Where the requisite paper would come from […] he did not specify. Doubtless he expected the forest to supply it.

Nevertheless, “in a trice I also fell for it […] In contrast to the bedlam of New York, the only sound that disturbed the sylvan hush was the distinct chatter of crows in the north forty. There was an air of permanence, of solidity, about the house and outbuildings that captivated and reassured.” In an interview forty years later, Perelman summed up his ambivalence: “I went through a big Thoreau phase when every drop of water on every fern seemed to be terribly significant. It wore off a good many years ago.”

His memoir describes the three of them undertaking a series of inadequate do-it-yourself repairs. When Hollywood beckoned again. Sid and Laura left to knock out B-movie screenplays together while West stayed in Erwinna to write; there the memoir ends. Seven years later the Perelmans were back east working on a Broadway comedy, and Pep a rising screenwriter, when tragedy hit.

Sid was characteristically unforthcoming about West’s death, leaving no written accounts of what was perhaps the central tragedy of his life, and most certainly that of Laura’s. She never really recovered, and the big drinking of the speakeasy years devolved into alcoholism. Some measure of their loss can be gleaned in a letter to a friend from August 1941: “…both Laura and I are moved and pleased that you are dedicating your book to him. I’m writing this looking out of a window at a tulip tree that he and I planted together, and it’s good to think that your dedication and this tree will remain to recall him.” He goes on to compliment a contemporary novel as “one of those short books Pep always thought Americans should write but don’t. I guess Pep himself was one of the few who did.”

By then Perelman was working on his own short book, an account of the Erwinna farm that processed what must have been strong feelings of helplessness and betrayal into what is still one of the funniest sustained works of comic writing in the American language.

           The design of Acres and Pains, short, episodic chapters, each focused on a single event in the protagonist’s messy life, closely resembles that of Miss Lonelyhearts. The difference between the two is mainly West’s extensive use of (excellent) dialog and the evident sympathy he has for his characters. Compassion is in short supply in Perelman Land, where he’s usually the exasperated victim of assorted grifters, floozies, dishonest tradesmen, nosey neighbors, and freeloading kin.

Despite its sympathy, Miss Lonelyhearts remains a string of cruel jokes the author plays on a nameless newspaper reporter (Miss Lonelyhearts is all he is ever called) who has taken the job of advice columnist for a New York tabloid, thereby exposing himself to an endless high tide of human misery. On a plot level, the novel is set as a series of mostly drunken threesomes: Miss Lonelyhearts pursues his cynical boss’ ambivalent wife while becoming prey to a fat woman married to a cripple. It ends in ambiguous violence: Miss Lonelyhearts, his sometime girlfriend, and the outraged cripple, another threesome, falling down a flight of stairs, leaving the reader to guess if the plunge was fatal, and to whom, or just one more episode of dark farce.

While lacking the morbid draught of West’s novel, each chapter of Acres and Pains treats on things going very wrong. “Everytime I step off that porch,” Sid relates, “something disastrous happens.” The ill will Perelman directed at the Erwinna farm, which he called Rising Gorge, rested on old wounds. That he was talked into buying it by his wife and best friend becomes the book’s central theme of him being cheated or bossed by nearly everyone he encounters.

In a chapter of West’s novel, “Miss Lonelyhearts in the Country”, the hero is brought to an abandoned farmhouse by his sometime girlfriend to recover from an essentially moral illness, as much soul sickness as a physical collapse. Set in Connecticut, it is the rural ideal: “He had to admit, even to himself, that the pale new leaves, shaped and colored like candle flames, were beautiful and that the air felt clean and alive.

“There was a pond on the farm and they caught sight of it through the trees just before coming to the house.”

Miss Lonelyhearts’ tranquil pond reappears in Acres and Pains, transmogrified into a source of misery and fright:

What I had when the gang of workmen departed was a small, shrunken buffalo wallow […] Its surface was covered with an attractive green film dotted with decaying stumps and half-submerged oil cans. At night a dense mist shrouded the tarn, eerie lights flickered in the rushes, ghostly chuckles were audible, and if you ventured too close, you were liable to encounter a transparent citizen carrying his head under his  arm.

(And here we might wonder exactly who that laughing, headless ghost might be.)

            Acres and Pains, in effect grafts Miss Lonelyhearts’ dark moral order upon the unlikely glades of rural Pennsylvania. The tension inherent in this arrangement leads to some of Perelman’s sharpest, most surprising prose:

My wife and I were still knee-deep in a puddle outside our front door, exchanging shrill taunts and questioning each other’s legitimacy,when our first visitor drove up. […] From the expression of mingled condescension, malice and envy, I knew at once he must be another city man turned farmer.  “ Finally unloaded it, did they?” he remarked with a ghoulish smirk.

In one chapter, he tries keeping a dog:

I traded Wang for a collie who brought home skunks, and turned Laddie Boy in for a Kerry who ate maids. At last, in desperation, I bought a bloodhound, a timid thing with great gentle eyes like a fawn. The man swore she was barely able to walk, much less attack anybody. A fortnight later she knocked down a state trooper, stole his pistol, and held up a cigar          store in Doylestown.

Sent to the basement during a dinner party for a home repair:

I cleaned the pump thoroughly, laid all the wheels and cams on a board where the plumber could find them and, as a final precaution, opened the windows to allow the water to drain off down the slope. On the way upstairs, I found my passage blocked by a jug of peach brandy,   and after some difficulty managed to squeeze past it […] When I rejoined the party, I felt dizzy. My wife said later it wasn’t so much the bric-a-brac I    smashed as the language I used.

And, alone one night, another haunting:

About 9:30 someone in the attic started dragging a body across the floor by the hair, occasionally belting it with a strap. My blood boiled at the cruelty, and yet it occurred to me it was really none of my affair […] the people upstairs were undoubtedly pre-Civil War tenants, who had every right to do as they pleased.

If the presence of ghosts seems a distinct theme in Acres and Pains, you might be surprised learning, from Dorothy Herrmann’s sensitive, albeit circumspect, 1985 biography, that Sid was for some time deeply interested in occult communication with the dead via Ouija board. He claimed in letters to have contacted, among others, Scott Fitzgerald.

Though Perelman was a regular New Yorker contributor by 1942, the Acres and Pains pieces debuted in the high-paying Saturday Evening Post, his first contributions to that magazineA researcher today can spend a couple of hours with the guide to periodicals, scanning microfilm of weekly issues of the Post searching for the Acres and Pains pieces without success. They were, one discovers at last, published rather sub rosa on a weekly page of miscellaneous cartoons, light verse, and short comic sketches called “Post-Scripts”. Twenty installments appeared, one approximately every two weeks, from August 1942 to May ’43 under the running title “A Child’s Garden of Curses; or, The Bitter Tea of Mr. P.”, his byline appended, New Yorker style, after the last line. Weighing in at 850 to 900 words each, they were illustrated with two or three marginal line drawings.

After a pause in the summer of ’43, a new Post-Scripts “Garden of Curses” series, now regarding his home life in the city, appeared that August. After the deft brilliance of the farm episodes, these later pieces, run-of-the-mill sketches of a fraught domestic order where the author plays the put-upon husband and benignly negligent father (Sid and Laura had a son and daughter), aren’t that funny. One, a flaying of his (maybe imaginary) in-laws, and another skewering a reunion with an old college pal, are remarkable now for their overt bile. Starting in October 1943, longer comic articles with his byline appear in the Post table of contents. Only one of the Post entries after the farm series, the superb “Dental or Mental, I Say It’s Spinach”, about a horrific trip to the dentist, was ever reprinted. That these domestic sketches are less engaging may be because, as outlined in Herrmann’s biography, Perelman really and truly wasn’t much of a husband or father.

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His last Post article appeared in September 1944. In the meantime, over at The New Yorker, Perelman had begun his brilliant Cloudland Revisited series, fond and wicked backward glances at the popular books and movies that so beguiled his youth. A definite escapism, into either the loopy past or international travel, trips he began to write-up for Holiday magazine in the late ‘40s, characterizes his output for the rest of his life.

Acres and Pains finally appeared between covers in 1947; apparently souring relations with his Erwinna neighbors, which the Post series somehow avoided doing. It was collected in full in his 1957 omnibus collection, The Most of S.J. Perelman, and so remains in print. There the author introduces it, saying:

[It] was the by-product of a dozen years of country living. Of it  critics have been gracious enough to say that it is irradiated by a tenderness, a nobility of vision that recall Ella Wheeler Wilcox at her most glutinous.

Ms. Wilcox, Wikipedia informs us, was a popular 19th century poet responsible for the immortal lines: Laugh and the world laughs with you./Cry and you cry alone. Apparently, she too was very keen on occult communication with the afterlife. It is passing strange that Perelman’s offhand invocation of Ms. Wilcox, whether intended or not, invokes images of a lonely weeper, a laughing world, and attempts to reach the dead.

Acres and Pains had its own brief afterlife: a 1962 CBS sitcom pilot with Walter Matthau and Anne Jackson as Sid and Laura that came to nothing. Three years later, on the same network, a series about a couple trying to make a go of a dilapidated farm debuted in prime time. Green Acres, which ran for six very funny seasons, is the story of Oliver and Lisa Douglas, sophisticated New Yorkers surrounded by weird neighbors, bumbling handymen, and at least one country con man. It is exactly the premise of Acres and Pains but, just as “Green” replaces “and Pains”, drained of any ill will.

The show’s Oliver Douglas is Sid’s temperamental opposite: an eternal optimist swept up by the beauty of his undertaking, butting up against a vividly mad world. Though based on a 1950 radio series, appearing three years after the publication of Acres and Pains, there’s no evidence of plagiarism, and we can be certain that Perelman would have spoken up if he felt he was being robbed. Yet it remains a beautiful coincidence, a reminder how certain ideas abide in the American imagination.

Laura died of cancer at 58, in 1970. Sid promptly sold the Erwinna farm, which he regretted soon enough, and moved to London, for good he declared. There, set-up in swell digs, he was celebrated by the Punch magazine set; but the experience quickly paled. He missed, he said, the American idiom and was back in New York two years later. Gradually, perhaps inevitably, the rage that had been so refined in his best work, as Herrmann observes, “began to dominate his pieces. Increasingly they became more personal vendettas than rib-tickling romps. Wordiness, and an excessive attention to obscure references and foreign words began to muddy his meticulous style.”

He kept a suite at the faintly worn Gramercy Park Hotel and soldiered on, a so-called national treasure consigned to the Arts and Letters attic, chain smoking, giving interviews, and indulging in a steady diet of deli food. By then he resented being associated with the Marx Brothers, whom he recalled with a strange, fond bitterness, while his New Yorker pieces had trouble getting out of editor William Shawn’s slush pile. The titles of his final essay volumes chart the decline: Baby, It’s Cold Inside (1970), Vinegar Puss (1975)posthumously The Last Laugh (1981). There wasn’t much laughter at the end.

Sid planned increasingly quixotic, over-determined travel writing projects. One, a recreation of Phineas Fogg’s fictional journey around the world in eighty days (the same story that gained him a screenwriting Oscar for Mike Todd’s 1956 movie) lacked any tension (he jetted across Asia), while a motor trek from Paris to Beijing in his vintage 4-seater MG, commissioned by the Times of London, was a disaster. Sid quarreled bitterly with the close friend assisting him, along with their attending mechanic, across some very hard terrain, breaking-off relations in Hong Kong. The car was refused entry at the Chinese border; undeterred, Sid flew to Beijing by himself, and there spent two weeks in a hospital with a bronchial infection.

Back in New York, he soon gave up trying to write about the trip, and died of a heart attack shortly thereafter, worn out at 75, alone in his roost above Gramercy Park, in October, 1979.

Reviewing Perelman’s life, you inevitably meet the sad, old Sid. But there’s another guy, still alive on the page, hailing us with his cigarette hand, venting exquisite spleen on the silly rookeries of Hollywood and New York, reveling in the gaudy mess of advertisements, middle-brow magazines, and brainless pulp fiction. He fights heroic losing battles against dingbats, hussies, and chiselers, at home and abroad, trailing clouds of his own American language in lieu of glory. You can’t miss him:

 If you can spare the time to drive sixty miles into the backwoods of eastern Pennsylvania, crouch down in a bed of poison ivy, and peer through the sumacs you will be rewarded by an interesting sight. What you will see is a middle-aged city dweller, as lean and bronzed as a shad’s belly (I keep a shad’s belly hanging up in the barn for purposes of comparison), gnawing his fingernails and wondering how to abandon a farm.

Sid Perelman requests our attention and, once given, he’s got it for good.

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Joe Gioia is the author of The Guitar and the New World, and Divide’s Guide to Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. He lives, for all intents and purposes, in Chicago.

Bibliography

Crowther, Prudence, ed., Don’t Tread on Me; The Selected Letters of S.J. Perelman, Viking, N.Y., NY 1987

Fitzgerald, F. Scott, The Notebooks of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, N.Y., NY 1978

Herrmann, Dorothy, S.J. Perelman; A Life, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, N.Y., NY 1986

Lister, Eric, Don’t Mention the Marx Brothers, Book Guild, Sussex, GB 1985

Perelman, S.J., The Last Laugh, Simon and Schuster, N.Y., NY 1981

— The Most of S.J. Perelman, Simon and Schuster. N.Y., NY 1957

Teicholz, Tom, ed., Conversations with S.J. Perelman, University Press of Mississippi, Jackson, MS, 1995

West, Nathanael, Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust, New Directions, N.Y., NY 1969

Wilk, Max, And Did You Once See Sidney Plain?, Norton, N.Y., NY 1986

Wilson, Edmund, The Thirties, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, N.Y., NY 1980

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One response

  1. Always amusing, informative a reverential. Thanks, Joe!

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