About Alice is Calvin Trillin’s tribute to his late wife, the beloved Alice. It came out five years after her death, providing enough time for perspective. It’s not really an overview of her life—at least not in any kind of thorough, detailed way—but more Trillin’s random memories of what made her, and their life together, special.
Though issued in book form, it’s the length of a medium-to-long magazine essay, easily readable in under an hour. Still, I didn’t feel cheated by something so short being sold as a book; in this case the subject matter seemed to call for the gravitas of a book.
Throughout their marriage, Alice routinely popped up in Trillin’s humor books and articles, most often as the voice of common sense and responsibility to balance out his bumbling, off-kilter, or jester attributes. As he notes in About Alice, of course those writings were never intended to portray her as accurately as possible. That Alice was more of a sitcom character, the real Alice shaded this way or that to fit the necessary role in his written gags.
Still, that Alice was never just someone to laugh at. Indeed, she was more the straight man than the butt of the jokes (the latter being Trillin himself’s role). The character was largely a positive one, a little humorless at times it’s true, with limited patience for her husband’s antics, but a good-hearted, intelligent person that a book like Family Man especially portrayed as utterly devoted to family.
And the persona was based on her real self; it was not made up out of whole cloth for comedic purposes. To assume that his depictions of that Alice were identical to Alice herself would have been a mistake, but not on the level of, say, assuming Carroll O’Connor in real life was married to someone just like Edith Bunker.
As he says in About Alice, after her death he received many letters from people who acknowledged that they realized that the Alice they read about in his books and articles was fictionalized, yet who still had the sense that they knew her. And they weren’t totally wrong about that—the impressions they’d picked up from his humor writings were at least on the right track—but one of the purposes of About Alice is to fill in some blanks and make her even a little more knowable to his readers.
About Alice is not a book of humorous anecdotes, fictional or otherwise, but nor is it unrelentingly serious. Even though he’s not writing pure humor, Trillin retains his accessible, gentle, self-deprecating, likable, light touch. It’s not intended to be laugh out loud funny, but along with the sad and touching passages, there are plenty of smiles. (One example coming from Trillin’s skepticism about alternative medicine. About the farthest he’s willing to go in the direction of “alternative” medicine, he notes, is to be treated by a doctor who didn’t go to Johns Hopkins.)
I’ve always liked Trillin, and always assumed Alice was someone pretty neat, and so I fully expected that in a book about her death—though it’s really more about her life—there would be things to choke me up, and indeed there are. Probably what reached me emotionally even more than the account of her battles with cancer and ultimate death (her heart eventually gave out due to damage it had received over the years from radiation treatment for her lung cancer; the treatment killed her, but it also gave her 25 years of life after they were told there was a 10% chance she’d live for two) are the passages that conveyed her priorities.
For example, when she was working with a severely disabled girl at a summer camp, she read a letter from the girl’s mother, which she then rushed to show her husband. “Quick. Read this,” she whispered, “It’s the secret of life.” It read, simply:
If God had given us all of the children in the world to choose from, we would only have chosen you.
Alice was an accomplished writer herself, having numerous essays published on a variety of subjects in “name” periodicals (e.g., The New Yorker, The New England Journal of Medicine), as well as publishing multiple books. She was an educator, she developed projects for PBS, she worked in various capacities with the poor, the sick, the handicapped, and people in need in general. But always, family came first.
As a friend noted to her, she was able to “navigate the tricky waters between living a life you could be proud of and still delighting in the many things there are to take pleasure in.”
The character Calvin Trillin adored the character Alice. The real Calvin Trillin adored the real Alice. About Alice helps us to understand why, and we’re better for it.