“You might as well be a mensch.” Such was the conclusion Abe Trillin came to about life, the summarizing message he passed down to his son Calvin, the journalist/humor writer/memoirist/food critic/gag poet known for his work in periodicals including The New Yorker, The Nation, and Time, and his many books.
I’ve been a fan of Trillin for decades, and I’ve read most of his books (and written about multiple of them in these essays). The poems don’t do much for me, but his humor writing (which is how I first became aware of him) is very good, and there’s a real depth and appealing humaneness (menschness?) to his more serious writing. Though even in a “serious” book like Messages from My Father, the humorist is never entirely absent, peeking through with some clever, witty turn of phrase, or sharing an anecdote about a character’s foibles that is genuinely amusing without crossing the line into being ridiculing.
The Trillin book that Messages from My Father most resembles is About Alice. Both are quite short; you can read them in an hour or two. Both are memoirs about people that were hugely influential in Trillin’s life, people he loved, people he didn’t want to forget, people he wanted the world to know were special—his father in the former book; his wife in the latter book. Both are not comprehensive biographies, but combine a modest amount of biographical material with plenty of anecdotes and quotes that attempt to capture the essence of their subject.
Both are clearly successful; both made me appreciate that he had chosen to share what he knew and felt about these people who meant so much to him. I felt a little more reading About Alice though. I was more moved by his obvious love for her.
I don’t mean there is a huge gap between the books by any means. Both are winners. Both I recommend. And I don’t want to say that one can infer that he loved Alice more. But there’s a greater intensity of some kind there. Just by the very nature of the parent-child relationship it’s possible, indeed probable, that in the long run his father was a greater influence on him, but there’s still that sense that comes through that he was closer to Alice than anyone before or since.
With his father it feels like, “You know, he was a really neat person, and I’d like people to know about him,” whereas with Alice, it feels more urgent, like “I need to tell this story, I need people to know about her, I need the catharsis of reflecting on her and how extraordinary she was.”
Abe came to America young, from the Ukraine (though the family always referred to it as Russia). He settled in Kansas City, which Trillin always found peculiar, until as an adult he tracked down the story and discovered the explanation.
It was a time when sophisticated German Jews in New York were becoming increasing alarmed by the large number of Eastern European Jews—whom they considered their social inferiors—who were immigrating through Ellis Island and settling on the East Coast, mostly in New York itself. So they arranged for a certain number of them to instead be rerouted to Galveston, Texas, and from there encouraged to find a place to live further inland, such as Kansas City.
Abe was a good, kind, hard-working man, the proprietor of multiple grocery stores for decades before expanding into other businesses such as restaurants and real estate. Workaholism, though, didn’t come naturally to him—when someone suggested to him that getting up at 4:00 AM six days a week to start his work day as a grocer probably was not so bad now that he was used to it, he frankly responded that, yes, in fact it was still so bad—and it’s not the life he wanted for his son.
He was the type of immigrant, the type of parent, who believes in sacrificing and doing everything possible to ensure that your children don’t get stuck having the same kind of life you’ve had. His dream—rooted in an inspirational book he read about a college football player—was for Calvin to go to Yale. Not just college, not just a good college, not just an Ivy League college, but specifically Yale. In the end that’s exactly what happened.
He was also the type of immigrant who—although he didn’t denigrate connections to the “Old Country” and he willingly performed the minimum Jewish stuff necessary (observing the major holidays and such) to remain a Jew in good standing—was determined that the family be fully Americanized, especially his kids, rather than clinging to the culture of his past.
He wasn’t the most communicative person, at least about personal things. He could make conversation with customers, joke around, sing, offer an occasional bit of wisdom or advice, etc.—he was by no means painfully introverted—but he wasn’t the type for long heart-to-heart chats, or conversations about emotions. Trillin remembers that it was quite common for he and his father to barely exchange a word on long drives together.
My favorite new Yiddish word I learned in Messages from My Father is “k’nocker,” which means someone who puts on airs and takes himself too seriously. Basically a “big shot” in a sarcastic sense.
My father used it to refer to people who boasted of their triumphs or drove showy cars or displayed signs of having absorbed the teaching of the Talmud on the blessedness of charity without going on to read the section that says that the most blessed charity is the kind given anonymously. These were big k’nockers. The phrase has never left my consciousness. There have been occasions in New York when, for one reason or another, I have spent an evening in the apartment—always a luxurious, lavishly decorated apartment—of the sort of person who boasts about the art on the walls and drops a lot of names and makes sweeping pronouncements with an air of absolute infallibility. Going down in the elevator at the end of the evening, I can feel Alice looking at me. She knows what’s going through my mind: I’m thinking about what my father’s response to the evening would be. He would say nothing all the way down. As the elevator doors opened and we walked into the lobby, he would sum up the host in two words: “Big k’nocker.”
Though the book is primarily about his father, as Trillin reflects on his childhood he also offers comments on his mother and sister, and more distant relatives, as well as his own young self. It’s all interesting, funny, and insightful to varying degrees, though I found myself more engaged in the first half or so of the book, after which my interest faded just a bit. More funny anecdotes and such early than late I suppose.
He had his eccentricities and limitations, but Abe Trillin was indeed a mensch, the kind of person who lives a quiet life of responsibility, integrity, and principle, and has little patience for the hypocrites, whiners, crooks, and especially big k’nockers of the world.