Sat, Jul 02, 2016 - Page 14 News List

Book review: Racial conflicts, old yet familiar

Trillin’s new book repackages his work with ‘The New Yorker’, and mainly ponders racial issues such as police shootings, voter suppression tactics and race-based acts of terrorism

By Dwight Garner  /  NY Times News Service

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches From Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America, by Calvin Trillin

Calvin Trillin is 80, and his career is now largely in the hands of the repackagers. Quite Enough of Calvin Trillin, an anthology of his wittier journalism and poetry, appeared in 2011. That same year, the University of Texas Press issued Trillin on Texas, a collection that seemed to me to be carving the brisket a bit thin — though not as thinly as Ecco has been slicing Charles Bukowski’s old work into new books with titles like On Cats and On Love. In terms of Bukowski, I’m holding out for “On Schlitz.”

Trillin’s new book is another raid on the archives of The New Yorker, where he has been on staff since 1963. It is titled Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches From Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America. Not everything in it is top shelf. Some of the early articles are tentative and straightforwardly reportorial; Trillin was still finding his voice.

But everything in Jackson, 1964 resonates. The book builds, and the payoffs in some of its later pieces (the most recent is from 2008) are generous. The volume is more than a history lesson. The issues it considers — police shootings, voter suppression tactics, race-based acts of terrorism — seem taken from today’s headlines. We’ve come so far, yet we haven’t come very far at all.

This book appears at an interesting time. In April, Trillin got the gang-gong on Twitter after The New Yorker published one of his urbane and satirical poems, “Have They Run Out of Provinces Yet?” It poked fun at chasers of ethnic food trends, and read in part: “But then food from Szechuan came our way/Making Cantonese strictly passe.”

This doggerel was groan-inducing, as Trillin’s verse can be. (Groaning at his poems, oddly, has long been one of the pleasures of reading them.) But tone-deafness was mistaken, by those eager to be outraged, for racism and xenophobia. This hurt to watch. It wasn’t merely a poem that was being misunderstood. It was a career, one that has frequently been spent on the moral front lines.

Publication Notes

Jackson, 1964: And Other Dispatches From Fifty Years of Reporting on Race in America

By Calvin Trillin

275 pages

Random House

US: Hardback

One of the topics Trillin picks up in Jackson, 1964 is the difficulty he and other reporters had, in Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere during the 1960s, in trying to maintain a semblance of professional detachment while reporting on the civil rights movement.

He tried, when he could, to play things down the middle. But he writes in his introduction, “I couldn’t pretend that we were covering a struggle in which all sides — the side that thought, for instance, that all American citizens had the right to vote and the side that thought that people acting on such a belief should have their houses burned down — had an equally compelling case to make.”

At a commemoration of the Freedom Rides 50 years after they occurred, Trillin realized that he’d been more of a participant than he’d thought at the time. “I greeted John Lewis, a sharecropper’s son who had grown up to be a congressman, more like an old comrade-in-arms than like someone I’d mentioned in a couple of articles,” he writes.

The pieces in Jackson, 1964 are not all set in the South. Trillin watches National Guard patrols stream nightly through black neighborhoods in Wilmington, Delaware, in 1968. He reports on attempts to desegregate Denver’s schools in 1969. From Provo, Utah, in 1970, he writes drolly about racism at Brigham Young University. He notices a Mormon pamphlet, displayed in the college bookstore, titled Civil Rights — Tool of Communist Deception.

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