Stubbornness can be a vice. All it takes is one uncooperative stick in the mud, who will not, under any circumstances, eat Chinese (or Italian, or meat), to ruin everybody’s dinner plans. One lone loudmouth can sour a social gathering by refusing to take the hint and change the subject. It is, however, a vice that Americans have historically been quite tolerant of. Huck Finn, Hester Prynn, Abraham Lincoln, Rambo: Any comprehensive list of stubborn American cultural icons would stretch to the sky. The one great insight undergirding Calvin Trillin’s new comic novel, Tepper Isn’t Going Out (Random House, 215 pages, $22.95), is that in New York City stubbornness has become, if not a virtue, then at least a much celebrated vice.
The eponymous Murray Tepper spends his twilight years trying to shore up a nest egg as the co-partner in the firm Worldwide Lists — so named because the moniker of the previous business started with “Worldwide” and the stencil job was cheaper for the young cash-strapped operation. Forty years later, it remains a small rather hidebound New York shop in the shrinking direct mail industry. Tepper and staff spend the workday trying to find creative ways to sell such articles as wannabe mogul Barney Mittgin’s inflatable head pillow/ airport terminal map.
Husband, father of one, grandfather and regular non-political Joe (“My politics are simple. I’m a regular voter, and I usually regret my vote”), Tepper has only two quirks. He dislikes the modifier “sort of” and he likes to park his car, after work and on Sundays, feed the meter, and read the newspapers in peace. In other cities, such behavior would pass without notice, but this is New York City around the turn of the millennium. To the normal shortage of parking and New Yorkers’ natural aggressiveness, Trillin adds the larger-than-life Mayor Frank Ducavelli.
This caricatured Rudy Giuliani knockoff has an authoritarian mean streak that might make Mussolini recoil: He dismisses his political opponents as “animals,” relocates the offices of errant city council members to make way for homeless shelters and sees around him everywhere a vast conspiracy to plunge his city back into chaos. In addition to concrete blocks and barbed wire, Ducavelli’s City Hall features,
“movable shields made out of bullet-resistant Plexiglas … in strategic spots around the lawn, blocking what had been determined to be sight lines that terrorist snipers could use if they took over the discount computer stores across the street and began firing at city officials.”
For those in a post September 11 frame of mind, that’s supposed to be funny. (Real terrorism must be hell for humorists.) Ducavelli’s exaggerated siege mentality and stubborn mania for order make for a run-in with the law abiding but slightly eccentric direct mail man because, in a Gumpian turn of events, New Yorkers begin to go to this serial parker for advice en masse.
They clog the sidewalks and alter the flow of traffic, leading Ducavelli to rhetorically charge Tepper with attempted anarchy and his city attorney to charge Tepper, formally, with disturbing the peace. Once New Yorkers learn of Tepper’s plight, they rally around him. To the mass of protesters at the trial — including bike messengers, the ACLU, country singers, taxi drivers and every other conceivable resident of the city — a particular kind of New York freedom is on the line: The freedom to stubbornly do whatever we bloody well please.
The thing that saves the book from getting either too ridiculous or too message heavy is Tepper himself. He stubbornly refuses to play the role of victim. Telling of an interview with a television station on the Ducavelli/ Tepper affair, client Barney Mittgin says:
“I hope they use the part where I say that you’re a symbol of alienation in our times.”
“I am?” Tepper said.
“Well, it’s more like a metaphor,” Mittgin said. “It doesn’t mean you personally. I heard a lecture about it. It turns out that almost everything is a symbol of the alienation of our times….”
The story’s one gaping flaw is a lack of real conflict. In the surreal trial, the lawyers of the two implacable men meet, espousing Necessary Interpretations of Fundamental Constitutional Principles. A victory for the other side will either strip all law-abiding citizens of their freedoms or plunge the city back into anarchic chaos. All this over the right to park one’s car and read the newspaper on a Sunday afternoon.
In the end, Trillin’s novel is a fun, if frivolous, send-up of the city of New York and of the often petty politics of the 1990s.