Isn’t Going Out
Calvin Trillin Random House, 213 pages, $22.95
Minnow Pea: A Progressively Lipogrammatic Epistolary Fable
Mark Dunn MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 205 pages, $22
At first glance, parking and pangrams have little in common.
A pangram is a sentence that uses all the letters of the alphabet,
the most well-known example being “The quick brown fox jumps
over the lazy dog.” Parking, of course, is something about
which many urban dwellers must worry. What could a novel about
parking, namely Tepper Isn’t Going Out by Calvin Trillin,
and a novel about pangrams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark
Dunn, possibly have in common?
Far more than you might think. In fact, I will always link
these two books together in my mind. I became aware of them
around the same time and wanted to read both for the same
reason: their respective premises were so simple that I suspected
brilliance. If there’s one thing in the world that writers
struggle with, it’s ideas. For writers, then, reading these
books is akin to realizing that you could have had a V8.
in fact, could possibly win an award for the year’s most basic
novel. It tells the tale of Murray Tepper, a man who has became
so adept at New York City parking that it has essentially
become his hobby. In the evenings after dinner or on a pleasant
Sunday afternoon, he takes the car, cruises around until he
finds a really good parking spot, puts his money in the meter,
and sits and reads the paper. This behavior bewilders Tepper’s
wife, not to mention the many drivers who pause by the parking
spot, thinking Tepper is about to leave. But Tepper waves
them on because he isn’t going out, he’s just enjoying his
perfectly legal parking spot.
Naturally, Tepper’s actions start to draw attention. When
people begin to recognize him around the neighborhoods in
which he parks, they stop to say hello, and find Tepper a
sympathetic audience who will listen to their family and work
woes. Before long, there’s a line waiting outside his passenger
door every Sunday afternoon, and the city’s mayor, Frank Ducavelli
(a thinly disguised pre-Sept. 11 Guiliani), begins to resent
this bit of disorder in his fiefdom. He sics his legal beagles
onto Tepper by making them search for obscure laws that would
prevent parking in legal parking spots. The city begins to
take Tepper’s side against the mayor they’ve dubbed “Il Duce,”
and watches to see how far the battle of wills will go.
In spite of the increasing complexity of Tepper’s situation—he
just wants to park, after all—the novel remains refreshingly
simple and even pedestrian in its language. The book pokes
clever but gentle fun at New Yorkers, especially its politicians.
The people who go to Tepper for advice (which Tepper never
actually gives; his devotees convince themselves Tepper has
helped them) are earnest about their problems, such as the
fish-store counterman who bemoans the fact that he can’t slice
lox as thin as his predecessor, who was a veritable artist
of his trade.
ends on precisely the right note, with a hint of a twist that
makes you wonder for just a few moments. Ella Minnow Pea,
while more straightforward, also wends its way to a fitting
end. Ella’s setting is vastly different than Tepper’s
everyday New York, however: It takes place on the fictional
island nation of Nollop, some 20 miles off the coast of the
Carolinas. According to a brief, dictionary-style preface,
Nollop was established as a quasi-communal society by dispossessed
Southern Americans in the 1840s. Originally named Utopianna,
the country changed its name in 1904 to honor citizen Nevin
Nollop, who invented the popular pangram “The quick brown
fox jumps over the lazy dog.”
After this very brief setup, the entire novel takes the form
of letters written by the island’s inhabitants to each other.
The first letter, from a young woman named Ella Minnow Pea
to her cousin Tassie, relates a grave event: The letter “Z”
has fallen from the tiles spelling out the famous sentence
at the base of Nollop’s memorial statue. The island’s council
of elders immediately declares this a sign from the long-deceased
Nollop. Nollopians have become too complacent in their literary
heritage, the council proclaims, and henceforth must strike
the use of “Z” from their language, with severe penalties
Surely you can guess where this is heading. Just as the island’s
residents resign themselves to life without Z, Q follows suit.
Are these indeed signs from Nollop, or is the fixative holding
the tiles simply giving out? As tiles begin dropping with
increasing frequency, Ella leads her neighbors in an underground
attempt to prove that Nollop may not have been so linguistically
gifted after all.
Alas, the tiles keep dropping, resulting in the “progressively
lipogrammatic epistolary fable” of the book’s exquisitely
descriptive subtitle. A lipogram is a sentence that purposely
excludes a given letter or letters of the alphabet, while
an epistolary book is one written entirely in the form of
letters. The island’s fictional nature and the rapidity with
which events happen result in a story that is more fable than
novel. And this is the only way this book could have been
written: Dunn gives us a society prone to fancy and old-fashioned
letter-writing, a society whose alphabet is being quickly
whittled away, with the result that the book itself must make
do first without Z, then without Q, and so on. The wordplay
is delicious. What fun and frustration Dunn must have experienced
writing this story.
language and form, then, are about as different from Tepper’s
as they can get, but still these books have much in common.
They point out the absurdity of public officials who insist
on making mountains out of molehills. They reflect on the
concept of personal freedom. They tell lovely, lively, sophisticated
little stories in a mere 200 pages, a welcome change from
800-page Stephen King or epic fantasy novels. Even their respective
covers are simplicity itself. Would-be novelists would do
well to read Tepper and Ella and observe that
quantity does not outweigh quality, and that complexity is
not necessary for success.