When lovely Thomas at My Porch visited England last November, he very charmingly bought all the bloggers he met (and some he didn’t) books which he thought we’d like. He put a lot of thought into this, and I was impressed – for me was chosen Tepper Isn’t Going Out (2001) by Calvin Trillin, which Thomas had seen in my Amazon Wishlist. It was there because of him, in fact – he wrote here that Tepper was his favourite fictional character, and that was enough to sway me. Then I read the novel last December, thought it was quirky and great, and… somehow never got around to writing about it. I’m going to do my best to remember now what was great about it.
Murray Tepper is a very laid-back, ordinary man – with one rather bizarre quirk. He likes to spend time sat in his car, reading the newspaper, minding his own business and not bothering him. He parks his car in various spots around New York, knowing which roads use which parking systems, and where he and his car can best be undisturbed. Since he’s sitting in his car, he’ll often get people asking if he’s leaving the parking space – but Tepper isn’t going out.
He doesn’t try to justify his behaviour, and his intricate knowledge of the city’s parking potential – leaving his wife rather long-suffering, and his daughter Linda affectionately confused:
“Hi, Daddy,” she said.
“I’m not going out,” Tepper said.
“Daddy, it’s me – Linda,” his daughter said.
“I recognised you. One of the advantages of having only one daughter is that remembering her name and what she looks like is not difficult. Are you looking for a spot?”
“Of course I’m not looking for a spot, Daddy. Be serious.”
“If you are, it’s good here after six. But I’m not going out.”
Tepper’s job is one of the delights of the novel. I don’t know if it’s the sort of thing that really exists anymore, but it lends great comic possibility. I don’t know what the job title is, but Tepper and his company ‘Worldwide Lists’ compare lists of consumers to see where unexpected similarities between disparate lists might exist. Will buyers of binoculars want bird-watching books, or buyers of earplugs also want lettuce-dryers, etc. And they use this sort of information to sell addresses of customers to people designing products. I’ll let Tepper explain the process himself:
“We start with the obvious. We make a little universe around this imaginary customer of whatever Mittigin’s selling – in this case, someone trying to sleep on an airplane. So people who belong to frequent flyer programs are obviously in this universe. If there aren’t enough people in the center of the universe, we just reach a little farther – where the population is thinner. Barney likes it when we find a little clot of people we didn’t expect – maybe subscribers to the most sophisticated trade magazine for mainframe computer repair people, because those people are always travelling and they’re usually tired and because of their technical bent they might actually be able to figure out Barney’s maps. It gives him a thrill.
Barney Mittigin (“a schmuck”) is responsible for some of the richest comedy in the novel – he specialises in objects which double as other objects. A candlesnuffer that also cuts out melon chunks. An attache case that turns into a foldout computer table. And, in this case, a round-the-neck sleep pillow covered in maps of major airports. Wonderful stuff.
But the main thread of Tepper Isn’t Going Out is definitely Tepper’s determined parking. He starts off being noticed simply by those irked by his seemingly irrational occupancy of spaces – but mayor Frank Ducavelli is on the warpath, and he thinks Tepper is an anarchist.
This is where innocent, odd but pleasant Tepper gets caught up in a furore. Everyone invests his parking with different meaning – and they line up to sit with him and ask advice. For some he is battling the status quo; for others he is the symbol of a left-wing cause. Trillin takes a quirky, slightly silly topic and looks at the hysteria that can arise around a man who doesn’t say very much – but Trillin is wise, and doesn’t let the novel creep too far away from its quirky, silly basis. This isn’t Orwell territory, Trillin isn’t trying to make huge political points through metaphor – he is enjoying the surreal and entertaining things that can happen to offbeat people.
When I’m not reading interwar domestic novels, this is precisely the other sort of novel I rave about. I keep using that word ‘quirky’, but that’s what it is – and it’s so difficult to find left-of-centre novels which aren’t also macabre or ridiculous or *too* silly. Tepper Isn’t Going Out is grounded firmly in the normal world, and nobody’s actions and reactions are all that unlikely. It’s a gem of a novel, and I’m so pleased that Thomas gave it to me – and that I finally got around to writing about it!
Books to get Stuck into:
All Quiet on the Orient Express – Magnus Mills: I only reviewed this recently, but it is a similar (if slightly more unsettling) deadpan look at a surreal situation. For other suggestions, see those at the bottom of this review!