A look at the good life


Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 13, 2007 at 11:40 p.m.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that getting a happy marriage down on the page is one of the hardest challenges a writer can take on.

"All happy families are alike," as that best-selling chronicler of marital misery Leo Tolstoy famously put it — the unstated corollary being that if Tolstoy had churned out heartwarming tales of wedded bliss, his readers would have flocked to Dostoyevsky in droves.

Or, as Calvin Trillin likes to say when invited to speak at writing conferences: "It's this hideous disadvantage, not having any bestiality to report."

This makes what Trillin has accomplished with his latest book all the more impressive:

He's made his own family's happiness come alive.

The book is called "About Alice," and it's expanded — though not much — from a New Yorker piece that appeared in March. The title refers to the smart, confident, beautiful woman with the strongly held opinions who transformed his existence when he had the luck to "wander into the right party" in 1963. The result was a connection Trillin friends tend to describe with phrases like "as true a love story as I ever saw."

For decades, he had the good sense not to attempt deconstruction of his marriage in print.

Oh, he'd written plenty about Alice over the years. She appeared as a kind of sitcom character ("a dietitian in sensible shoes," as she once put it) in her husband's lighter writings, collected in books with titles like "Travels With Alice" and "Alice, Let's Eat." In the latter she was described — in an opening line perhaps less immortal than Tolstoy's, but memorable nonetheless — as having "a weird predilection for limiting our family to three meals a day."

But he'd never done anything like "About Alice," which was released Dec. 26, five years after her death from heart failure at 63.

"I was trying to make her a real person," Trillin says.

In the process, he evoked a lovingly enmeshed family it's hard not to wish you were part of — yet whose blessings would likely have lulled the author of "Anna Karenina" to sleep.

But Trillin had a darker layer to work with, as well.

It gave him access to happiness's flip side, to what cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker once described as "the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything."

Alice Trillin knew that rumble all too well. She borrowed Becker's line for an article she wrote about the existential implications of the lung cancer diagnosis she received in 1976 — a cancer, her surgeon said, that she had just a 10 percent chance to survive.

"Big dam of denial"

When that lung cancer diagnosis came, 30 years ago, Trillin didn't believe it.

"At first, I thought it was just some kind of mistake, or I'm in a nightmare or something like that," he says. "I mean, she was 38 years old, she had never smoked."

But mostly, he coped by refusing to admit that she could actually die. Their two daughters were 7 and 4: It was easier — and, of course, essential — to concentrate on being their father. After surgery, radiation and some chemotherapy had given Alice a couple of healthy years, he realized he wasn't thinking about her cancer every day.

Then out of the blue, as he was walking through an airport somewhere — if he had to guess, he'd say it was in New Orleans — the "big dam of denial" that had sustained him collapsed. For the first time, he admitted to himself that things could have ended badly. He pictured himself telling his daughters that their mother was dead.

"It literally sort of knocked me over," Trillin says.

He staggered to a chair. People stopped to ask if he needed help. Soon enough, however, the image faded and he flew home.

He kept this moment to himself. He doesn't think he ever told Alice.

More than two decades of happiness ensued.

On the evening of Sept. 11 — yes, that Sept. 11 — Alice died of cardiac arrest.

For those close to the Trillins, the merging of public and private griefs felt surreal.

NBC's Tom Brokaw, whom Trillin asked to preside at Alice's memorial service, says he first met Trillin while they were working on the same Vietnam story in 1968. Later, when Brokaw's job took him to New York, the two families got together. "It was love at first sight," he says. "It truly has been an extended family."

On Sept. 11, Brokaw was on the air all day. He made it through somehow, he says, got home at 2 a.m. and checked his emotional pulse. He felt as if he'd had "an out-of-body experience" — but he hadn't broken down.

The next morning, at 7, his assistant called to tell him Alice had died.

"I wept for an hour," he says.

The recovery

Ask Trillin's family and friends how he's doing today and they're likely to say, as James Edmunds does, "far better than I feared." It helps that he has four grandchildren to dote on. He calls them the Wonder Tots.

It may also help that, since Alice's death, he has expressed a bit more emotion in his writing. Daughter Abigail points in particular to a New Yorker article, published last year, about a young soldier her father didn't know who'd been killed in Iraq.

Trillin got interested, he wrote in the article's opening paragraph, when he found himself in tears listening to a National Public Radio piece about the man's death. He was en route to visit daughter Sarah and his grandson Toby, in New Jersey, and "for a moment or two" he thought he might have to pull off the road. He linked his feelings to "the way I felt about my wife's not having lived to enjoy her grandchildren."

His new book, of course, is another case in point. It's also something Trillin had no intention of writing.

As the months went by, he says, "people would occasionally ask me, "Are-you-going-to-write-about-Alice?"' He rushes the words together, conveying the awkwardness of the exchange. "I don't think so," he would reply.

Last year, after New Yorker editor David Remnick asked the same question, he changed his mind.

The article took him a few months to write, "a long time compared to, say, going out and doing a murder story." It got a huge response from widows, widowers and cancer survivors, which Trillin had anticipated, but also from "young, unmarried women, talking about the sort of marriage that they hoped to have."

If all happy families are alike — well, they wanted the secret of his.

Trillin's daughters say their father is unusually excited about the book's publication. Abigail offers what seems a likely explanation.

"I think my mom would have loved it," she says, "and I think he knows that."

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