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Remembering Denny.

Calvin Trillin's latest book has received the sort of consistently favorable press that often makes me suspect that log-rolling is underway in New York. After reading Remembering Denny, I'm convinced that the praise is genuine and well deserved. To my taste this is the best of Trillin's many books. It takes only two or three hours to read but raises questions worth mulling for a long time.

The one way in which the book fails is in giving a clear answer to the question with which it begins: Why, exactly, did the person Trillin had known in the fifties as a golden boy at Yale kill himself in 1991? Trillin had known this friend as "Denny" Hansen, a sunny-seeming, handsome varsity athlete and natural scholar who charmed everyone he met. Those who encountered the same man in Washington, in the decade before his death, knew him as Roger D. Hansen, a sour-seeming, run-of-the-mill figure at a think tank.

Trillin ends up confessing that he can't really explain how the first man turned into the second. Instead, he ticks off all the factors that might have played a part. Perhaps Hansen was at war with the realization that he was homosexual, which did not fit his own idea of fifties-style perfection. In middle age, Hansen suffered constant pain from back and shoulder injuries; perhaps this was just too depressing for someone who had starred on Yale's swim team. Hansen's family had a history of mental illness; perhaps, as another friend said at his funeral, he had been "depressed all of his life," even when seeming to be on top of the world. Perhaps it was simple bad luck and bad timing at several of his jobs. (For instance, he emerged as an academic specialist in "North-South" issues at just the time when Americans were getting bored with the Third World.) Perhaps there was no one decisive reason but just a number of things all gone wrong.

Trillin's inability to solve this mystery (as if anyone could) does not matter, because the book's payoff comes through the observations and portrayals along the way. Trillin has always seemed reluctant to draw big-picture conclusions in his writing, but his reporting is so careful and his descriptions so vivid and funny that the reader has plenty to work with when drawing conclusions of his own. In this book, the richest material concerns three main subjects.

One is the huge generational shift in perceptions of homosexuality. As an adult in New York, Trillin and his wife lived on one side of the generational divide, with plenty of openly gay friends. But as a child in Kansas City and as a student at Yale, Trillin had been on the other side of the divide, when "homosexuals" were exotic, theoretical creatures one did not encounter in daily life. Trillin had, of course, known Hansen from those days--from the era when a man who thought he was gay typically grew up "not simply hearing his closest friends tell faggot jokes but maybe even telling a few faggot jokes himself" for camouflage. Trillin's tone is heartfelt rather than wisecracking. In one of the book's sincerest moments, he regrets how much harm he--and everybody of the generation--did with casual "homo" jokes, before they knew how many of their friends might be hurt. "When we called somebody a fairy, the implication was not that he actually engaged in homosexual acts. We just wanted to say something mean."

A second endlessly rich subject is the connection between schooling and social mobility in America. Trillin presents his own position on the subject as being healthily uncomplicated. His own father, who grew up in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, dreamed of modeling his son's life after Dink Stover at Yale. ("I have always assumed that he named me Calvin ... because he believed, incorrectly, that it would be an appropriate name for someone at Yale.") Trillin therefore spares us the pussyfooting so familiar from people who say that they "went to college outside Boston," so as to make you drag out of them that they went to Harvard. Instead, Trillin sounds glad for the chance to have gone to Yale, glad to have been "tapped" for one of the secret societies, glad now to serve on the Yale governing board.

But he also has a lot to say about how Ivy League and prep-school snobbery has changed over the decades, and about the way early social snubs or victories shape people later in life. For example, like every public school boy from the hinterland, he was initially shocked by how many things preppies knew and he didn't. In a year or two, he and most other public school graduates found themselves doing better than most of the preppies and got the feeling that, a lot of the rich Eastern people were at Yale because of some entitlement of family or class or money and that we were there because, in ways that were perhaps not immediately apparent, we somehow deserved to be Even now, nearly forty years later if I meet someone who is easily identifiable as being from what was once called a St. Grottlesex background, my gut expectation--kicking in fast enough to over-ride my beliefs about judging people as individuals, slipping in well below the level of rational thinking--is that he's probably a bit slow.

The idea of "deserving" to succeed brings us to Trillin's third main theme: what he considers the burden of "promise." When Denny Hansen left Yale, he might have seemed the complete fulfillment of what it meant to be promising." He was off to Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship. Life magazine, back when it was the center of America's pop consciousness, chose him as the subject for a photo-essay on American college students. (The selection was partly happenstance, partly pure bigotry--the editors wanted to avoid a student who would seem "too Jewish"--but partly an indication of how completely Hansen seemed the all-American boy.) His friends thought anything was possible for him, which in practical terms meant that they joked about what cabinet jobs they'd have in the Hansen administration.

Trillin quo es a lot of Hansen's friends, especially Rhodes scholars, on how unfair and oppressive this "promise" can be. If you're capable of becoming president, they say, then to wind up anywhere else is somehow to have failed. "The way I see promise is that you have a knapsack, and all the time you're growing up they keep stuffing promise into the knapsack," a woman who knew Hansen in his later years told Trillin. "Pretty soon, it's just too heavy to carry. You have to unpack."

This is not completely convincing. For every "promising" person who is crippled, as Hansen seems to have been, by the idea that moderate success equals failure, there are probably ten people who draw essential confidence from early assurances that they have something special--and a hundred people who are held back by having been told that they had no promise at all. In this sense having promise" is like having family money: it messes up some people, but on the whole is a plus.
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Author:Fallows, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 1, 1993
Words:1189
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