The ultimate New York parking novel

If Calvin Trillin’s middle-aged Manhattanite, obsessed with his parking space, appeals to British readers, that would be a story in itself

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

Tepper Isn’t Going Out Calvin Trillin

Fox, Finch and Tepper, pp.224, £9.99

Publishing a ‘New York’ novel in the months after 11 September 2001 is a surefire, if accidental, way to make it immediately out of date. Especially one about parking. There’s certainly a parking novel to be written in the age of global terror and suicide attackers, but it will have a more security-conscious bent than the amusing small novel Calvin Trillin achieved that dreadful autumn, about a diffident late-middle-aged New Yorker looking for a spot to park from which, as the title suggests, Tepper Isn’t Going Out.

Bollards and concrete impediments, armed assault teams, helicopters overhead and a discarded parking ticket or Syrian passport in the glove compartment: those are the sorts of details the novel for the new age will bear. The real story might be why a publishing house in Bath — which has even worked ‘Tepper’ into its name! — has chosen to reprint the novel for a British readership in 2015; and in her foreword, the publisher tries to explain why, settling for ‘the perfect balance of odd and sincere in the topics it tackles’, which seems mostly right.

Murray Tepper, whose face ‘didn’t seem designed to hold an expression long’, is a Manhattanite in the pre-internet marketing business, working on mailing lists that solicit customers for strange, useless products. He has a grown-up daughter and wary son-in-law, a wife who wants to paint in the west of England, and a baby grandson: none of whom understands why he stays in his car, reading the paper, once he’s found a choice spot and paid the meter, while around him cars circle and honk, and without looking he flicks them away: Tepper isn’t going out.

His conduct attracts the contempt and soon the hostility of Mayor Frank Ducavelli, a paranoid authoritarian who might just as well have been called Rudolph Giuliani and been done with it; except the name Ducavelli allows tabloid writers to call him ‘il Duce’. The novel surges toward courtroom scenes, and judges’ rulings, that will recall for many readers another great New York story (and film), Miracle on 34th Street, where a public-spirited lawyer tries to prove that his unworldly client, the Macy’s department store Santa, is the real thing.

Since we still live in cities, parking is scarce and authorities are always making it worse for regular people to park, the novel holds up well enough: all the more so for readers who enjoy a way in to a certain Jewish urban milieu where people shop at the deli for a ‘nice whitefish’ to bring home for dinner. It should be said, for those who don’t know him, that Trillin, who has written reportage of a great variety, from cookery to killings, for the New Yorker for 50 years, is one of the great postwar magazine writers, and even a trifling novel like this one cannot dim his lustre. Still, he has loosened his grip more than one would like — the expository, unnatural dialogue from start to finish marked a greater offence to this reader than slightness or datedness.

At some point, however, Tepper has to go out. Even having defeated Mayor Ducavelli, he can’t stay in his blue Chevy Malibu forever. The novel ends with him and his wife heading for England, where, no doubt, Spectator readers have heard of a retired American gent tormenting Mayor Johnson and fellow Londoners, not just by taking parking spots from native British people but probably, like other Americans before him, avoiding the congestion charge, too.

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