KILLINGS by Calvin Trillin


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Sixteen of Trillin's ""U.S. Journal"" pieces from the New Yorker (1969-1982), all involving homicide--but with little interest in sleuthing or gore: ""the place was the context for the killing, and the killing was an opportunity to write about the place."" In 1969 Jeremiah, Kentucky, a mountaineer shoots a Canadian cameraman who was filming a documentary on the mountain-man's land. Insanity? Or just ""the code of the hills,"" a cultural phenomenon? Trillin leaves the question open, as he does in most of the vignettes--sometimes to strong, understated effect, sometimes with sketchy, unsatisfying results. Some of the other cases also focus in on social conflict: the 1970 Pennsylvania killing of a hippie drug-dealer by a most unappealing undercover cop; the suicide (?) of a frustrated Native American activist, driven to hostage-taking violence; the attempt of Savannah society to protect a criminal within those aristocratic ranks, the death of a woman coal-miner who had sued to get her job. A few pieces center on the character of the victim--like flashy Harvey St. Jean, the top criminal/ divorce lawyer in 1975 Miami Beach. (""A divorce lawyer who lived at the Jockey Club could feel as secure about his future as a dentist who lived in Hershey, Pennsylvania."") But many of the reports simply set forth the facts in Trillin's effortless way, letting pathos, horror, or curiosity take center-stage: feuds among Mexican-Americans in California, Southeast Asian refugees in Iowa; child-abuse; poisoned intra-family relationships; a psycho or two; and ""The Mystery of Walter Bopp,"" an elderly Tucson health-food-store owner--who might have been killed by the Mob. . . or by Satanists . . . or for hidden treasure. . . or. . . ? Unfortunately, none of the stories here is long enough to provide textured true-crime fascination--or all the information a reader would like. But Trillin, whose food-writing panache tends to overshadow his gifts as an all-around reporter, writes about the great variety of people and places here with wry, lean compassion--and his irony (a little heavyhanded in the early items) helps to make these ""killings"" into clear, neat models of short-take reportage.

Pub Date: Feb. 16th, 1983
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/ Houghton Mifflin