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A look at America through a violent lens

NONFICTION

Killings

By Calvin Trillin

Random House

293 pages, $26

By Gene Warner

Calvin Trillin never dwells on the gory details of a killing. He couldn’t care less about the caliber of the gun or the length of the knife blade.

If you’re looking for blood and guts or a graphic painting of a murder scene, look elsewhere.

That seems odd in a book called “Killings.”

Instead, Trillin writes about America, mostly through the lens of regular folks caught up in violence, whether they became victims or defendants. And sometimes the reader wonders whether there’s such a huge chasm between the two groups.

Trillin chronicles how a tragedy rips apart families -- and especially the small towns rocked by those killings.

A violent death  can also take the plastic wrap off a community icon and poke holes in the idyllic small-town stereotype.

Like Emporia, Kan., scene of an article called “Rumors Around Town.” A city of about 25,000 residents, Emporia is the kind of place, Trillin writes, where neighbors drink lemonade on the front porch and kid each other about how they played in the July 4th softball game. So the headline, “Emporia Man Fatally Shot,” provided quite a jolt.

Trillin introduces us to Martin Anderson, a peaceful citizen with a good job, an Army Reserve commission, a wife and four little girls. His wife Lorna works at Faith Lutheran Church, where pastor Tom Bird is a community pillar.

There’s trouble in Mayberry, though, and not everyone’s getting out of this chapter alive. In fact, there are multiple crimes.

‘’What was sordid about Emporia’s most sordid case, of course, was not simply the crimes but the lives they revealed -- lives full of hatred and maybe wife-beating and certainly casual, apparently joyless liaisons,” Trillin writes.

In the introduction to these stories, which ran in The New Yorker mostly from 1969 through 1986, Trillin explains that he wanted to write about America without dwelling on politics and government.

“A killing,” he writes, “often seemed to present the best opportunity to write about people one at a time.”

But this book isn’t some ode to small-town America through its colorful characters.

“I wasn’t interested in doing what is sometimes called Americana -- stories about people like the last fellow in Jasper County, Georgia who can whittle worth a damn.”

Step aside, Charles Kuralt.

Trillin, of course, writes brilliantly, but also simply. His greatest gift may be that he doesn’t let his writing overwhelm -- or get in the way of -- a great story.

These are great stories. There’s a top Miami Beach criminal lawyer whose killing may have been ordered by a Cuban cocaine dealer. An all-American Tennessee teen who drifted into the drug culture and may have died because of her father’s temper. A Pennsylvania female coal worker who had sued to get her job before she died. An Arizona health-food pioneer who kept getting attacked because of his mob connections or an encounter with hippie cultists or his racist views or his stash of gold. There’s a New Hampshire woman who may have committed the “perfect crime,” partly by publicly questioning her father’s supposed suicide. Trillin even includes a delightful profile of retired Miami Herald police reporter Edna Buchanan (though it doesn’t quite fit in this collection).

The author also challenges the reader.  Many of these stories aren’t good-versus-bad morality plays. You won’t find many random acts of violence. And Trillin seems more interested in how the community, rather than a judge or jury, would rule on the degree of guilt.

Trillin loves the gray areas. Like what to do with a teenage killer wielding a sawed-off shotgun to seek revenge for an under-prosecuted child-sex-abuse case? And what to make of that teen becoming sort of a community hero?

Readers checking the dates of these stories might ask one obvious question: Why is this being published now? It’s an expanded version of  the 1984 original, but only six of the 22 stories were written since then. The answer is that these stories still hold up, as classics.

There’s plenty of great writing here:

*“The widow of Arthur (Fat Man) Blatt, who became a widow by putting five bullets into the Fat Man.”

*“Jim Berry came to Center Junction [Iowa] in 1962 and didn’t do much that anybody approved of from then until the time he left, rather suddenly, last June.”

*On a film-crew member who gets shot while working in the mountains of eastern Kentucky: “According to various stories, the dead man had been a representative of the Army Corps of Engineers, a VISTA volunteer or a CBS cameraman -- any of whom might qualify as a candidate for shooting in Letcher County.”

*“Most people who live in Center Junction live there because they were born there.”

* “It is a small, gray town in a part of central Pennsylvania where the towns tend to be small and gray and to have movie houses that have been closed for years.”

Welcome to Small-Town America, which can sometimes be a violent place.

Gene Warner is a News Staff Reporter

 

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