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Hip humorist looks at life and death in the theater, the movies and New Jersey.

Book Review: I Shudder by Paul Rudnick

If you like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, you’ll like Paul Rudnick. They come from the same mold. Like them, he exemplifies a kind of wit he himself calls “gay banter” and which has three defining characteristics. It is ironic. It is self-deprecating. It has a full-blooded swagger. But even more significantly, it can often be devastatingly funny.

There are one liners: Bennington has been forced to “eliminate its major in advanced bulimia, or as it’s also known, dance.” There are comic scenes like the family Christmas party in Kansas. There are devastating satiric portraits (the notoriously difficult actor Nicol Williamson) and loving tributes to weirdly wonderful friends (the costume designer William Ivey Long). There are laugh out loud anecdotes about the famous and those almost. I Shudder is a collection of 15 essays on everything from his childhood in Piscataway and the death of his father to character sketches of some of his more flamboyant theater cohorts and his experiences writing for movies like Sister Act and Addams Family Values.

Interspersed among these essays are five “I Shudder” pieces which are presented as passages from the diary of the 63-year old Elyot Vionnet, something of a curmudgeon, who observes with consummate disdain the collapse of social values around him and sees it as his duty to do something about it. The young woman who goes through life with her cell phone in her ear and pays no attention to the world around her must be taught to broaden her outlook. The talentless Martha Stewart wannabe must be shown what true talent is all about. In Vionnet, Rudnick creates a voice that has the irony and the swagger, but has none of the self deprecating quality of “gay banter.” Vionnet knows what is right, what is good, what should be, and he is going to damn well make sure he gets that message to those who need it. Be it taxi hailing etiquette or celebrating the holiday season, he is going to set the world straight.

Dressed in a tuxedo, since he objects to Santa’s red outfit and black belt, he is going to travel around by taxi on Christmas Eve to instill the true spirit of Christmas as he sees it. Santa has become “sloppy” in his naughty and nice judgments. “He’s grown grossly overweight, and he careens through the sky, dropping garishly wrapped packages onto people who should more correctly be receiving envelopes of anthrax, crates of soap and deodorant, and subpoenas.” He concludes that he is the only person capable of “administering Christmas properly.” And as he visits three different “celebrations” (three Christmas Eve visits being the required Dickensian quota), it seems crystal clear he is right. He is not the Scrooge that has to learn the true lesson of the season; he is the teacher.

While the I Shudder essays are nicely done, Rudnick is at his best in the personal essay. “The Sisters” is an account of a visit by his mother and her two sisters to his new Charles St. apartment in the West Village. He hears them complaining as they climb the many stairs to his top floor flat. Are there bugs, they want to know. He can’t afford them, he tells them. Is there a bathroom, his Aunt Lil wants to know. He uses a bucket in the hall, he tells them. They bring gifts: a wicker tissue box holder, a plastic toilet brush. What he is describing is a clash of cultural values, the middle class and the counter culture, and he uses his personal experiences, most likely enhanced, to illustrate.

It is a clash that on one level or another runs through the whole volume: whether it be the Bohemianism of the Village and the provincialism of New Jersey or gay, straight sexual orientation. In other essays he gives us an account of a party in which the services of a male prostitute are raffled off, the problem of the male kiss in the film In and Out, the early medical reaction to AIDS. All of which tend to emphasize the need for cultural bridges, and in the end the actual building of some of these bridges. After all is said and done Kevin Kline and Tom Selleck do kiss, and Rudnick’s family leaves him happily in the Village. Something is even done to ameliorate the scourge of AIDS.

This is not to say that there is nothing to shock in these essays. Something to shock has to be expected from the man who wrote The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told. There is the image of Rudnick and William Ivey Long running around in nun’s habits dunning passersby for money for children who can’t walk (lazy, Rudnick explains). There is the image of the lesbian couple at Gay Pride demonstration in the nation’s capitol, where the one young lady is leading the other by a leash attached to a piercing on her labia. There is an amusing remark said to have been made by Ethel Merman to Loretta Young which I will leave for the reader to discover from Rudnick’s account. There is a somewhat less than reverent account of a stay at a convent to do research for Sister Act. Still, when you come right down to it, I would guess most of this would have been a lot more shocking to a lot more people 10 or 15 years ago.

When push comes to shove, this is a funny book. Read it; you’ll like it.

About Jack Goodstein

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