The dust jacket of S.J. Perelman's first collection of humor, Dawn Ginsbergh's Revenge, sported a memorable blurb by Groucho Marx: "From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down, I was convulsed with laughter. Some day I intend reading it."
SI's new book reviewer, longtime senior writer Ron Fimrite, is equally generous with praise. The difference is that Fimrite actually opens the books he critiques. "I read them cover to cover," he says. "It gives me something to do on airplanes."
His latest review, which is a guide to this holiday season's sports coffee-table books, on page 115, is as witty and provocative as his readers have come to expect. Fimrite has a Waughsian command of language. Evelyn Waugh, it turns out, is his favorite author.
Fimrite was reluctant to take on the book beat, but we talked him into it. "I figured I'd had my fill of sports without looking at sports books," he says. "It's the same reason I discourage sports conversations among my friends. Enough's enough!" Reading most books about sports, says Fimrite, is like being fed intravenously; you never taste anything, but you eventually feel a kind of ghostly satiation. "I'm appalled at how many sports books are being written," he says. "But they're a vast improvement on what they used to be." The old ones, in his view, were too worshipful. "The new ones tend to be more cynical," he says, "though some are self-consciously iconoclastic."
Fimrite's own iconoclasm was nurtured during the late 1940s and early '50s at Cal, where he took a course in film criticism. He remembers liking Charlie Chaplin in Limelight and panning Marlon Brando in Viva Zapata! Even then, Fimrite refused to kiss the hem of fashionable opinion. Brando, he wrote, was just playing Stanley Kowalski with a Spanish accent. For another class, Fimrite did a term paper on Chaplin, which his professor found, shall we say, interesting, since the course was on Elizabethan literature. (The prof's review: "Nice try. C.")
Since then, he has had two books published: a 1979 collection of his writings from SI and the San Francisco Chronicle, called Way to Go!, and 1988's The Square (Taylor Publishing, $14.95). Called "an engaging little book" by The Washington Post, The Square is the definitive work on the Washington Square Bar & Grill, a San Francisco saloon where Fimrite regularly expounds on '30s comedies and the Bay Area psyche, among other things.
Last summer, Fimrite wrote the first 30 pages of a third book, a memoir. Today, he's still 30 pages along. "I've gotten myself up to age nine, where I seemed to reach my peak," he says. "The rest, I fear, is all downhill."