There’s a Right Way : HOW TO DO THINGS RIGHT: The Revelations of a Fussy Man, <i> By L. Rust Hills (David R. Godine: $22.95 cloth, $15.95 paper; 320 pp.)</i>
How many people know how to eat an ice-cream cone? Everyone over the age of 2, you may say, plus many babies.
No, but I mean eat one properly. That means not winding up with sticky hands. And not planning so badly that you have the whole boring lower half of the cone left when you finish the ice cream. It means no melted blobs on the sidewalk, even from the overhanging flank of a double scoop.
Few indeed can manage all this.
That’s where L. Rust Hills comes in. He is the author of the best essay ever written on ice-cream cones. “Best” means both funniest and in a curious way most useful. You really could learn how to deal with cones (and with family outings to get them) from his six-page essay called “How to Eat an Ice-Cream Cone.” You’d be better off laughing, though.
The essay is one of 67 in a book that is like--not a cone, but a brick of what used to be called Neapolitan ice cream. That is, three flavors, each separate. At one end a stripe of strawberry; in the middle a stripe of chocolate; at the other end a stripe of vanilla.
To put it more plainly, Hills’ book is really three books, each with a distinctive taste. Each with a history, too. The reader first encounters a section called “How to Do Particular Things Particularly,” and that was originally a separate book published in 1972--a slim volume, hardly larger than a book of poems. Then comes a section called “How to Retire at 41” (yes, he really did), and that was its own book back in 1973. And the third? Brace yourself. With utter sang-froid, the third section is called “How to Be Good.” Seriously. That slim volume appeared in 1976. Now here they are all together, in size and in wit somewhat like Stephen Potter’s tiny trilogy Gamesmanship, One-Upmanship, and Lifemanship. The three together form a book of about 270 pages.
The first volume I would call strawberry. It has a sweet light flavor and a pink view of life. The problems it faces are no worse than how to organize a picnic, or set an alarm clock, or eat a cone. All are funny. Some are just about flawless, like “How to Give a Dinner Party.” Some are true originals, like “How to Do Four Dumb Tricks With a Package of Camels.” That one is so charming (less sinful in 1972 than now) that as soon as I finished reading it, I went back and read it again.
In general, Hills’ approach in this first section is to pay about 10 times more attention to some minor human activity than is usual, using lots of careful logic and keeping his face very straight. Since he is an exceptionally keen observer, the reader keeps getting little shocks of recognition about the problems inherent in folding a road map or giving a trip. They are lovely strawberry essays, all 16 of them. But it has to be added that they are mostly lightweight.
Now comes the chocolate: the 22 essays and mini-essays about retirement. This is my favorite section. Hills keeps his easy, confiding, offhand tone and he is just as funny as in the strawberry section. But he is a good deal profounder.
What, after all, happens to someone who retires at 41? (From a good job, too, as fiction editor of Esquire.) Why, the same thing that happens to someone who retires at 65, only with much greater force. Now that you don’t have to do anything, you are forced every single day to decide what you’d like to do. Hills can make you laugh out loud with his deadpan plans for filling up a Wednesday. But you soon realize that under the jokes he is quite serious. Like his hero, Montaigne, he is trying to figure out how to handle freedom. By my count, he tries about 30 approaches, none of which sound in the least like advice from a self-help book. Deeper, sadder, more thoughtful and possibly more useful.
Finally, at the far end is a broad stripe of vanilla. It’s still ice cream, mind you--that is, Hills retains his easy-going and totally readable style. He still employs the italics-for-emphasis he has loved since way back when he was editing a book called “New York, New York” in 1965, and his timing with them remains wonderful. But how to be good? How to work out your personal code of morality? Occasionally Hills gets off something glorious, as in his refutation of Kant’s categorical imperative. It’s wildly funny--and it seems to me a real refutation. But a lot of the time this section is tedious, and sometimes I think it’s wrong.
My advice: Eat the chocolate and the strawberry. Then quietly put the vanilla back in the freezer.
Nobody Has All the Answers
While L. Rust Hills is remarkably right about many things, he also recognizes the limits of useful advice. So rather than call his piece “How to Stop Smoking and Drinking,” he called it “How to Cut Down on Smoking and Drinking Quite So Much,” which we excerpt here. It appears in the section “How to Do Some Particular Things Particularly”--not, we note, in “How to Be Good . “
I had one hell of a system once for cutting down on drinking so much. I was sharing a big summer house with a lot of city people, and I came to realize I’d been getting bombed every night. I was there all the time; the others would come up just weekends, or on their vacations. Anyway, I devised this incredibly clever system: the idea was, I’d plan ahead just exactly what I would do drinking-wise for each and every day of a four-day cycle. On what became known as A First Day, I wouldn’t drink at all--nothing, not a single drink. This was to prove I wasn’t an alcoholic and could do without it. On the next day, A Second Day, I would have one drink before dinner and one drink after dinner--that’s all, no more, no matter how often they told me I was a no-fun person. This was to prove I could drink abstemiously, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. On A Third Day, I’d allow myself to drink what I called “moderately.” This was to prove I could drink moderately. And on A Fourth Day, it was all-out, anything goes, as much as I wanted. This was to prove I was still a fun person. Then it would be A First Day again. And so on.
Well, the system really did sort of work for a while, but there were difficulties with it, as I guess you must have imagined there would be. On A First Day, after A Fourth Day debauch, is of course just when you need a drink most, at least one drink, if not just one drink before dinner then at least one drink just before bed. On A First Day I’d be irascible all day and go to bed early and not be able to sleep. A Second Day was all right, nothing to get excited about, but the way sensible people live regularly, I guess. A Third Day was always a problem, because my idea of “moderately” kept changing as the evening wore on. A Fourth Day, of course, was just the normal disaster.
One of the main problems of the system was the four-day cycle when everyone else was more or less on a seven-day week. I can’t for the life of me now remember how I decided on four days or why on earth I didn’t change when I saw it wasn’t working. If my Fourth Day were to come, say, on the others’ Tuesday, there wouldn’t be anyone to drink with me; it was awful having A Fourth Day go to waste like that. Then, others couldn’t keep track of what day mine was. They’d prolong the cocktail hour unconscionably on A Second Day that happened to be their Friday night. Or I’d be moderately having a couple of drinks on A Third Day, maybe weaving a little as I told a long-winded story, maybe making myself one more at the same time, and I’d overhear one of the householders ask another, “Say, is this A Fourth Day, or what?”
Toward the end, I began switching my days around to accommodate, like a good householder, so my good days would coincide with their good days. Thus on A Second Day Saturday night, I’d decide during cocktails to have my Second Day tomorrow and my Third Day today; then later in the evening I’d decide to make today my Fourth Day and have my Third Day tomorrow and have my Second Day after that. But things tended to get confused, and of course the First and Second Days got kind of lost, and pretty soon every day was A Fourth Day again. It’s really hard to organize systems when you’re sharing with others.
Sign up for our Book Club newsletter
Get the latest news, events and more from the Los Angeles Times Book Club, and help us get L.A. reading and talking.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.