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What happened to Denny?


By Calvin Trillin

Farrar Straus Giroux, $21

Calvin Trillin is best-known as a humorist, lampooning politics and recounting his search, as a "Happy Eater," for American regional food. But he's a reporter at heart, and has long told resonant American tales in dispatches for The New Yorker and books like Killings.

Still, his poignant new book, Remembering Denny, represents a departure. In his most personal work, Trillin plumbs the mystery of tragedy: the 1991 suicide of his estranged college friend, Washington academic Roger D. "Denny" Hansen, whose "stunning completeness" and Rhodes Scholarship led his peers to expect unbroken success.

Unlike his other serious reportage, Trillin here writes in the first-person, mixing memoir and investigation in a corkscrew narrative. As he doles out clues about Denny, he doubles back to reflect on his own life, Yale and the curious Zeitgeist of the 1950s.

Denny Hansen _ a swimmer and scholar with a golden California smile _ so dazzled that Life magazine chronicled his 1957 graduation from Yale. But at a memorial service for the friend they hadn't seen in years, Trillin and his classmates were surprised to learn that Denny's colleagues remembered an unsmiling, severe man known as Roger.

That service, as well as a "Big Chill" session of classmates, prompted Trillin to ponder why a man who died so alone still occupied their collective memory. "I had begun to wonder," he writes, "whether back in the '50s, when we had been under the impression that we were more or less in control of our future, we might have made up a life for Denny to live."

Trillin digs to explore Denny's "impostor complex," the burden of the Rhodes and Denny's professional struggles. The adult Denny, he is amazed to learn, had developed a stutter.

And, in a "demographically blessed" era when Yalies were not merely advantaged but anointed, Denny had a secret that barred him from the mainstream: He was gay. However, just as he could not fit in the federal bureaucracy or the academic world, Denny was uncomfortable in Washington's gay subculture.

Trillin reflects on his generation's automatic homophobia and how, until the growth of gay consciousness after 1969, gay identity was often repressed. A confession about his teenage ignorance of segregation prompts some self-remonstrance: "Part of what kept the issues simple was that we didn't spend a lot of time examining them."

In some other books, Trillin uses family members as foils, but here he muses tenderly on his dead father, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who, from a modest Kansas City grocery, quietly saved money to give his son a shot at Yale. His father, a man of immigrant optimism and Midwestern rectitude, saw Denny as a shining example of Yale's broadening meritocracy _ what Trillin terms "a sort of apertura to the yahoos."

And while others seized on Denny's family history of depression, or his homosexuality, to explain the suicide, Trillin is wary of simple answers. His main observation stems from Denny's absent family.

"Looking into Denny's life," he writes, "made me realize that what my father had given me was not an even start with the sons of industrialists but something that a lot of parents manage to give their children without concocting a Grand Plan: the security that comes from knowing for sure that they believe you to be a special case."

If he can't offer firm conclusions, Trillin, in this perceptive quest, has done the most he can do: redeem tragedy through art.

Norman Oder is a freelance writer in New York.