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TEPPER ISN'T GOING OUT by Calvin Trillin

213 Pages




New York, New York







LOGLINE:   An amiable New Yorker stirs up a media sensation when he parks his car and stays inside to read the paper.

CONTENT SUMMARY:   Despite being saddled with a thin plot and a low-key climax, TEPPER ISN'T GOING OUT is a consistently amusing satire of our celebrity-obsessed times.









Story Line:








SYNOPSIS:   MURRAY TEPPER is your average New Yorker.  Loving husband and father, and owner of the mildly successful mailing-list brokerage WORLDWIDE LISTS, Tepper couldn't be more normal.  Except when parks his car and stays inside to read the paper.

You see, in the obscenely regulated, massively overcrowded streets of New York, getting a good parking space is like finding the Lost Ark.  So no one, but no one parks their car just to sit there.  They park their car to run deadly important errands.  And when they get back in their car, it means they're about to zoom off for the homestead.  But Tepper just sits there and reads (perfectly legal behavior, mind you, since he doesn't refill the meter), telling other drivers that he's not "going out" till time expires.

Of course, this not only cheeses off other motorists, it drives his family completely batty.  His wife RUTH thinks he's cheating on her, his daughter LINDA thinks he's having a mid-life crisis (rather hard to do since he's sixty-seven years old), while his Volvo-driving son-in-law RICHARD thinks "he's trying to exert some meaningful control over [his] environment," whatever that means.  But things really hit the fan when a young reporter interviews Tepper on one of his parking escapades.  When the interview is published, it makes plainspoken Tepper seem like he's gifted with near-supernatural insights into the human condition.

Soon our hero finds himself buried by an avalanche of publicity, so much so that wherever he parks, people line up seeking his advice on issues ranging from relationships to whitefish.  Easygoing Tepper obliges his new disciples, inviting them into his car so they can spew forth.  When the spewing stops, Tepper offers a cryptic phrase in return: "There's always something."  The disciples take this to be the wisdom of the Gods, returning to their humdrum lives with renewed hope -- and allowing Tepper to go back to his paper.  It's all pretty harmless when it comes down to it.

But Mayor FRANK DUCAVELLI, derisively known as "Il Duce" in some quarters, thinks it's far from harmless.  More draconian than Attila the Hun, Ducavelli is the type of guy who forces people to go through a Body Scanner before entering his chambers.  Not surprisingly, he considers Tepper a subversive, a prime example of the "forces of disorder" that threaten to overwhelm his fair city.  (These include Ukrainian diplomats misusing their parking privileges, and people who have the temerity to step into the street to hail down a cab.)  Putting Tepper behind bars becomes the number one priority of Ducavelli's administration.

But how? Tepper is legally parked when he sees his "patients," and since he doesn't charge for his "services," City Hall can't arrest him for running a business without a license.  So Ducavelli plans on hurling Tepper into Sing Sing using an arcane city ordinance that prohibits "unlicensed demonstrations or exhibitions that could, because of crowds and other effects, be a danger to the public or the public peace."

This sends the media frenzy into overdrive, and the battle lines are soon drawn: Ducavelli's minions on one side, the ACLU on the other, and poor ol' Tepper in between.  Meanwhile, BILL CARMODY, a former mayor turned incredibly bad folk singer, becomes Tepper's leading champion, hoping to parlay the publicity into another term at City Hall.

Of course, nonplussed Tepper doesn't know what all the fuss is about.  He just takes this craziness in stride, whether it's the TV coverage, the chanting crowds or the Tepperisntgoingout.com website.  He even goes along with SY LAMBERT, King of the Lit Agents, and his quest to snag him a book deal.  Of course, Tepper doesn't know anything about writing books, but Sy tells him that doesn't matter -- successful authors aren't successful because they're writers, they're successful because they're famous.  And Tepper is nothing if not that!  Tepper thinks it's all nonsense, but as long as it doesn't interfere with his parking, it's fine with him.

The day of the trial finally arrives.  The judge gives the defense a permanent injunction, which keeps the city's ordinance from going into effect and allows Tepper to continue parking wherever he wishes.  But the justice nevertheless asks Tepper to stop parking voluntarily until the appeals process is over.  Before the ACLU can make an objection, easygoing Tepper readily agrees.  Unfortunately, the appeals process takes so long Tepper loses interest in parking altogether!  And once he stops prowling the streets for "good spots," Tepper's celebrity status goes the way of the Dodo.

Still, our hero gets an unexpected windfall.  A roster drawn from Tepper's supporters proves highly profitable to Worldwide Lists.  The people on this roster turn out to be willing to buy anything, from life insurance to scuba lessons -- it's the Holy Grail of the mail-order world!  This list becomes so desirable Tepper is able to sell his company and cash out with a fortune.

Now Tepper has enough money to purchase an English country house and retire.  And since he's going to be leaving New York, he actually ends up selling his car!  From now on, Tepper will do his parking with his wife.

COMMENTS:   Even in book form, TEPPER is well on its way to being a movie.  First of all, it has an extremely pitchable premise, which alone makes it an excellent candidate for a feature film.  Since movies are so prohibitively expensive to produce, prospective material must be extremely marketable.  And TEPPER's premise is nothing if not that.

This premise has commercial appeal as well.  The theme of undeserved celebrity has been a touchstone of films from BEING THERE to FORREST GUMP.  TEPPER falls into that very accessible, and very profitable, category, making it as movie-ready as any book on the shelf.

Another benefit is the streamlined nature of the novel.  Movies work better in small bites; focusing on one character and his travails makes a film easier to digest for an audience.  And TEPPER is certainly focused -- this novel has no fat whatsoever.  Anything that doesn't have to do with Tepper's quest for parking (and the media frenzy it creates) is excised.  This narrow focus makes TEPPER easily adaptable to the big screen (nothing needs to be cut or compressed, after all), and thus more likely to sell to studios who don't want to work too hard adapting material in the first place.

Ironically, however, TEPPER may be too streamlined for its own good.  Though the premise is strong, it's also rather thin.  The plot spun from it probably wouldn't last ninety minutes, never mind two hours.  We need to graft some subplots onto the story.

But how?  Give more business to the supporting characters, of course.  Though TEPPER is blessed with a large dramatis personae, it doesn't give these characters much to do.  Tepper drives the novel's action all by himself.  He also takes front and center in almost every chapter, and it's through his eyes we see most of the significant events in the novel.

If we spent more time with other characters, it would provide more narrative incident for a feature.  For instance, we could show Ruth following Tepper on his drives -- and getting obsessed with parking herself.  Or the pontificating Richard trying to have Tepper committed.  This would also make things more interesting visually, since the viewer might get claustrophobia watching Tepper plopped in his car for two hours.

Another problem is the low-key, unsatisfying climax.  The novel slowly but inexorably builds towards what we think is going to be a Championship Fight between Tepper and Il Duce.  Tepper wants to park and Ducavelli wants to stop him.  But when Ducavelli's minions finally drag Tepper to court, something unexpected happens -- Tepper voluntarily gives up parking for good!

Instead of getting our Championship Fight, both opponents simply throw down their gloves, shake hands and exit the ring before a punch is thrown.  You can say this is an ironic twist on our expectations, but it just ends up being frustrating.  Worse yet, Tepper doesn't even have it out with Ducavelli face to face!  This is as undramatic as it gets.

The writer should ratchet up the tension at the trial.  Maybe the judge sides against Tepper and tries to send him to jail.  And maybe Tepper gets out of it by embarrassing the maniacal Mayor somehow, preferably in a face-to-face showdown.  This would be both visually appealing and emotionally satisfying.

CONCLUSION:   If subplots are added to flesh out the story, and the courtroom climax is made more dramatic, TEPPER ISN'T GOING OUT will make the transition from page to screen with great success.

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