Russell Baker is an imposter. His ''Observer'' column on The New York Times Op-Ed page looks as gray and grave as anything else in that part of the paper. But the reader who ventures upon the column by chance immediately senses that something is wrong. Baker doesn't speak expertise or quote people who do. His prose is unassuming. He can be funny. It must have been a shock to Times readers when the column first appeared in 1962.
The muddled middle-class man, baffled by machinery, income tax forms, the latest scientific pronouncement, and modern life in general this is Baker's standard comic persona, inherited, along with the plain prose, from Benchley and Thurber. It seems to place him squarely in the tradition of higher American humorous journalism. Which is where he doesn't exactly belong, as There's A Country in My Cellar, a collection of columns from the past 26 years, makes clear.
The pieces aimed at pure humor range from pretty good to flat on their face. Baker isn't as good at topical and domestic buffoonery as Dave Barry, and he rarely touches the vein of incandescent nonsense that runs from Benchley and S.J. Perelman to Woody Allen. But lurking behind the flummoxed middlebrow who seethes his way through these pages is a somber and penetrating social satirist who finds the country in his cellar (where he consigned the television set) an absurd and mostly contemptible spectacle.
Baker began the column by traveling around the country commenting upon its new glass-and-plastic prosperity. In the introduction to this section of the book, he says he was startled when a friend remarked that these pieces from the early '60s amounted to ''a frightening depiction of...barrenness and sterility.'' But that's what it is.
In a piece on pump-it-yourself gas stations, Baker notices that the new service economy provides less and less service. In a column on a botched car rental reservation, he begins to wonder about the area assigned the toll-free 800 area code ''a place that must look very much like an enormous drugstore under fluorescent light'' where everything ''is new until it is three weeks old, at which time it is of cially declared never to have existed.''
It won't surprise readers of Growing Up that the counterpoint to this theme of suburban perdition is supplied by unsentimental evocations of his Depression youth. Then, at least, passengers crowded together on a long-distance bus would exchange apples and fried chicken and even break into song. The passengers on his deregulated jetliner are ''too tense, too drugged, too angry, too lonely, too devoted to misery chic'' for such lighthearted camaraderie.
Modest and amiable by profession, Baker nevertheless emerges from this book more in the image of stoical Roman moralist, raised on the spartan virtues of the republic, contemplating the frenzied excesses of empire. ''Our great buildings are done in glass and are designed to be torn down,'' he wrote in 1964. ''We are leaving hardly even any personal written record of our passage here; letter writing is dying as our lives, instead, are talked out over the telephone...It is almost as if we were determined to come and go without leaving a footprint. It is fitting that this should be the generation for which total annihilation is at least feasible.'' If Baker is less solemn than the pundits who surround him, he is also more serious, more scathing, more enduring. B+