“Don’t you wish you had a job like mine? All you have to do is think up a certain number of words! Plus, you can repeat words! And they don’t even have to be true!”
It’s February, and if the days are a tiny bit longer they’re also a whole lot colder, and I despair. Time to search the bottom shelves of my bedroom bookcase for words to lighten the heart, evoke unexpected laughter, and impart an irrational hope of spring. Those dusty shelves hold a trove of the best in humor writing, select examples of that delicate, exacting art so vastly different from comedy writing, where words are meant to be spoken aloud. Literary humor, by contrast, while seemingly easy and offhand, is precisely timed to the rhythm of the reading mind, and at its best forges a poetry of delighted surprise.
Once of an age to actually buy my own books, I turned into a fervent Dave Barry fan; he and Dostoevsky hugely influenced my own writing. I discovered David Sedaris, too, but while I appreciate Sedaris’ cleverness I don’t sufficiently relate. (I do like P.J. O’Rourke but there we’re getting political which is not my intent, so never mind. Ditto Molly Ivins and my lengthy fascination with William F. Buckley, Jr.; I’m a sucker for erudite wit.) And while I adore George Carlin his books tend more towards transcribed jokes. Of course both Barry and Sedaris stand on the shoulders of S.J. Perelman (ah, The Swiss Family Perelman!) and H. Allen Smith, while Smith and Perelman are true disciples of Mark Twain, the granddaddy of them all. Winter’s a perfect time to travel with The Innocents Abroad, or head out west with Roughing It (but be careful, Twain had some pretty rough later years).
But I’m getting ahead of myself: my adolescent introduction to the genre was Jean Kerr’s The Snake Has All the Lines, a collection of magazine pieces from the late playwright and wife of theatre critic Walter Kerr, providentially delivered into my hands via some Book of the Month Club. That volume and her other collections, Please Don’t Eat the Daisies and Penny Candy, proved a proto-feminist instruction manual on how to be an admittedly imperfect yet unabashedly intelligent writer and mother. Kerr is never political and never openly angry, and although today we urgently need to be both those things, we don’t need to be them all the time and I repeat, it’s February.
Since I initially read on limited funds but had easy access to both libraries and used bookstalls, a lot of what I consumed was published between the world wars, if not earlier. Take the immensely enjoyable Our Hearts Were Young and Gay by Emily Kimbrough and Cornelia Otis Skinner. But get started on Kimbrough and she leads you on to European rivers and dances at Bryn Mawr or out across America on the early lecture circuit, with no talk shows but train stops and women’s clubs. I have an entire half-shelf of Kimbrough, and also a couple of paperbacks from Skinner, who’s no slouch at the genre in her own right.
And there are those wonderful tales from Ruth McKenney, most notably of course My Sister Eileen and the other Eileen stories. Read them to brave early Greenwich Village and make your way in life in the big city, even while the backstory breaks your heart. (You can Google it if you don’t know it, but don’t.) And from the 1950s there’s Shirley Jackson’s Life Among the Savages and its sequel, Raising Demons, both packed with sharp observations on softball and clothespin dolls and witchcraft and children turning into adults, and both as remarkable as her horror stories. Eventually, of course, I reached Erma Bombeck’s suburbia, a fine enough place to spend some free time, but again I don’t genuinely relate. Too much domestic emphasis, I feel, for a woman who lived such a large life. I haven’t kept much from her canon.
At some point I stumbled upon, then cherished, Gerald Durrell’s Corfu stories (My Family and Other Animals, etc.) , which I suppose could reasonably be considered fiction, plus I’m a big Lawrence Durrell fan. (There are these issues; feel free to look that one up.) Even so, I love G. Durrell’s sense of the ridiculous and regularly reread the trilogy, if not his African books.)
Okay, while I’m on the topic, there’s outright fiction on those bottom shelves, too. Try Hotel Bemelmans by Ludwig Bemelmans, particularly the chapter No Trouble at All. Or just read that chapter; I’m sure it’s anthologized as a short story somewhere. Find it. Trust me. Or you might like E.F. Benson’s Lucia novels. Or from Patrick Dennis (of Auntie Mame fame, but here again be cautious because he’s had some serious misses) there’s The Joyous Season and Genius, both somewhat dated but still fun. If you’d prefer something a little more current, I recommend Joe Keenan’s Blue Heaven and Putting on the Ritz. I have some quibbles with the pacing but they made me laugh out loud. And please don’t ignore the late, much missed Donald E. Westlake (specifically when he’s writing under the name Donald E. Westlake). I like most of the Dortmunder series, in fact a couple of those books are terrific, but Brothers Keepers and Dancing Aztecs are also favorites. Dancing Aztecs is the 1970s.
A few more unique, precious volumes I return to over and over: Margery Sharp’s Cluny Brown, all about a plumber’s daughter working as a housemaid in pre-World War II England. A Garden of Cucumbers by Poyntz Tyler: endearing, supercilious, and a word-lover’s treasure. And Instant Gold by Frank O’Rourke, a modern fable that just plain makes me happy.
See, that first robin will be here before you know it! And as any one of the above authors would no doubt point out, it will probably freeze to death.
Some of the older works mentioned here have happily been reissued, but if you can’t find the book you want anywhere, go at once to abebooks.com. Amazon owns it now, but it remains a miracle of reader wish fulfillment: “If only I could search every used bookstore in the entire world!” Now you can.
NOTE: The Reader Alert for Worthy of This Great City remains up on the Home page, so check it out, along with the Prologue on the Excerpts page. The Kindle sale, alas, has ended.
Photo credits: Christo Drummkopf, life among the savages (CC by 2.0) / Nathan, DSC00100 (CC by 2.0) / Irina – Susan Durkee portrait of Mark Twain (CC by 2.0)