The comic novel

First, let me just say (not directly related to the above title, although her books can be funny, and she more so) that Barbara Seranella seems to be doing a lot better. Her body seems to be accepting the second liver, and although she’s got a long recovery ahead, the worst of the white-knuckles phase may be passing. Don’t expect to see her at BoucherCon in Chicago, however. Ever Superwoman has her limits.


Reading Robert McCrum’s recent biography of PG Wodehouse, I was reminded that this brilliant if personally odd creator of such inimitable individuals as Jeeves and Psmith also wrote some of the catchiest songs of the Thirties\’e2\’80\’94

In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking
Now heaven knows,
Anything goes.

(Now you’re going to have that bouncy little tune in your head all day, aren’t you? Sorry.)

The touch necessary for comic genius is deft and undefinable. Like pornography, I know it when I see it; also like pornography, it varies wildly with the eye of the individual beholder. How else to explain the popularity of Jasper Fforde, that most heavy-handed of modern comedic writers? And I’ve been working my way through Mark Helprin’s FREDDY AND FREDERICKA, in which a literary writer adopts the same techniques. A bumbling Prince of Whales who stumbles naked out of Buckingham Palace into a patch of tar and seizes a homeless man’s (can you guess it?) yes, feather pillow, which explodes and… His ardent lover, the countess Boylinghotte. A manor named Moncay House, a dog with the Chinese name of Pha-Kew (after whom the aforementioned bumbling P of W has to run, shouting the name loudly), an Australian newspaper magnate named Digeridoo….

You get the picture. The funniest part of the book so far is the way in which the manifold problems the P of W and his wife Diana–er, I mean Fredericka–have when they are dropped into New Jersey, naked and without resources, magically fade as soon as they get into the hands of the African American community. 200 pages in.

It isn’t even that slapstick humor isn’t funny, because it is–if you haven’t read Alexander McCall Smith’s trilogy about the linguistics professor, you should. The first one, PORTUGUESE IRREGULAR VERBS, is quite amusing, in a lovely dry British way. But there is a scene in the second one that has never failed to evoke startled gurgles followed by outright belly laughs and even tears of laughter from the people I’ve given the book to. And I’ve given it to a lot of readers with widely varying senses of humor and degrees of sensitivity. Read the first book, to lay the groundwork, but please don’t miss the second, THE FINER POINTS OF SAUSAGE DOGS.

The bludgeon approach to humor, in which the reader can see the blow coming, as if in slow motion, and has to stand in place waiting for it to fall, somehow doesn’t do it for me. Dry and understated incongruities, startling slaps to the back of the head, yes–I aim for those in the Russell books, although by and large reviewers don’t seem to grasp that they’re meant to be funny books, so I don’t bring it up. Readers in general often get it, although they’re still startled to find me amusing behind a microphone. Perhaps it’s just that anyone with a vaguely Edwardian hairstyle and a background in theology isn’t expected to be able to make jokes?

And the logical follow-up comment here would be, If you can’t makes jokes about God, what can you make jokes about? However, in the current era, more humorless than the Eisenhowerian, God is off limits.

Anyway. Does anyone out there have a particular funny book they’d like to recommend?


  1. I’d like to second the James Herriott books. I reread those at least once a year and they never fail to make me laugh out loud.

    Another comic writer is Patrick McManus, who wrote columns for Field and Stream for years. He has several collections of short stories dealing with life in rural Idaho and outdoor sports and they are all absolutely hilarious. My dad and I share this particular guilty pleasure, but the rest of my family stares at me in disbelief when I read them in public. I can’t help laughing so hard it hurts. My favorite collection is probably The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw.

    Another funny book I really like is Dorothy Cannell’s The Thin Woman. This is the first in a series of books, but is the only one I really like. For anyone who hasn’t read it, the plot centers around an inheritance prize. The main character, a plus-sized woman, and her “pretend” fiance have to solve a family mystery in order to win an inheritance left to them jointly by the woman’s great uncle. She also has to lose 2 1/2 stone in weight and he has to write a non-vulgar book in 6 months. Hilarity ensues. Light-hearted and fun, and, like Sayer’s Gaudy Night, is a mystery without a murder.

  2. Somebody mentioned James Herriot, and I couldn’t agree more. His are the only books that I can read and reread over and over again. I love the fact that the chapters stand alone, so even busy people or non-readers can still enjoy the odd chapter or two of a Herriot book.

    I’d like to recommend a much newer book that had me crying with laughter. This author’s other books are written in a slightly different style, but this one is hilarious. It is ‘The Gold Coast’ by Nelson deMille.

  3. Hello all,

    I have to agree with the Terry Pratchett nomination to the list of all time funny reads. My favorite character has to be Vetinari (he went to assassins school, and majored in language). LOL!

    As for the humor in the Russell books, I have to say that I found some of the bits in the second novel to be howlingly funny: “I almost fell off the back of the hansom.” and “…half the diseases of Europe.” and “…he almost fell back into the river.” and “…that caused me some moments of deep consternation, I assure you.” (I hope I quoted those correctly; I lent my copies of the Russell novels to a friend and haven’t gotten them back yet. Grrrr.)

    Maybe I have a warped sense of humor, but those were, for some reason, the bits that made me laugh the hardest.

  4. Anonymous says:


  5. And of course Stella Gibbons’ ‘Cold Comfort Farm’ (passionate British yokels in the 1930’s), delicious satire on pretentious arty types too. A sendup of a popular genre at the time. And don’t forget ‘Aunty Mame’, the book by Patrick Dennis.

Speak Your Mind