Thursday, January 04, 2007

Five Best humor novels

A timeless list of 5 best American Humor novels, circa late 19th eary 20th century:

1. You Know Me Al
By Ring Lardner
Scribner's, 1916

Ring Lardner thought of himself as primarily a sports columnist whose stuff wasn't destined to last, and he held to that absurd belief even after his first masterpiece, "You Know Me Al," was published in 1916 and earned the awed appreciation of Virginia Woolf, among other very serious, unfunny people. Ostensibly a collection of letters to a friend back home in Bedford, Ind., it traces the first season of a rookie hurler for the Chicago White Sox. Jack Keefe is at once cocky and guileless, suspicious and gullible, innocent and -- you get hints of this along the way -- doomed. But really, really funny.

2. My Life and Hard Times
By James Thurber
Harper, 1933

"The clocks that strike in my dreams are often the clocks of Columbus." This is easily the most beautiful sentence ever written about what is now the largest city in Ohio, and Thurber, alone among the Buckeyes, was the one who was destined to write it. Thurber's tossed-off cartoons ("Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer the phone?") seem to be wearing better than his painstaking prose, at least among highbrow critics. But this brief memoir of growing up in an eccentric family in Columbus before and during World War I is nearly perfect -- and still the funniest and most accessible Thurber.

3. The Devil's Dictionary
By Ambrose Bierce
Albert & Charles Boni, 1911

It is commonly thought that a deep vein of melancholy runs beneath most humor writing -- the tears of a clown and so on -- but it is truer to say that a kind of prettied-up cruelty is the essential element, at least in the funniest stuff. This is why the mean and mocking Ambrose Bierce refuses to die -- perhaps literally: No one has seen him since he disappeared into Mexico, in 1914, hoping to join up with Pancho Villa. He (Bierce, not Villa) left behind a handful of brilliant short stories along with this collection of diabolical definitions, a work of exhilarating and unrelieved cynicism. "Bigot, n.: One who is obstinately and zealously attached to an opinion that you do not entertain." "Forgiveness, n.: A stratagem to throw an offender off his guard and catch him red-handed in his next offense." "Self-esteem, n.: An erroneous appraisement." Once you start quoting, it is very hard to stop -- as you can see. Reading it has the same effect.

4. Westward Ha!
By S.J. Perelman
Simon & Schuster, 1948

Seventy years ago "nonsense" was an honored subclass of American humor, heavy on pointless paradox and wordplay for its own sake. The closest thing to nonsense that's worth reading today: the short pieces of S.J. Perelman, one-time scriptwriter for the Marx Brothers. His work can seem bloodless and slight -- he created nothing as heartfelt as Jack Keefe or as charming as Thurber's Columbus -- but for sheer verbal virtuosity, for his dizzy manipulation of language, Perelman deserves a place at the top of the trade. "Westward Ha!" is an account of a trip to the Far East ("The whole business began with an unfavorable astrological conjunction, Virgo being in the house of Alcohol"). As a travel book it is more closely tethered to reality than most Perelman stuff and thus easier to enjoy. The witty illustrations by his friend Al Hirschfeld are lagniappe.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
By Mark Twain

Did someone say "lagniappe"? It was one of Mark Twain's favorite words, which he often used to describe humor in writing. "Humor is only a fragrance, a decoration," he wrote. It's a quality that emerges almost unbidden, as a byproduct of the writer's attempt to tell a story, preach a sermon, make an argument or draw a character. Nowhere was the point illustrated more convincingly than in "Huck Finn," a book known not only for its comic invention but also for its moral grandeur. I don't think there's a funnier episode on paper than the story of the Duke and the Dauphin, just for starters. What a pleasing thought that the greatest work of art that Americans have produced is also one of their funniest.

Five Best
Some humor doesn't age well, but these American
classics remain funny beyond compare

Andrew Ferguson
WSJ, December 2, 2006; Page P8

Mr. Ferguson is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard and a columnist for Bloomberg News. His latest book, "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America" (Atlantic Monthly Press), will be published in May

Posted at 06:41 AM in Books, Humor | Permalink


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Bierce and Twain have long been favorites of mine, though I'm surprised to see The Devil's Dictionary categorized as a novel. For those who haven't read Bierce, his short stories are like a cross between Twain and Poe, with an extra twist. Especially good are his U.S. Civil War tales.

Posted by: Tam | Jan 4, 2007 11:44:51 AM

What was the name of the essay Twain wrote that was pure nonsense? It made no sense and that was the point.

Posted by: LEW | Jun 7, 2007 9:34:07 PM

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