Some of you may have been wondering how I didn’t end up included in Andy Borowitz’s “The 50 Funniest American Writers,” his anthology that was published last year. I suppose not having been published in twenty years might have been a mitigating factor, though it didn’t seem to hurt O. Henry or James Thurber. Although the book certainly included many of my favorites, including Mark Twain, Calvin Trillin, Charles Portis, Woody Allen and Philip Roth, there were some notable omissions. You can’t feel bad being part of a “left off” list that includes Joseph Heller, John Barth, Carl Hiaasen, Thomas Berger and Donald Westlake.
You’ll note among the latter group a common trait: they all worked primarily in long form. To get on Borowitz’s list it helped to have a significant output of short stories or essays, preferably published in the New Yorker or something similarly Eastern. As someone who fell in love with comic novels from the first time I met Huck Finn, I thought I’d present my own list of favorites.
For a long time I kept a short list of best comic novels in the back of my mind, sort of the way people carry frayed photographs of their kids or relatives in the back of their wallets. Throughout my young adulthood, that list would always begin with Huck Finn, Catch-22 and Portnoy’s Complaint. I suppose coming of age in the early seventies, it wasn’t surprising to see books that dealt with racial inequality, the absurdity of war and masturbation at the top of the list, not necessarily in that order
The main contribution of collegiate lit courses was to introduce me to John Barth. In those days The Floating Opera, The End of The Road and Lost In The Funhouse were widely taught as examples of post-modernism, whatever that was, but it was The Sot-Weed Factor that captured my imagination. Set in early 18th century colonial Maryland, it told the story of Ebenezer Cooke, poet and virgin, and his chameleon-like mentor, Henry Burlingame. Barth wrote often and at great length about the Potomac and environs, but if you don’t mind 500 pages of early English dialect, Sot-Weed is his best.
During the early 1980s, it was possible to be sitting on a bus or by the pool or at the beach and hear somebody next to you hunched over a paperback and laughing out loud. They were probably reading John Kennedy Toole’s, A Confederacy of Dunces the story of Ignatius J. Reilly, who lives with his mother in a crumbling house in New Orleans in the early sixties, scrawling out manifestos on Big Chief tablets and angry screeds to his sort-of girlfriend, Myrna Minkoff. When Ignatius has to venture onto the streets of New Orleans in search of work, chaos ensues. Most people know the story by now of Toole’s suicide after failing to publish the book, and the campaign by his mother to sell the manuscript, which eventually was discovered by writer Walker Percy. For more insight, check out the documentary film, The Omega Point.
Charles Portis received a much-deserved public re-introduction when the Coen brothers remade True Grit, but my favorite of his remains Masters of Atlantis, a hilariously deadpan story of Lamar Jimmerson, an Indiana doughboy who becomes head of the Gnomons, a Mason-like sect that sweeps the country after the World War I. I owned the film rights for a few years, and tried unsuccessfully (so far) to get them back after True Grit was released. Hint to whoever acquires those rights: I’ve got a great screen adaptation! But I digress…
Thomas Berger gets a lifetime achievement award for my list. Certainly Little Big Man and Return of Little Big Man are landmark achievements, but it is Berger’s collection of mordant, exquisitely crafted novels of the latter part of the 20th century that stand out. They include: Neighbors, Nowhere, Meeting Evil, and my favorite, The Houseguest.
Turning to comic crime fiction, which is my specialty, the names that stand out are Donald Westlake and Carl Hiaasen. You can read any of the Dortmunder series and find yourself captivated by the capers of a hapless bunch of New York burglars led by the redoubtable John Dortmunder. Westlake’s invisible man story, Smoke, is equally enjoyable. Hiassen has his own trademark tales of Florida depravity. The early ones are my favorites, especially Native Tongue, his send-up of the Disney empire, with his corrupt Francis X. Kingsbury’s Amazing Kingdom of Thrills.
You cannot lose with Calvin Trillin. While most of his work is in shorter form – even his novels are on the slim side – Floater, his story of a “back-of-the-book” writer for Time in the sixties and Tepper Isn’t Going Out, his “parking novel” of a few years ago are wonderful.
Among more recent titles, Tom Perotta’s Little Children is a perfectly conceived and executed story set in the east coast suburban world of young families. And Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You, about a dysfunctional Jewish family mourning the death of their father, is another that will have you laughing out loud.
I could go on. Richard Russo, Ron Carlson, Nora Ephron, James Wilcox, John Gregory Dunne, TC Boyle, Lorrie Moore, Thomas McGuane, all have moments of hilarity amid less purely comic work. But I think that is enough to take to the beach and have the person next to you wondering, what’s so funny?