What's So Goddamn Funny?
Jonathan Ames Fends Off Suicidal Ideation
Books should be funnier. Upon being asked what she'd read lately that was funny, a smart friend said that she found most modern novels pretty much lacking in humor altogether. It's true, and it's a pity, because a funny book, like a smart friend or a well-made martini, is one of the few things that assuage the curse of modern life, i.e., wanting to kill yourself, others, or both.
A truly funny book can fend off suicidal and/or homicidal ideation for an interval; a suite of truly funny books, particularly in tandem with a poor memory, can fend off suicidal and/or homicidal ideation for a lifetime. Thus, a shortlist of the world's funniest books is essential.
It is with shock and glee that I have just added not one, but two books by Jonathan Ames to my suicide list (formerly consisting of, in no particular order, Lucky Jim1 by Kingsley Amis, Cold Comfort Farm2 by Stella Gibbons, The Shipping News3 by E. Annie Proulx, A Confederacy of Dunces4 by John Kennedy Toole, The Thurber Carnival5 by James Thurber, and The Doubtful Guest6 by Edward Gorey)7. These books are Wake Up, Sir! (2004) and The Extra Man (1998). I am very much a Jonny-come-lately on this matter, as both books have already been recipients of extravagant praise. The back cover of the paperback edition of Wake Up, Sir! (just out, conveniently) quotes seven publications calling the book merely "Hilarious" (in and of itself hilarious, which is more than one can hope for from a book's back-cover copy: metahilarity).
But extravagant praise doesn't mean it's any good, and if you tend to react to most things with strong dislike, such hyperbole just casts its object in a suspicious light. (I refuse on principle to see Batman Begins—not for me, it doesn't.) It took another smart friend's recommendation, and my forgetting the name and asking again months later, to prompt me to read Wake Up, Sir!, which is brilliant and charming and, yes, hilarious. It seems that one book is usually all a writer has in them on the hilarity front, but I was assured The Extra Man was just as good, and lo and behold, it was not only that, but in many ways extremely similar. This was initially disconcerting but ultimately pleasing: If you're only going to write variations on one novel, it might as well be a hilarious one. And one more work of Ames's purported fiction—a juvenile effort, but reputedly along the same lines—awaits, happily.
These books and their humor—about drinking, obsession, sex, cross-dressing, armpits, and (as they say) much, much more—have been amply discussed elsewhere. I merely write to suggest you consider adding them to your suicide list. If you don't have a need for such a list, you probably won't think they're that funny.
1. ©1953. Perseverance through the excessively British and not-all-that-funny first few pages, though it may take years, is its own filthy-rich reward.
2. ©1932. Another triumph from across the pond. A great success upon its publication, the book (a parody of the rural novel genre popular at the time) was thought by one reviewer to be the pseudonymous work of Evelyn Waugh. Per her biographer, Reggie Oliver, the author wrote much of it on company time while employed at a magazine entitled The Lady, and would often lunch with her Lady-friends on London's newest imported delicacy, hot dogs, and read the latest part of the book aloud, and they would all crack up, so much so that they were often asked to leave.
3. ©1999. A Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner, perhaps on the strength of its use of headlines as a vehicle for hilarity alone.
4. ©1980. Also a Pulitzer recipient. While it was an inspiration to Ames when he was writing The Extra Man and is an essential line item on any suicide-prevention list, even the writing of this book was, infamously, unable to stave off the demise of the author at his own hands.
5. ©1945. I can't find my copy, and it's imperative that I reread the story about the elderly aunt who thinks that electricity is leaking out of all the outlets and drifting loose around the house. When my own grandmother's going 'round the bend manifested in exactly this way earlier this summer, it was recalling the Thurber story that allowed me to laugh instead of cry.
6. ©1957. This book should be issued in a pocket-sized volume for deployment during public-transportation– related and other on-the-fly existential crises.
7. It may well be—indeed, I hope—that I am forgetting a title or two, as I have a poor memory.