Where has all the funny gone? If reading is escapism, then I have to confess that, in the last few months, what I’m really looking for in my literature is something a little offbeat, a little surreal, and definitely funny. I don’t need more tragedy or pathos or–no, seriously–yet another novel about missing kids or morally damaged spouses or whatever the psychologically scarred protagonist of the week is. I’m sure it’s a sign of the times when these books are all over the reading lists, but I wouldn’t mind a little more levity in my choices, you know?
[And I have a general theory about fiction being reflective of its time, and it is that we read about serial killers and rogue governments when our own social and political stability is uncertain. When things settle down in that area, we’re more ready to believe in monsters and the supernatural.]
Whatever happened to Carl Hiaasen? I know he’s still writing young adult books, but remember those days when he wrote crime novels about the whacked-out environmental politics of Florida? The slightly daft killer with the dead dog attached to his hand? Skink, the governor who went native and never looked back? (Though, to be fair, I think Skink shows up in his YA books.)
John D. MacDonald is gone. Robert B. Parker is gone. Elmore Leonard is gone. Douglas Adams is gone. Where are our irascibly clever heroes? Jack Reacher is, when you get right down to it, kind of dour. He’s incredibly proficient, but probably looks upon comedy as inefficient communication.
We’ve got Rob Kroese, though, whose recently released The Big Sheep is an SF novel that mashes up Raymond Chandler and Philip K. Dick to hilarious results. There’s a genetically altered sheep that’s gone missing, a terribly bifurcated LA, and a couple of private eyes who are world-weary and glib, but who still have a healthy dose of empathy and earnestness. I was reading the first few pages of The Big Sheep in the store the other day, and really wanted to sneak off with it. Take a mental health day, if you will.
I’ve also recently read Chris Belden’s Shriver, which is a novel about a man who mistakenly accepts an invitation to a writer’s conference. He shares the same name as a famous recluse who once wrote something akin to the Great American Novel. Shriver, the protagonist, leads a rather unassuming life, and he doesn’t see any harm in pretending to be this writer who no one has ever met, and there’s some curious psychological work at play here. Is Shriver unfulfilled in his current existence? We assume so, even though we don’t get to see much of it. Is he performing a valuable role for others, who project what they want and need on him? He doesn’t come off as maliciously manipulative; it’s more of a question of identity–both for him and for the other characters. And while Belden’s treatment of the sacred nature of the writer at these conferences is sharp and satirical, it never comes off as dismissive or mean-spirited.
And Christopher Moore takes on death and the almost-afterlife with Secondhand Souls, a followup to A Dirty Job. Now that Charlie Asher has accepted his role in life as a Death Merchant, he’s got a whole new level of job-related complications. When people start dying without their souls being collected, he has to gather together a motley band of misfits to uncover the mystery before things go from worse to worser. And in Moore’s capable hands, “motley” doesn’t even begin to encapsulate the hilarious quirks and oddities that Asher collects as his companions.
On the high fantasy (or low, depending on your take) front, I’ve been snorting regularly as I read Jon Hollins’s The Dragon Lords: Fool’s Gold. Hollins takes the overbearing dragon overlord trope, dials it up to eleven, and instead of sending in a band of scrappy dwarves to steal the gold, sends a bunch of farmers who are tired of being oppressed by the scaly ones. You’d think this would end badly for the farmers, but that’s not the case, and as things happen when idiots get lucky, our heroes find themselves suddenly shoved into the role of being saviors for the entire kingdom. But all they really wanted was a little taxation relief. This is what happens when you take matters into your own hands, kids.
And speaking of taking matters into one’s own hands, Mark Leyner is back with Gone with The Mind, a very Leyneresque treatment of reality-meets-memoir-meets fame send-up. It starts with that terrifying experience all writers are familiar with: the reading no one shows up for. In this case, Mark is reading at a mall food court. His mother is present. In fact, she’s doing the introduction, which runs a few dozen pages. Like, twenty-four more than any son wants to hear his mother talking aloud about him to strangers. Fortunately, no one but a few food court employees are there to here his mother embarrass him to no end, but that doesn’t stop Leyner now, does it? Oh goodness no. He’s just getting started.
I suppose I should go catch up on my Terry Pratchett, but where’s the book version of “The Big Lebowski”? Have we got a writer that mashes things up as adroitly and as marvelously as the Cohen Brothers? I suppose we might with G. S. Denning, whose Warlock Holmes upends the whole brilliant detective trope by making the title character daft as a bat, but giving him the noisy chatter of a thousand demons at his beck and call. Warlock Holmes can’t deduce his way out of a room without walls, but his arcane embellishments can solve nearly any problem. The trick is not letting the rest of the world in on his secret powers, because, you know, people get a little freaked out about demonic possession and the imminent apocalypse.
Sound off in the comments if you have some suggestions. I think we could all use a good laugh or two.
Mark Teppo is a writer and bookseller in the Puget Sound region. He’s also the publisher at Resurrection House, a feisty little independent publisher that does a curious range of books.