Ten Funny Books You May Not Have Read
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by Henry Ronan-Daniell
What are the funniest books ever written? The answers always seem to be the same: Catch-22, A Confederacy of Dunces, and maybe Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In a way, these are the funniest books. They’re certainly among the cleverest books, their setup-and-punchline jokiness most closely resembling the type of humor we appreciate in today’s sitcoms and stand-up. However, I would like to suggest that there are subtler modes of humor available as well — books whose humor is not always derived from the spasms of individual jokes but also from a slow accumulation of ideosyncracy. I’ve come to think of them as books that are “holistically” funny, if that makes any sense. They do indeed have healing powers. Ten are listed below.
1. The Dick Gibson Show — Stanley Elkin
This is the best book ever written about radio, and its wit, out-of-this-world language, and sense of wonder are a match for the best of that medium. The climactic debate on an all-night talk show is enough to crack up even the sourest of insomniacs.
2. Pierrot Mon Ami — Raymond Queneau
The most underrated member of the Oulipo group, Raymond Queneau writes like a sunnier James Joyce. Follow Pierrot, a 28-year-old sometime carnival worker, in his hilarious search for love, adventure, and the meaning of life in rural France.
3. Dog of the South — Charles Portis
Although Charles Portis has reentered the public consciousness via the Coen Brothers’ adaptation of True Grit, this, his best book, remains largely unread. In Dog of the South, Portis enters the mind of Ray Midge as he pursues his wife and the man she’s run away with from the South to Central America. The lyricism is natural enough that you won’t even notice it.
4. Geronimo Rex — Barry Hannah
I am the rare creature who prefers Barry Hannah’s novels to his short stories. While some of Hannah’s short stories seem like the work of Donald Barthelme with Southernness applied to them, he’s a better long-form world-builder than most people give him credit for. This coming-of-age novel showcases that to perfection.
5. The Decameron — Giovanni Boccaccio
What would you do in medieval Venice as plague ravages the land? As it turns out, you would probably bone anything and everything, even corpses! These one hundred hilarious stories form a bridge between earlier folkloric collections and the personal prose fiction that would emerge in future centuries.
6. Escapes — Joy Williams
Comedy is a cousin to terror, and Joy Williams uses that fact to great effect in her 1990 short story collection. Though her characters are often menaced by death and desertion, they react to these threats with language of childlike originality. One cannot help but laugh.
7. The Portable Dorothy Parker — Dorothy Parker
The only true humorist on the list, Dorothy Parker has the comedian’s gift for seeing the worst in people. Though her light verse is now a bit dated, her eagle-eyed, acid-tongued fiction did as much to establish the aesthetics of the New Yorker short story as the work of J. D. Salinger.
8. Mumbo Jumbo — Ishmael Reed
This is the only novel I’ve ever read that featured an ancient Egyptian rock and roll band. They aren’t very good, but nobody can throw tomatoes at them, because there were no tomatoes in ancient Egypt.
9. Moravagine — Blaise Cendrars
If you like your comedy black, you could hardly do better than French poet Blaise Cendrars’s novel about a dwarfish, globe-trotting serial killer. The depravity and madcap antics are enough to bend the mind, with occasional moments of genuine beauty and emotion making this novel all the more strange.
10. The Palm-Wine Drinkard — Amos Tutuola
Post-colonial literature is not typically known for its comedy, but The Palm-Wine Drinkard is simply hilarious. Amos Tutuola has a personal understanding of English usage, but that’s all just part of the fun. Like the Decameron, this novel also blends folklore and a personal sense of style.