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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Stories that restore: appreciating good comic novels which are hard to find

I’ve had the flu this week, and when I don’t feel well I turn to humor. Written humor, not YouTube videos (though I’m not averse to those, and I’m a regular online watcher of “The Daily Show”). I have a bookshelf that’s a collection of the American humor writers who have meant a lot to me, from Robert Benchley and James Thurber to Calvin Trillin and, yes, Dave Barry — but the guy I love most when I’m sick was English. P.G. Wodehouse.

 

Wodehouse wrote over 90 comic novels, featuring immortal dim-bulb aristocrats like Clarence Threepwood, the wooly-headed, prize-pig-obsessed Lord Emsworth of Blandings Castle, and marriage-phobic young dandy Bertie Wooster, whose man Jeeves employs his superior brain power ("he positively lives on fish," Bertie declares fairly often) to extract Wooster from his tangles.

Wodehouse’s novels are generally predictable and always a boon to the complicated spirit, because a complicated spirit was never what, apparently, the author had. What he had was a love for the stubborn best in people and a wondrous command of the English language. Witness a sentence like this, from Jeeves and the Tie that Binds, written when Wodehouse was 90: “Her departure — at, I should imagine, some 60 mph — left behind it the sort of quivering stillness you get during hurricane time in America, when the howling gale, having shaken you to the back teeth, passes on to tickle up residents in spots further west.”

Writing like this helps me feel better. It’s not just the language, either; it’s the story.

In Wodehouse’s tales, love eventually wins, the most larcenous scheming is thwarted, and all the twists and turns come clear and right in the end. The humor within these novels isn’t jokes, it’s a resilient, unsinkable humanity. I love the writing but it’s that humanity that keeps me coming back. It’s what a very, very different writer put in the mouth of his very, very different character, Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye:

“What I like best is a book that's at least funny once in a while ... What really knocks me out is a book that, when you're all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn't happen much, though.”

It doesn’t. Especially, I find, in young-adult fiction. In my own work, I try to be funny once in a while — I can’t seem to help it, and I don’t want to — but I’ve never found many YA books that you would call good comic novels. Two that I often promote are Dogs Don’t Tell Jokes and Someday Angeline, lesser-known stuff by Louis Sachar, who went on from these to write Holes. When I mention these two earlier Sachar books on middle-school visits, I tend to get blank stares; but when I mention Holes, which has been out now since 1998, reliably at least two-thirds of the audience has read it and liked it. (As did I, very much.)

I wish there were more of a young-adult audience for humor, the kind that animates a novel, not the low-joke kind that’s all over YouTube. Maybe there is that audience and it's just underserved. I'd like to think so. Meanwhile, if you have a favorite young-adult novel that’s funny, would you let me know? I might need it. I’m still not feeling that great.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Thursday, 13 August 2020

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