Friday, April 25, 2014

FFB: THE LOVED ONE by Evelyn Waugh and some other Funny Books...

The contemporary Dell paperback (the
 edition I read) w/Chas. Addams cover.
I've been reading about humor and satire recently, sometimes a dull and infrequently a dangerous thing, and it occurred to me how many genuinely or reasonably good and how many rather tired or otherwise not so good humorous novels I've read over the decades...among those aimed at adults, the most thoroughly successful I remember off the top would be the novella The Loved One, Evelyn Waugh's jaundiced look at Los Angeles and the primary industry in the city, also the funeral industry (and its offshoots) and the British expatriate colony that clustered around the entertainment establishment in a vaguely marking-time way at the turn of the '60s. I've yet to see the entirety of the film version, but the novella was more than sufficient for anyone's purposes, right up to the biggest laugh-line in the book, a grim little joke to cap the rest assembled here. Brevity, soul of wit, and all, though certainly there is no lack of long, funny novels...it's simply easier to sustain a consistent tone, particularly of black comedy much as with its cousins horror and suspense fiction, in the shorter lengths (and this novella can remind one, particularly in retrospect, of another contemporary short novel with ultraviolet humor and even a certain amount of similar undertaking within, Robert Bloch's Psycho). A light touch never hurts...Waugh wouldn't dream of making matters any more blatant than he needs to, though of course the grotesquery of much of what he's dealing with here takes care of that for him...which is part of why I enjoyed this novella so much and found very little to stir enthusiasm in, for example, the blatant and unsubtle pity-success, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, which novel was never content to simply squirt water from a plastic lapel flower if it could hit you with an oversized powder puff as well. The residue was palpable. 



Likewise, as I recall some of the less successful humorous novels of the past decades, sometimes the invention or motivation simply flags, and one is left with the mildly amusing (Art Buchwald's Irving's Delight was meant to be as scathing of the advertising and, in another odd kinship with the Waugh, the pet food industries and related matters as the Waugh was in its compass, but Buchwald was rarely too prone to go for the jugular, hence probably both the popularity of his column and the obscurity most of his work, very much including this novel, has fallen into since his death; Frederik Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth had far less restraint, and so their The Space Merchants has at least a good-sized if infrequently-heard-from cult following, and such similar work from them as Kornbluth's "The Marching Morons" can be utterly plagiarized for other cult-followed items as the Mike Judge film Idiocracy). It's not as if the models for the likes of Buchwald or Erma Bombeck weren't at times at least as outraged or at least as amused as Waugh...think of Jean Kerr's parody of Mike Hammer (and of the Dramatic Reading) collected in her breakthrough volume Please Don't Eat the Daisies (though, sadly, her corrosive mockery there isn't what she's remembered for), or Robert Benchley at his most enervated. 

Ah, well. I'll have more (and probably better) to say about a number of these and perhaps some more over the next several weeks (I really should be talking about Bruce Jay Friedman here, if not also the Angry Young Men and Heller and Thurber and Ms. Parker and Twain...). And I see Bill Crider was inspired by an old review of mine to look up Nelson Algren's anthology...I'm honored. Better essays and reviews by Bill and others are linkable at Patti Abbott's blog today...




































































The Library of America version.

7 comments:

Richard said...

Nice one this week, Todd. Humorous novels of any stripe - genre or genre less (to coin a word) - seem to rarely succeed in delivering both story and humor. Garrison Keillor in his Lake Wobegon stories comes as close as anyone to make me chuckle throughout without tiring of the prose.

Richard said...

I tried to type genre less as one word, but autocorrect has defeated me.

George said...

I'm a big fan of Evelyn Waugh's work. Pohl and Kornbluth mixed sly humor in many of their works. Garrison Keillor has the secret to humorous writing down pat.

Yvette said...

I've read several of Evelyn Waugh's novels, in fact I have them around here somewhere. Nice trade editions. Anyway, I never did get with Waugh's humor, though I could somehow, stand back and observe it and say to myself, yes, that would be funny. But no ha-ha!

I like ha-ha!

Mostly I remember him for BRIDESHEAD REVISITED, a kind of overlooked classic - if it hadn't been for the BBC show.

One of the funniest novels I've ever read (though apparently, no one else has)is WHILE DROWNING IN THE DESERT by Don Winslow.

I do like absurdity of a certain slap-stick type. Can't help myself. :)

Bill Crider said...

I was knocked out by The Space Merchants when I read it long ago. I haven't read it in 50 years or so, but I have a feeling I'd still like it. And I read Jean Kerr's parody of Mike Hammer even before I read The Space Merchants, I think. I thought it was hilarious then, and I can still remember bits of it.

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I've actually not read this one Todd (wasn't crazy about the movie either, but it's been decades, so ...) so thanks for that - humour in print can be so elusive (well, unless you are PG Wodehouse) - I remember laughing out loud at some of the items in the Kerr book though - but again, going back a long way ...

Todd Mason said...

I like Keillor pretty well, well enough to listen to his radio series when I'm tooling about, but I think you two like him even more. Dave Barry is among the novelists of similar stripe who can sustain a nice balance thus, and so certainly is Ron Goulart. Peter De Vries. Friedman, Muriel Spark when she chose to. Certainly Wodehouse and the likes of Karel Capek and Saki before him (though the last barely committed novels before his death in WW1).

And, Rick, as spell-check knows, no fiction escapes genre. (No art.)

Yvette...The Loved One has some gut laughter to it, but it is grim humor. Nonetheless, I suspect that anyone who likes Agatha Christie's humor (not remarked upon enough) will enjoy this one. I should try the Winslow...I know I've read something or three by him.

Rereading the Kerr at the probably pirate link (though perhaps her work is public domain now...certainly the Angelfire page has been up for about a decade or so), I'm reminded of Benchley, Tom Lehrer, Mad at its best...you know it made the kind of permanent impression on me as a kid as it probably did on you, Bill. The Space Merchants is worthy of every good thing it brought to Kornbluth and Pohl...though the edition that slights Kornbluth's name for Pohl's is very bad business, indeed. But one could see what Kingsley Amis was on about in New Maps of Hell...he simply should've read more Kornbluth as well...

Sergio--my memory of what I saw of the film of the novella is that it was Not subtle. Do try the novel...I suspect that despite time-displacement, you're particularly well-suited for it as an account that might ring true in secondhand experience...