Friday, June 4, 2010

"Humor Me: An Anthology of Funny Contemporary Writing": Book Review

Ian Frazier may be a better writer than editor. His "Lamentations from the Father" channels Yahweh circa Leviticus into an exasperated Dad: "Leave the cat alone, for what has the cat done, that you should so afflict it with tape? And hum not that humming in your nose as I read, nor stand between the light and the book. Indeed, you will drive me to madness. Nor forget what I said about the tape."

Frazier's entry ties for first place with what he calls "the funniest piece of the last ten years," Jack Handey's "What I'd Say to the Martians." His narrator, a captured human specimen, yammers pulp platitudes. "We are a warlike species, you claim, and you show me films of Earth battles to prove it. But I have seen all the films about twenty times. Get some new films or, so help me, if I ever get out of here I will empty my laser pistol into everyone I see, even pets."

Frazier and Handey top the list; that leaves 52 selections, including what's subtitled as "some old great stuff too." How amusing were the other entries? It depends on yes, your sense of humor.

This book is a scattershot assemblage of skilled veterans trying to get a rise out of us readers. The set-up of most contributors mimics a stand-up comedian: elaborate on a conceit for a few minutes, for a few sentences -- or for ten thousand words. Frazier alphabetically arranges contents by author. With no other organization, they swerve from deadpan to earnest, crude to subdued. Entries range from one sentence to 20 pages. They include solid excerpts from Jamaica Kincaid and David Mamet, neither of which I found amusing. I found two writers I do find amusing, David Sedaris and George Saunders. However, Sedaris' take on "A Plague of Tics" goes on too long. "Unlike the obsessive counting and touching, rocking was not a mandatory duty but a voluntary and highly pleasurable exercise." This starts off as many entries do, as a promising idea for humor. But, the novelty of a convulsive narrator, his eccentricities told at wearyingly detailed length, wears thin. Sedaris has written funnier pieces.

Similarly, Sanders' suburban surrealism has been pulled off much more adroitly, and poignantly, in his other stories. Saunders' "Adams" resembled a deadly Three Stooges episode, unsettling rather than entertaining. It ends: "And I began to wonk and wonk, and once they had fallen back, with Adams and his teenaged boy huddled over the littlest one, who had unfortunately flown relatively far due to a bit of a kick I had given her, I took out my lighter and fired up the bag, the bag of toxics, and made for the light at the top of the stairs, where I knew the door way, and the night was, and my freedom, and my home." Saunders mixes empathy with irony well, but this story felt awkwardly inserted into a collection promoted as light entertainment.

This unsteady tone within so many selections puzzled me. Larry Heinemann's "The Fragging" satirizes the Vietnam memoir, but it follows the genre so closely that it imitates it, rather than confronts it in a manner that forces us to see the intent of his satire. "The convulsion was sufficient to lift the upper part of McQuade's body clear of the bedding and blow the back of his head off to the eyes." Heinemann may be so deadpan in his stoic recital of mayhem that I missed the chuckles in his account. Why Frazier entered this into his anthology confused me. I missed even what might be supposed gallows humor.

Grace Paley mocks the prison memoir, but outside of a few wry asides to fellow feminists incarcerated for "the civil disobedience for which I was paying a small penalty," this fell flat. I suspected she mocked Thoreau's stance, but her tone stayed so subtle I strained to catch the fun that supposedly lurked in her stolid, detached prose. Many entries begin promisingly. Bruce McCall imagines Der Fuhrer as a lover of cows. Frank Gannon converts Mickey Mantle's autobiography into Attila the Hun's "as told to" motivational story. Veronica Geng tells of "La Cosa Noshtra," a Mob memoir about cannoli. Other authors address: static electricity, flipping houses for sale, tornadoes, antique stores, NYC tour buses, grand dames, being shot in the stomach, and a call line for queries about "La Bamba."

Talents such as Garrison Keillor, Bruce Jay Friedman, Steve Martin, Andy Borowitz, Michael O'Donoghue, and, oddly, Elizabeth Bishop provide respectable performances. Friedman adapts the earnest, affectionate voice of a fan wishing to give Sammy Davis, Jr. "a complete rest"; we nod at the fan's gushing babble as we hear ourselves in his awe of a celebrity, whom the fan wishes to host at a dinner party with "a mixed group over -- Italians, an Irish couple, some Jews, about twelve people tops." In Roy Blount, Jr.'s "Salute to John Wayne" the American penchant for male aggression and female seduction takes a clever turn. Somehow, clawing cats, sex, The Sands of Iwo Jima, and military machismo combine into a story that succeeds, as a quiet morality tale underneath its perplexing plot and gee-whiz dialogue. "'Nude women think it's easy to talk to a nude woman. It's not! It's so personal! And there's a woman present!"

"Gum" by Scott Gutterman in the style of Ken Burns imagines a PBS miniseries on what "soon filled the mouths of schoolboys and stumblebums, of pugilists and prostitutes from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon." Gutterman imagines Shelby Foote, Susan Sontag, Martin Scorsese, Fyvush Finkel, and Keanu Reeves lecturing us about the "resin of the sapodilla tree" which "was made to yield a chewable substance that could produce a kind of refreshment lasting all the livelong day." The piece makes its point, and then stops. It works.

Too many entries ramble on. Half a dozen random issues of the The New Yorker in its "Shouts and Murmurs" feature could compete against the bulk of Frazier's "bumper crop of humor from some of our funniest writers." I'm not sure if copyright, royalties, or distraction restricted what Frazier edited. If this "anthology of funny contemporary writing" stacks up as truly the best that could have been culled from the past thirty years, I'm not laughing as much as I'd hoped. Its "some great old stuff too," such as Mark Twain's scatological "1601," rests more among odds and ends rather than "bests of." I agreed with the "hearer" of Donald Barthelme's "Thailand": "I cannot believe I am sitting here listening to this demento carry on about eel curry." Or tattoo misspellings, inmate fashions, bad theater, mistaken identity, and five versions of war memoirs.

It's the kind of collection where Barthelme provides the punchline. If that's your idea of a good time, this may be your armchair companion. After all, it's for a good cause. Proceeds benefit 826 Seattle programs, "which provide free after-schools tutoring and writing workshops to students of all ages." So, buy it for a gift. Maybe your friend will get a bigger laugh out of it. (Posted in slightly edited form to Amazon US 5-24-10; "6-3-10 Main Review featured at

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