Literature for the Funny Bone: Comic Novels and Stories

 

From the tragic to the lighthearted, I like most kinds of literature. I like the great books (especially Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Dickens, Eliot, and Conrad). I like a good action novel (the late-great Vince Flynn, but also Lee Child and Daniel Silva). I really love great historical fiction (Hilary Mantel, Patrick O’Brian, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle). I love the great epic poems (Homer, Virgil, and Dante), and have forced myself to at least appreciate some modern poets (Auden, Yeats, Stevens, and Billy Collins).  

I like old stuff (Don Quixote, the Canterbury Tales, and pretty much anything by Shakespeare). I’ve become a real fan of sci-fi/fantasy (LOTR, of course, but also Gene Wolfe, Robert Heinlein — though Stranger in a Strange Land is a weird book — and Roger Zelazny). OK, I hate romance novels., and I must say that I’ve never embraced the group that Joseph Epstein calls the “boy novelists” (Mailer, Roth, Updike).

But a special category for me is the great comic novel or story. I grew up with O. Henry’s “The Ransom of Red Chief” and Booth Tarkington’s Penrod and Penrod and Sam. All of Twain’s books have some hilarious scenes. As I became an adult, I went through a Kurt Vonnegut phase (though I can’t read his books now). Catch-22, which I recently reread, still stands up pretty well in the “black humor” category. Confederacy of Dunces was funny, but not as funny as I’d been led to believe.

Which brings me to my point: what are the Ricochetti’s favorite comic novels or stories?

I’ll throw out a few of my favorites:

August Carp, Esq, by Himself  (actually written by Henry Bashford): It presents itself as the autobiography of one Augustus Carp, the world’s most clueless hypocrite. He pretends to be religious but is only sanctimonious. He’s a man who believes the reader is panting to hear about everything that ever happened to him. Of a nasty little incident in his early life, he writes: “But the fact remains that for several weeks I suffered from indigestion in two main directions.” He’s a misogynist and a hypochondriac. Above all things, he’s hilariously hypocritical. Truly one of the funniest books ever written.

Mapp and Lucia by E. F. Benson: War breaks out when Lucia moves to Tilling, a small town on the south coast of England, whose previous arbiter of all things social is the redoubtable Miss Mapp. Lucia immediately seeks supremacy. War ensues. The war is comparable to academic squabbles, because the fighting is so vicious but so little is at stake. Early in the battle, Miss Mapp sizes up the political landscape: “Miss Mapp, though there was no question about her being the social queen of Tilling, sometimes felt that there were ugly Bolshevistic symptoms in the air . . . .”  Good from start to finish.

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome: The story of a boat trip by three friends (and one dog) on the Thames.  This is truly a joyous, and very funny, book. This little exerpt makes clear that all fishermen lie, but only the very best make it an art form: “Some people are under the impression that all that is required to make a good fisherman is the ability to tell lies easily and without blushing; but this is a mistake. Mere bald fabrication is useless; the veriest tyro can manage that. It is in the circumstantial touches of probability, the general air of scrupulous—almost of pedantic—veracity, that the experienced angler is seen.” And, in the midst of all the humor, Jerome manages to throw in little moral fables.  Here’s one that teaches us much about ambition and enduring to the end:

“I like to watch an old boatman rowing, especially one who has been hired by the hour. There is something so beautifully calm and restful about his method. It is so free from that fretful haste, that vehement striving, that is every day becoming more and more the bane of nineteenth-century life. He is not for straining himself to pass all the other boats. If another boat overtakes him and passes him it does not annoy him—all those that are going his way. This would trouble and irritate some people; the sublime equanimity of the hired boatman under the ordeal affords us a beautiful lesson against ambition and uppishness.”

One of thing I’ve noticed about great comic novels is that I like to reread them often, even when I know the jokes are coming. They’re good for the soul.

So, Ricochetti, tell us about your favorite comic novels and stories.

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  1. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    PG Wodehouse, of course.

    John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” stories are hard to classify. Are they mysteries? Satires of the British legal system?… Whatever they are, they’re also funny.

    I also enjoy Jane Austen’s dry sense of humor. I know some people who find her realistic description of ordinary human foibles cruel, but to me they’re gently and affectionately comical.

    • #1
  2. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    Great topic for me at the moment.

    Just finished Lucky Jim which was superb.  And I just started Catch-22.  First time for both.

    I had no idea Catch-22 was funny.  But I love that every conversation, at least through the first eight chapters, is a circular, nonsensical, Catch-22 of its own.  Really enjoying it.

    • #2
  3. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Midget Faded Rattlesnake:

    PG Wodehouse, of course.

    John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” stories are hard to classify. Are they mysteries? Satires of the British legal system?… Whatever they are, they’re also funny.

    I also enjoy Jane Austen’s dry sense of humor. I know some people who find her realistic description of human shortcomings cruel, but to me they’re gently and affectionately funny.

    Duh!!  I meant to put in something like “And anything written by P. G. Wodehouse.”  Our greatest comic novelist.  Rumpole is funny:  he refers to his wife as “she who must be obeyed.”  Austen is simply universal.

    • #3
  4. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Casey:

    Great topic for me at the moment.

    Just finished Lucky Jim which was superb.

    Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is great.  The story of a young, mediocre professor at a third-rate English university, who hates teaching, hates students (especially the eager ones), but loves booze and chasing women.  And he needs to publish an article that he detests.  Very, very funny.

    • #4
  5. user_1938 Inactive
    user_1938
    @AaronMiller

    The only lesser known comedy I’ve read is Nevermore by Harold Schecter, which pairs Edgar Allan Poe with Davy Crockett for a murder mystery.

    • #5
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons is interesting.  It is pseudo-sci-fi from the 1930’s or thereabouts.  Very interesting to see what a “normal” person thought life would be like in a generation.

    • #6
  7. Crabby Appleton Inactive
    Crabby Appleton
    @CrabbyAppleton

    I fully expect that 400 years in the future scholars  and academics will be vigorously debating who the real author or authors of the Wodehouse canon was/were.

    • #7
  8. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Crabby Appleton 2.0:

    I fully expect that 400 years in the future scholars and academics will be vigorously debating who the real author or authors of the Wodehouse canon was/were.

     Christopher Marlowe.

    • #8
  9. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Oh!  Lucky Jim just reminded me of the works of Victor Gischler.  Gun Monkeys, The Pistol Poets, Suicide Squeeze.  If your comic novels have to have good guys and bad guys, don’t bother.  Gischler’s characters go from dark gray to black, but if you can get beyond that, he is hilarious.

    I don’t know about his newer stuff, but those three books are something, especially the pacing.  There is a scene in Suicide Squeeze where the “protagonist” decides to steal an artwork at a party.  Some guy sees him and helps him get out with the painting.  The accomplice turns out to be the artist, who can’t sell his paintings because he has become too famous to get the expected price, but the works are insured, so having it stolen is worth more to him than trying to sell it.  As someone on the fringes of the art world, I can see that’s happening.  Or just read the first ten pages of Gun Monkeys or The Pistol Poets and see how badly your sides hurt.

    My parents hated the books.  They want good guys, but as a writer, I think they are masterful.

    • #9
  10. Midget Faded Rattlesnake Contributor
    Midget Faded Rattlesnake
    @Midge

    Arahant:

    There is a scene in Suicide Squeeze where the “protagonist” decides to steal an artwork at a party. Some guy sees him and helps him get out with the painting. The accomplice turns out to be the artist, who can’t sell his paintings because he has become too famous to get the expected price, but the works are insured, so having it stolen is worth more to him than trying to sell it. As someone on the fringes of the art world, I can see that’s happening.

    Thanks, I’ll look into it.

    The theme of great works of art or craft being worth more to people “stolen” or “plagiarized” is also a theme in several of Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” stories.

    • #10
  11. user_959530 Member
    user_959530
    @

    The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

    • #11
  12. user_138562 Moderator
    user_138562
    @RandyWeivoda

    The first one that comes to mind is Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court”.  Most of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels are very good, and I think “Going Postal” is the most hilarious.  Lois McMaster Bujold’s “A Civil Campaign” isn’t primarily comic, but there are several parts of it that really got me laughing.

    • #12
  13. user_653084 Inactive
    user_653084
    @SalvatorePadula

    Most of Evelyn Waugh is very funny. Scoop, Black Mischief, and Decline and Fall are fairly straitforwardly comic. Even his more serious novels like Brideshead and the Sword of Honour Trilogy are interspersed with a great deal of leavening.

    • #13
  14. Jackal Inactive
    Jackal
    @Jackal

    Agree with Bucky, Hitchhiker’s Guide is a true masterpiece of comedic writing.  

    Mr. L Prosser was, as they say, only human. In other words he was a carbon-based life form descended from an ape. More specifically he was forty, fat and shabby and worked for the local council. Curiously enough, though he didn’t know it, he was also a direct male-line descendant of Genghis Khan, though intervening generations and racial mixing had so juggled his genes that he had no discernible Mongoloid characteristics, and the only vestiges left in Mr. L Prosser of his mighty ancestry were a pronounced stoutness about the tum and a predilection for little fur hats. He was by no means a great warrior: in fact he was a nervous worried man.

    • #14
  15. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    tabula rasa:

    Casey:

    Great topic for me at the moment.

    Just finished Lucky Jim which was superb.

    Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is great. The story of a young, mediocre professor at a third-rate English university, who hates teaching, hates students (especially the eager ones), but loves booze and chasing women. And he needs to publish an article that he detests. Very, very funny.

     And it felt incredibly familiar.

    • #15
  16. raycon and lindacon Inactive
    raycon and lindacon
    @rayconandlindacon

    David Baldacci; Playing for Pizza, is a wonderful football story with an hilarious angle… American Football in the Italian league. 

    Genuinely comic.

    • #16
  17. Johnny Dubya Inactive
    Johnny Dubya
    @JohnnyDubya

    I loved A Confederacy of Dunces

    In terms of modern comic novels, I will read anything written by Nick Hornby.

    • #17
  18. EThompson Inactive
    EThompson
    @EThompson

    Don’t feel badly about your brief “bromance” with Kurt Vonnegut, TR; we all fall victim to his work, particularly in our youth. :)
    At the risk of offending a man of your moral stature, I must confess that John Irving’s work simply cracks me up and I fully admit to owning seven of his novels.

    • #18
  19. Crabby Appleton Inactive
    Crabby Appleton
    @CrabbyAppleton

    Johnny Dubya:

    I loved A Confederacy of Dunces.

     I sooooo agree !  Kurt Vonnegut  meets Tennessee Williams.

    • #19
  20. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    EThompson:

    Don’t feel badly about your brief “bromance” with Kurt Vonnegut, TR; we all fall victim to his work, particularly in our youth. :) At the risk of offending a man of your moral stature, I must confess that John Irving’s work simply cracks me up and I fully admit to owning seven of his novels.

    No offense taken.  I read Irving early on, but haven’t in years.  Too many wrestling themes or something.  Way too much incest and abortion.

    • #20
  21. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    Deads Souls and Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol.

    • #21
  22. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    The Old Devils by Kingsley Amis is also pretty good.  I appreciate it now that I’m a bit older.

    I think Martin Amis can write really funny passages, but some people really detest him.

    • #22
  23. user_358258 Member
    user_358258
    @RandyWebster

    No Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fans, huh?

    • #23
  24. blank generation member Inactive
    blank generation member
    @blankgenerationmember

    Randy Webster:

    No Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fans, huh?

     I’ll have to consult my attorney.

    • #24
  25. Casey Inactive
    Casey
    @Casey

    tabula rasa:

    EThompson:

    Don’t feel badly about your brief “bromance” with Kurt Vonnegut, TR; we all fall victim to his work, particularly in our youth. :) At the risk of offending a man of your moral stature, I must confess that John Irving’s work simply cracks me up and I fully admit to owning seven of his novels.

    No offense taken. I read Irving early on, but haven’t in years. Too many wrestling themes or something. Way too much incest and abortion.

     Washington Irving.  John Milton. 

    John Irving! Brilliant! 

    Oh sorry, perhaps I’ve gotten too into this book. 

    • #25
  26. Son of Spengler Contributor
    Son of Spengler
    @SonofSpengler

    I can’t let this thread pass without putting in another plug for the short stories of Saki (H.H. Munro).

    • #26
  27. user_1029039 Inactive
    user_1029039
    @JasonRudert

    One thing about the crime novels of Elmore Leonard that is overlooked is how funny they are. Especially when he was at his peak in the eighties and nineties. He basically does everything right. Not funny all the way through, but parts anyway.
    Hugh Laurie wrote a novel called The Gun Seller that’s pretty good–it’s kind of a darkly humorous James Bond parody. It’s funny all the way through, and a light, quick read.

    • #27
  28. user_1029039 Inactive
    user_1029039
    @JasonRudert

    Also Tristram Shandy is good. I loved the movie they made of it a few years ago, and even all the extras on the DVD are worth watching.

    • #28
  29. tabula rasa Inactive
    tabula rasa
    @tabularasa

    Son of Spengler:

    I can’t let this thread pass without putting in another plug for the short stories of Saki (H.H. Munro).

     “The Unrest-Cure” is one of the funniest stories ever written.  Saki’s humor is dark (very dark), but hilarious.

    • #29
  30. Big John Member
    Big John
    @AllanRutter

    Two funny mystery series:

    Lisa Lutz’ Izzy Spellman series, with funny characters and very good footnotes and asides
    Ben Rehder’s Blanco County (TX) series, with hysterical satire and very good local color

    Other good ones include early Harlan Coben with Myron Bolitar, Sophie Littlefield’s Stella Hardesty, and John Sandford’s recent Virgil Flowers series which are pretty humorous.

    • #30
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