I stumbled this morning upon the type of thing one often stumbles upon on the Internet, a list (this one by Esquire magazine) of 80 books in no particular order which Esquire insists everyone ought to read. To my delight (I can be delighted rather easily it seems) I found several books on the list which I actually have read: The Things They Carried by one Tim O'Brien, a rather grotesque Vietnam War tale which I thought far too full of itself; Jack London's The Call of The Wild, which I remember little of except that they made us read it in Grade 7; The Killer Angels, a simply marvelous historical fiction from Michael Shaara wrapped around the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War (I gained a great respect and admiration for the Confederate General Longstreet after reading it); and Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff about the Mercury astronauts, where I similarly learned to like Deke Slayton. On the list too though I have not read it was David McCullough's The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. As he did such fine jobs with biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman I find myself interested in how he might make bridge construction an exciting read. But what most delighted me to find on list was of all things a little comedy which I first read after my wife, who had had it assigned to her in an English course at the University of Detroit, complained to me that neither she nor the rest of the class understood. So I borrowed it immediately. Five pages in I was laughing so hard I was, as the cliche insists, crying. Or hurting, as both adjectives are suggested by like cliches. The book, which by one of those strange intersections of time and circumstance I just happen to be rereading just now, is Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis.
It really is very funny in its very English way. There are passages which until yet I laugh so long and hard at that I have to stop reading for minutes at a time. Then I have trouble getting back to the text because the funniest moments just keep coming back to me. Yes, it is that good. If you like dry, droll, over the top English humor.
And you should, you know. The English have a delightful way of melding sublime understatement, surreal juxtaposition, and outlandish slapstick in hilariously satisfying ways. A wonderful example from Lucky Jim is a passage where an absent minded driver comes near to a head on collision with a bus. His passenger, the actual lucky Jim, describes the incident in harrowing comedic detail, finishing with a description of the obviously excited and screeching bus driver, "...his mouth opening and shutting vigorously.' I'm chuckling at it still.
The closest American approximations are the Marx Brothers and, believe it or not, Bob Newhart. The English, they know humor. Americans should get to know English humor better too.
And I'm not talking Benny Hill either, you walking primates out there.