You probably know Jack Handey from the “Deep Thoughts” series of sketches on Saturday Night Live, which, along with PJ O’Rourke and Carolyn Jacobson, were probably the most significant influences on my writing before age 21. If you don’t think Deep Thoughts is funny, you can safely disregard the rest of this post. You and I will meet at Grown-Ups 3 someday, each of us wiping away a type of tear. Everyone else can read this excellent profile of Handey in the New York Times, in which we learn that A) he is in fact a real person who used to live next door to Steve Martin, and B) he has recently published The Stench of Honolulu, a comic adventure novel. I bought that novel and read it last week, and it is very funny. Excerpt after the jump.
When you have a real treasure map in your hand, all sorts of thoughts go through your head. The first is, Don’t lose the map. The second is, Hey, what happened to the map? The third is, Oh, yeah, I gave it to Don. The fourth is, Hey, where’d Don go? The fifth is, Oh, there he is.
Don made me swear on the Bible to keep the whole thing secret. I went and got my Bible. Inside I had carved out the shape of a gun in the pages. That’s because if I ever get a gun, I’m going to hide it in there. If I’m at home when a burglar breaks in, I’ll say something like, “Is it okay if I read my Bible while you’re robbing me?” Who’s going to say no? That would be crazy. And then I’ll open the Bible to the Ten Commandments and say, “Thou shalt not…” And when the burglar says, “Thou shalt not what?” I’ll pull out the gun and kill him.
With the Pingle brothers after me, I was anxious to get going. “Let’s get over there and steal the thing,” I said. Don said it wouldn’t really be stealing, because the civilization that made the Golden Monkey was probably long gone. Come on, Don, it’s stealing. To prove it I opened my Bible to that part, but it had been carved out.
That’s a chapter. One of the advantages of The Stench of Honolulu is that it is short and brisk. Most of the chapters are only a little longer than this one, and each functions as a sort of comic vignette. The novel—I read it on Kindle, but it seems to be about 150 pages—is essentially a picaresque, but it wastes very few words on description or even direct dialogue. We see Hawaii and Don’s quest for the Golden Monkey through the main character’s point of view, and that view is narrow. The Stench of Honolulu uses maybe the closest first-person of any novel I have ever read.
And yet I consider it a novel rather than a collection of prose sketches. It’s easy to conclude from its structure that The S of H is not really a novel, particularly when chapters like “The Bible” above seem more interested in digression than in plot. But Handey maintains the (admittedly low) level of coherency that a picaresque demands through consistent characterization. The passage above displays Handey’s unifying narrative device: dramatic irony. The narrator tells us his plan to hide a gun in his Bible, which is funny. Then he needs his Bible, and he is disappointed to find that it is useless because of what he did. He is mildly surprised at this discovery, even though he just finished explaining it to us.
The narrator is dumb. He is also conniving and proud—so proud that he continually reinforces a disconnect between what he believes is happening and the story that the reader pieces together from concrete events. This irony is the driving comic mechanism behind the villain of the book, the generous and hospitable Dr. Ponzari, and the narrators love interest, the murderously exasperated Leilani.
Both Dr. Ponzari and Leilani are rendered according to comically simple archetypes. They take on depth, though, because the reader constantly has to distinguish their actual feelings from the narrator’s misperceptions. The effect of seeing their exasperated reactions to his stupidity—described by the narrator as admiration of his triumph—encourages us to identify with them. We see them as emotionally real people, because their experience of searching for the Golden Monkey with this guy is similar to our experience of reading about it. Like them, we have to compare what he says to what he does.
The oblivious, confident narrator is arguably the central conceit of Deep Thoughts, and it is certainly the chassis on which The Stench of Honolulu runs. What’s amazing is that this sure-fire premise for a 30-second video gag also works for a novel. Handey has constructed a linear narrative around a comic device, which is not supposed to work.
Mostly, it works because the book is so funny. Were The S of H not a comedy, the plot would probably not be very engaging. It would still be a plot, though, and it would carry the book along. The Stench of Honolulu is like an HG Wells novel with jokes instead of inventions: an adventure story enlivened by the author’s mastery of craft. You should read it. Don’t read it alone in the burrito place, though, because you will laugh and spit rice out of your mouth, and college students will be unable to disguise their admiration.