Saturday, December 02, 2006

Five funny American classics

Nicely enhancing my recent list of comic novels dominated by foreign authors and American writers who are still alive, Andrew Ferguson has come up with a brief list of funny books by dead Americans.

Here are two titles from his list:
You Know Me Al by Ring Lardner (1916)

Ring Lardner thought of himself as primarily a sports columnist whose stuff wasn't destined to last, and he held to that absurd belief even after his first masterpiece, "You Know Me Al," was published in 1916 and earned the awed appreciation of Virginia Woolf, among other very serious, unfunny people. Ostensibly a collection of letters to a friend back home in Bedford, Ind., it traces the first season of a rookie hurler for the Chicago White Sox. Jack Keefe is at once cocky and guileless, suspicious and gullible, innocent and--you get hints of this along the way--doomed. But really, really funny.

Westward Ha! by S.J. Perelman (1948)

Seventy years ago "nonsense" was an honored subclass of American humor, heavy on pointless paradox and wordplay for its own sake. The closest thing to nonsense that's worth reading today: the short pieces of S.J. Perelman, onetime scriptwriter for the Marx Brothers. His work can seem bloodless and slight--he created nothing as heartfelt as Jack Keefe or as charming as Thurber's Columbus--but for sheer verbal virtuosity, for his dizzy manipulation of language, Perelman deserves a place at the top of the trade. "Westward Ha!" is an account of a trip to the Far East ("The whole business began with an unfavorable astrological conjunction, Virgo being in the house of Alcohol"). As a travel book it is more closely tethered to reality than most Perelman stuff and thus easier to enjoy. The witty illustrations by his friend Al Hirschfeld are lagniappe.
Click here to see Ferguson's other picks.

Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor of the Weekly Standard and a columnist for His book, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America, will be published in May.

--Marshal Zeringue