Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Heller McAlpin’s Favorite Comic Novel(s)

By Heller McAlpin

Critical Mass readers will know we are now in our fourth year of “NBCC Reads.” This survey allows us to draw on the bookish expertise of our membership, along with former NBCC winners and finalists. This spring's question: What's your favorite comic novel? was inspired by this past year's awards in fiction– NBCC fiction award winner Jennifer Egan's at-times hilarious A Visit from the Goon Squad (which also won this year's Pulitzer and the Los Angeles Times book award in fiction) and Irish writer Paul Murray's darkly comic Skippy Dies, an NBCC fiction finalist. We heard from more than 100 of you (thanks!). We do not tabulate votes or rank the titles under discussion. Instead, we simply give an idea of the authors or particular titles that seem to be tickling out collective fancy. Here's the first of the series, and the most noted comic novel of the lot, Joseph Heller's Catch-22, first published in 1961. (We're including worthy second choices, as well.) Other favorites so far:  Vladimir Nabokov, Evelyn Waugh, Richard Russo's “Straight Man,” Kingsley Amis's “Lucky Jim,” two by Flann O'Brien,  “Oldies but Goodies” like Henry Fielding's “Tom Jones” and Jane Austen's “Pride and Prejudice,” plus Charles Portis. Today's posting is one of our “Long Tail” entries.


For  laughter of the heartwarming variety, Clyde Edgerton's 1987 novel, Walking Across Egypt, is hard to beat. It's been years since I've read it, but I still chuckle at the thought of 78-year-old widow Mattie Rigsbee getting stuck in a chair without a bottom, mortified that whoever finally finds her will realize that she settled in for her afternoon soap opera without first washing her lunch dishes.

One of the best examples of laughter as the best revenge is Nora Ephron's Heartburn.   

More current, Arthur Phillips' latest, The Tragedy of Arthur, is a total hoot, an audacious riff on memoirs, authenticity, and “Fakespeare.”

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.