Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Oscar Villalon’s Favorite Comic Novel

By Oscar Villalon

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.


There are many, many comic novels I've enjoyed over the years, but if I had to pick a favorite, it would be John Fante's “Ask the Dust” (which also happens to be my favorite L.A. novel.) Arturo Bandini, the young struggling writer who can't seem to make his peace with the world, or catch a break, is pathetic, lonely, boastful, and idealistic — which is to say his plight is both hilarious and desperate.

In the same way Homer Simpson endears himself precisely because he's something of a jerk (and suffers the consequences of his being an idiot to our merriment), Bandini grows on you as you see through his posturing. He's his own worst enemy, but aren't we all?

Oscar Villalon is the managing editor at ZYZZYVA. The former book editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, his reviews and essays have appeared in VQR, Black Clock, the Believer,, the Los Angeles Times, and the, among other places. He and his family live in San Francisco.