Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Favorite Comic Novels from Bharati Mukherjee, Keith Runyon, Martha K. Baker

By Jane Ciabattari

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. The first of the series, and the most noted comic novel of the lot, was 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.


Bharati Mukherjee, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award in fiction:

“If nomination of old novels is okay, I'll go with Salman Rushdie’s 'Shame,' because it's in a league of its own.”

Keith Runyon, book editor and editor of opinion pages, the Courier- Journal (Louisville, Ky.):

'Auntie Mame' by Patrick Dennis. Whether you read it fifty years ago or pick it up this week, the story of Mame Dennis is hilarious and memorable. It’s been a hit as a stage play with movie version and Broadway musical (with a less successful movie adaptation).

“ 'The Late George Apley' by J.P. Marquand. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1938, and The New Yorker later called it 'the best-wrought fictional monument to the nation’s Protestant elite that we know of.' But it also is the sharpest criticism of that group ever written, the fictional equivalent of Cleveland Amory’s classic 'Proper Bostonians.' Marquand was a master at comic novels ('Wickford Point' is another terrifc comic novel) but sadly is all but forgotten today. That’s a shame.

Martha K. Baker:

” ''Splendora' by Edward Swift — who can forget the blue-bottle tree and the mix-up of sexes, all bundled with searching for one's authentic self in a small town.

“'Handling Sin' by Michael Malone — so many cinematic scenes, which result in 'outright, prolonged laughter' ('A Thousand Clowns'), that it's amazing this human comedy has never been made into a movie. All the laughs + the poignancy of the pilgrimage in search for a father.”