Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

David Abrams’ Favorite Comic Novel

By David Abrams

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.

I once heard someone say that Lewis Nordan is the one writer who makes him laugh out loud. He went on to tell me of the time he was reading Music of the Swamp, the Mississippi author’s novel-in-stories, on a crowded airplane. “The chuckles turned to giggles, the giggles became gales of laughter, and then, tears streaming down my face, I lost complete control of myself.”

Nordan is, indeed, infectious. To test my friend’s theory, I bought one of Nordan's novels in an airport bookstore. I should have known better. We were flying over Indiana when the flight attendant told me that if I didn’t quiet down, she would have to take away my book. The rest of the passengers broke into spontaneous applause.

Nordan writes of a mythic, hilarious world of swamp elves, singing llamas, and the world’s only high school where students can letter in the varsity sport of arrow-catching.

There is not a bad Nordan novel or collection of short stories, but my favorite is my first: the aforementioned Music of the Swamp, which centers around young Sugar Mecklin and the time he has growing up on the Mississippi Delta.  Here's a taste of Nordan's off-kilter humor, from the story “The Cellar of Runt Conroy”:

There was a passel of Conroy children, all red-haired and sunken-cheeked. I was never really sure how many. There were the twin girls, Cloyce and Joyce, children who spoke in unison. There was a misfit child named Jeff Davis who believed his pillow was on fire. And, of course, there was the boy near my age, Roy Dale, and a very young child, about four, named Douglas, whose only ambition when he grew up was to become an apple.

David Abrams blogs at The Quivering Pen: <a href=""></a> He is a novelist, short story writer, reviewer, and book evangelist. His stories and essays have appeared in Esquire, Narrative, Glimmer Train Stories and Connecticut Review, among others.