Criticism & Features

NBCC Reads

Paul Wilner’s Favorite Comic Novels (Think Hollywood)

By Paul Wilner

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.

“Dying is easy, comedy is hard,'' as Peter O'Toole memorably noted in “My Favorite Year.'' Here are some belated nominees, none of which, to my knowledge, soared up the best-seller list as people dutifully trundled through the latest Franzen offering, but all of them worthy, and most superior, at least to my way of thinking, to much of the more ostentatiously “serious'' fare.

“Di and I,” by Hollywood novelist and screenwriter Peter Lefcourt was written before Princess Diana's death, and the recent, reportedly deadly, fictional treatment of her life by Monica Ali. It's an inspired account of the imaginary affair between Diana and Leonard Schecter, an American who meets her at a diplomatic reception at the Togolese Embassy in London, and spirits her away to the States, where the love-crazed couple ultimately make an ultimately landing at a McDonald's franchise in Rancho Cucamonga.

“It occurs to me, as I sit here naked watching the moon…illuminate the beige Ford Taurus in which two men with guns sit watching my hose, that only a year ago, my life was a great deal simpler. For one thing, I was not sleeping with the Princess of Wales,'' reads Lefcourt's opening sentence. It only gets better. The rest of the author's ouevre includes “The Deal,''  an account of a Hollywood producer' who turns a screen project about Disraeli  into a Middle Eastern espionage yarn, “Lev Disraeli: Freedom Fighter,'' as a vehicle for a  black actor with a striking resemblance to Eddie Murphy and “The Dreyfus Affair,'' a love story between two gay baseball players. It calls to mind a sadly bygone era, in which the likes of Ben Hecht and George S. Kaufman cheerfully took money from the “idiots'' running the studios and, to my mind, is far superior to the limp satiric fiction being offered periodically in The New Yorker by brand names like Steve Martin and Woody Allen.


I shouldn't want to take up more time or space here, but aficionados of the Hollywood fictional riff should also check out Charlie Hauck's “Creative Differences,'' a mordant account of the inevitable euphemism to describe the real-life hell of working on a sitcom with a hellish lead actress.


Also on my list:”Face-Time,' by Erik Tarloff. The Berkeley-based bard turned his experiences as a former speechwriter for President Clinton into a hilarious account of the personal, as well as political, consequences of infidelity. The scene in which the protagonist confronts the erring president about his transgressions, and listens to him wriggle, comparing himself to Churchill, is worth the price of admission. Lost in the hype about Lewinsky and “Primary Colors.'' The fact that Tarloff is himself married to former Clinton economic adviser Laura  Tyson is, of course, purely coincidental. Lost in the hype about Lewinsky and “Primary Colors,'' the  portrayal is reminiscent of “Citizen Kane,'' though a hell of a lot funnier.   Tarloff's second novel,”The Man Who Wrote The Book,'' about an English  professor at a Baptist College near Fresno, who discovers he has an unexpected gift for pornography, is also well worth an (ahem) look.


 And I have to add Geoff Dyer's work to this unlikely assemblage. It's not a novel, but “Out of Sheer Rage,'' his meditation on D.H. Lawrence, has laugh out loud moments in which Dyer, like a highbrow Larry David, is trying to decide whether or not to give up his Paris apartment. And it includes a great rip on the Oxford academic scene which Lawrence would have loathed. His novel “Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi,'' opens with a merciless take on the pretensions of the contemporary art scene before it ventures into other waters. British humor, like cuisine, is underrated for a reason, but Dyer's sheer ability to capture you with the quality of his obsessions makes for inescapable entertainment. There's educational value here, too, of course, but he has the wisdom to hide it.


Paul Wilner is a longstanding arts and entertainment writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Arts & Leisure section, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Los Angeles Times, The Monterey County Weekly, and other publications.