[12 September 2008]
The work of a comic novelist has never been harder. These days, comedy is everywhere. Stand-ups have TV shows, talk shows, not to mention news shows, and even the most self-serious people in our culture—network anchors, NFL quarterbacks, and presidential aspirants—are expected to reveal their wise-guy side when the time is right.
As someone once said, everybody’s a comedian.
Which makes it that much harder to write 200 pages of comic storytelling. A comic novel is a very specific thing—not the same as a layered and involving serious novel but also not just a bunch of jokes. The comic novel is more likely to succeed by exposing the ridiculousness of life and society—it throws up the culture and makes it seem absurd. Vonnegut did it brilliantly, and Heller did it so well with Catch 22 that it probably can’t be done better.
But more modest talents have also had their way—Carl Hiaasen in his Florida crime comedies and Christopher Buckley with Thank You For Smoking. Classic comic satirists such as Evelyn Waugh and P.G. Wodehouse followed the same formula.
Which brings us to Tony Bender’s If Every Month Were June, a new comic novel that takes aim at psychiatry, modern art, the vacuous nature of Hollywood, and the foolishness of romance. It’s not out merely to crack you up, it also wants to tell you some truths about the way things are or ought to be. So, it’s a modest little book with not-entirely-silly aspirations.
If Every Month Were June spins the story of a simple man named Hooter Pridley. Hooter lives in Sterling, Colorado, works as “parts man” in an auto repair shop (owned by Peter Wangdoodle), and has a loyal, randy, but unglamorous girlfriend (named Gladys Neidermeyer). It’s got to be funny story, right? Just get a load of those krrrazzzy names!
But nutty monikers are not June‘s only comic conceit. First, there is a strong “Larry the Cable Guy” angle. Bender is a columnist and “radio personality” with three collections of his writing based in the prairie—he lives and works in North Dakota. So we get a comic hero in the form of a good ol’ boy. Hooter loves nothing more his 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, expect maybe his grandpa and his homespun sayings.
Hooter is presented as gloriously shallow, so when he sees a hot girl on a tool calendar—the super-bodied “Trixie Foxalot”—he falls immediately in love. Bender wants you to know, however, that Hooter is not “some sort of lunkhead”, so he notes that “it wasn’t just Trixie Foxalot’s fabulous body and those nipples that made him fall in love”. Rather, Hooter falls hopelessly in love because her brief biography in a Plaything pictorial says that she is interested in psychology and world peace. Hooter may not be a “lunkhead”, but he is simple enough to believe that Ms. Foxalot has a “real” bio (and, later, real boobs).
The basic gag is that Hooter may be a simple fool, but he’s a full of heartland goodness and common sense, so the rest of the world is revealed as absurd in comparison. It’s not so much that Hooter realizes that the world is pretentious (as he does not realize much) but that our super-smart-alecky narrator realizes this. This narrator, who for lack of a better name we might call Heartland Humor Columnist Tony Bender, is a never-ending fountain of heartland wisdom and truth who frequently rehashes old stand-up truisms/ironies about how “the only way to cash in on life insurance is to die”, that kind of thing. This kind of thing, to be blunt is shooting comedy fish in a barrel.
To find these slow and barrel-contained fish, HHC Bender sends his comic hero off into the world to find things that can be viewed in the light of comic day. So, what choice does Hooter have other than to break up with Gladys Neidermeyer and take off for Los Angeles to find the activist nudie model? Zany, wacky, cuckoo nutty antics follow.
A brief list of nutty antics. Hooter sleeps with a hitchhiking Rastafarian named “Shawnika”. Hooter runs into a “Wayne Noodler” with four wives and has sex in the ‘Cuda with Noodler’s twin “goth” daughters, then strikes oil on the Mormon’s property after Noodler dies in a bathtub accident. Hooter goes to a Nevada whorehouse and gets swindled by a girl with a giant mole. Hooter arrives in L.A. and meets a wise and brilliant clarinet player, a sadistic Three Card Monte con-man, a rabbi with a thing for boxing, and finally gets a job pretending that he is a famous psychologist, which allows him to revive the career of the fright-rocker “Zippy Nightshade”. There is a secretary with obsessive-compulsive disorder who connects the dots on works of abstract art, not to mention Hooter’s slow realization the actual Trixie Foxalot is not yearning for world peace (and the quick realization that her boobs deflate in a saline-gushing impact).
All of this is entertaining and, sure, kinda funny. Humor is as subjective as love, so maybe it means little that I never really laughed while reading June. The nutty capers are forced, and the wry observations seem like re-warmed Dave Barry or maybe the third- cousin-twice-removed absurdities of Woody Allen. Bender’s rube-who’s-smarter-than-you-think tactic seems like a cheap shot too often, mainly because he is repeatedly proven to be a total fool, yet the sentiment of the story requires that he has some inner savvy—which never quite makes sense. The feeling that Bender has some kind of regional/political axe to grind is hard to shake.
Even less endearing is HHC Bender’s continual starter-level meta- fictional play. He jokes frequently about the fact that what you’re reading is plainly a book and, thus, a bunch of fictional hooey rather than reality. In the middle of Chapter 40, he plops down a “The End”, then does some schtick about how that “where I wanted the book to end” but the publisher demanded more chapters. When the “publisher” uses the word “subsequent”, Bender—the guy who obviously invented this bogus exchange—pretends not to know what “subsequent” means.
So, amidst this smarty-pants meta stuff, Bender goes about making himself (not just his character “Hooter”) seem like a charming doofus. It’s not the fact that this is all intellectually inconsistent—this is a comedy, after all—but it’s that it’s not really all that funny. Bender wants June to seem like an anything-can-happen next story, but the kookiness wears you down after a while, and the real agenda seems less about making you laugh than about making him seem heartland-heartwarming.
The ending that Bender mock-didn’t-want-to-write also takes most of Grandpa’s good advice and just chucks it. Hooter realizes that his life in Los Angeles as a pretend shrink living with a playmate who does not care about world peace is shallow and unhappy, so he returns to Sterling, Colorado and wins back Gladys Neidermeyer. Happy ending? But when Trixie shows up in town, Gladys decides she is not woman enough, taking off for a year to “get some work done”. So, when the book finally ends, Hooter winds up with a real woman who loves but who also looks like Trixie Foxalot. And he’s rich from striking oil. And he owns a 1970 Barracuda.
So, you know, the values of the prairie prevail, except they don’t. But it’s comedy so that’s not the point.