For something to read until my next book is released.
This is in response to many of you who write me and ask, “Hey Chris, I’ve read all of your books, now what do I do until you finish the next one? Hurry up, quit goofing off, get to it, ya lazy bastard!”
First, I want to thank you all. There’s just not enough pressure on me with deadlines and having a family history of heart disease and the fact that I haven’t had my car tuned up since the Reagan administration molested the country. So anyway, here’s some of the books and authors I’ve enjoyed, and I hope they’ll tide you over. You can get more complete descriptions of the books themselves, as well as reviews other than mine at Amazon.com (which is where the links go).
First the Obvious
Sure, you’ve probably already read all of these, but if you haven’t, you should. Call it comic cultural literacy.
John Steinbeck – Cannery Row, Sweet Thursday, Tortilla Flat. These are some of the finest comic novels ever written. I’m jealous of you if you’ve never read them, you have a great treat ahead of you. Don’t be turned off by the fact that you had to read Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice in Men in high school. These books are brilliant, funny, and hardly anyone has to shoot his best friend for having a rabbit fetish.
Carson McCullers – The Ballad of the Sad Café. This novella is often sold in collections rather than by itself, but however you get hold of it, it is a magnificent read. More irony than comedy, but the trick is in the telling. Certainly one of my favorite stories of all time. Also, under the “Why didn’t they make me read this in high school instead of A Tale of Two Cities?”, read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and A Bell for Adano by John Hersey. No, I’m not going to give you plots here, the writing here is so sweet that I don’t want to deprive you of the discovery. Oh yeah, they are all fairly short, too.
Kurt Vonnegut – Anything, just anything. I tend to like the novels that the critics slammed, so I’ll just say that you can’t go wrong with Vonnegut. The early stuff like Slaughterhouse Five and Cat’s Cradle are good introductions to his work if you like literature of the fantastic. If you prefer social satire you might want to start with the later novels like Galapagos, Slapstick, or Bluebeard. I’m often asked about Vonnegut’s influence on me (although I don’t write anything like him) and I answer thus: “I owe a debt of gratitude to Kurt Vonnegut, because much like there could have been no Eddie Murphy if there hadn’t been a Richard Pryor to open the door, I came through a door that was opened by Kurt Vonnegut.” And I believe that. I’ve been told that by editors, who always look for some precedent to justify taking a risk on a new author. The precedent they cited for me, was Vonnegut, and this next guy . . .
Tom Robbins – Jitterbug Perfume – Here’s another novelist who has defied genrefication and therefore opened some doors for me and other writers, bless his heart. I pick “Perfume” as a recommendation because I think it represents the best story-telling, but if you enjoy an author who just likes to take off on comic and linguistic riffs, Robbins is your man. Nobody turns a phrase like Tom Robbins, and you get the sense that he’ll sacrifice everything to do it.
Hunter Thompson – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – With the exception of Steppenwolf, I don’t think any book twisted more people of my generation than this one. It’s been years since I read Fear and Loathing, but I remember feeling delighted that someone could actually get away with writing something this funny and irreverent. (By the way, I’m not recommending Steppenwolf unless you have been vaccinated against Existentialism or your friends are complaining that you’re just too damn cheerful.)
Douglas Adams – The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Life, the Universe and Everything, So Long and Thanks for all the Fish – These are absolutely brilliant pieces of silliness, and inspired me in no small part to write cosmically comic novels myself (don’t forget ‘Mostly Harmless‘ – ed.). Some folks seem to have some problems with the Britishness of them all, so if you find yourself irritated by Monty Python, you might want to pass. If these work for you, you might want to try Adam’s detective novels, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency and The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul. There’s also supposed to be a third one in that series, but no one knows if it will ever be released. Yes, Adams is a kergillionaire and his books have been translated into 147 languages including Ant and Dog, and doesn’t need my sweaty recommendations, but Steinbeck is dead, so what’s he getting out of it?
Now here’s a few that you may not have heard of, but did the trick for me.
William Kotzwinkle – The Bear Went Over the Mountain – What happens when a bear finds a manuscript in the woods, doesn’t like the taste of it, so instead takes it to New York and becomes the darling of the publishing world? This is a very, very funny book. Kotzwinkle can do damn near anything on the page, and he does it all very well. Also read Queen of Swords **, Fata Morgana and Jack in the Box **.
Carl Hiaasen – I’m yet to find a Hiaasen novel that isn’t entertaining. My favorites to date are Double Whammy, Skin Tight, and Stormy Weather. These are masterful mixes of satire and mystery, and if it matters to you, Hiaasen is a really nice guy. All the books are set in South Florida and three of them feature the character Skink, a Florida ex-governor who wears a flowered shower cap and eats road kill. If your only exposure to Hiaasen is the movie Strip Tease, which was adapted from his novel, don’t let that turn you off. The book was actually a lot of fun before Hollywood ran it through the politically correct template (though it now features Demi Moore on the cover — ed.).
Bill Fitzhugh – Pest Control – I think this is a first novel, and it reads like a fast-moving comedy movie, which is understandable, because Fitzhugh adapted it from his original screenplay. Don’t let that put you off, he does the job as a novelist too. The plot: A down and out exterminator is a mistaken by the espionage community for an international hit man.
George Dawes Green – The Caveman’s Valentine – While not strictly a comic novel, this story of a schizophrenic homeless man who lives in a cave in Central Park and is drawn into solving a murder is fascinating in that it’s told from the point of view of someone who is mentally ill. Green pulls it off, too.
Mark Leyner – Et Tu Babe, My Cousin, my Gastrointerologist – These are not novels. I’m not sure what they are, but they are funny. Leyner is sick and brilliant and no one seems to do what he does, it’s sort of comic fusion-jazz, so if your looking for a story, pass these by, but if you just want to see what happens when a really twisted writer starts jamming humorous, give them a shot. I’ve read Leyner’s other books as well, but to be honest, they got too scattered even for me.
Christopher Buckley – Thank You for Smoking – This is political satire that never gives up its edge in character and storytelling. Kidnap a tobacco lobbyist, cover him with nicotine patches so that he develops a conditioned nausea every time he is near cigarette smoke, then send him back into the trenches to do his job. Don’t let the Buckley name scare you off. This is a really funny, well-written novel.
Neal Gaiman – Neverwhere – The creator of the Sandman graphic novels goes into underground London to find a total fantasy world of people who live in the tubes, the sewers, and all the places that we don’t go in the dark. This novel is adapted from a BBC television series that Gaiman created, but don’t let that scare you off. Remember, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy started as a BBC Radio series. Also check out Good Omens, which Gaiman co-authored with Terry Pratchett.
Elmore Leonard– Pronto, Riding the Rap, Get Shorty, Bandits, Freaky Deaky – The powers that be have dubbed Leonard a crime novelist, but there’s some pretty funny stuff in his books, most of it coming from his ability to draw out characters through dialog. If you liked Pulp Fiction, and were running around calling Tarentino a genius, then check out the guy who was doing it when Quentin was still playing with Hot Wheels. Not to dis Quentin, he gave “Dutch” Leonard his propers by making Jackie Brown from a Leonard novel (Rum Punch). One warning — no one reads faster than Leonard. If you like his stuff, buy two at a time, because you’ll blow through each one in a couple of hours. If you are a fan of rich narrative writing, however, Leonard may drive you nuts and you may prefer this next guy . . .
James Lee Burke – The Neon Rain, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead, A Morning for Flamingos, Cimarron Rose, etc. If Leonard is the Hemingway of crime writers, then Burke is the Faulkner. You won’t find anyone, in any genre, writing more rich prose and still maintaining a compelling story. Most of his crime novels are set in the South, and you can feel the sweat run down your neck and hear the skeletons rattle in those gothic closets as you read. This guy does it all. His dialog sparkles, his stories engage, his characters inspire sympathy, love, and hatred. You’re safe with any of the books from the Dave Robecheaux series (which begins with Heaven’s Prisoners, but gets better as it goes on) or with the new series, which begins with Cimarron Rose. He’s seldom funny, but hey, sometimes you need a little darkness in order to lighten up.
Neal Stephenson – Snow Crash – Yep, it’s science fiction. Yep, it’s cyberpunk. Yep, it’s got a lot of techno-stuff in it. Okay, pass if that stuff drives you nuts, but the first hundred pages of this book are some of the best, and funniest satire that I’ve ever read. The nations of the world have become franchises on the fast-food miracle mile, the pizza delivery business is monopolized by the Mafia, and the main character has to deliver in 30 minutes or less or experience seriously deep shit. In our world, he lives in a mini-storage in Southern California, but in the virtual world, he is the world’s greatest Samurai swordsman.
W. P. Kinsella – The Fencepost Chronicles **, Brother Franks Gospel Hour, The Moccasin Telegraph and other Indian Tales, Dance Me Outside : More Tales from the Ermineskin Reserve. – If you liked Coyote Blue and are yearning for some more Native American stories, check out these collections of Kinsella’s Res stories. They’re funny, poignant, and give one a great sense of life on the modern reservation without heaping on the White Guilt. This is the guy who wrote Shoeless Joe, from which the movie Field of Dreams was made, and he plays irreverent homage to a world where magic still exists. There’s also a very cool movie of Dance Me Outside, available on video. If you’re a baseball fan, you might try Kinsella’s many novels and stories on that subject. Every time I read his stuff on baseball I’m convinced that there is magic there that I’m missing, then I watch a game or two, only to come back feeling like I’ve been watching paint dry. I suspect the magic is in his writing.
Don Winslow – A Cool Breeze on the Underground – Okay, it’s detective stuff, but it’s detective stuff where you learn how a detective learns his trade. You’ll follow Neal Carey, from the time he’s a ten year old pick-pocket, through the process of learning how to tail a suspect, search a room, and find a missing person: in this case, an American heiress who has fled to the punked out streets of late 1970s London. This is entertaining stuff, and it’s also a nice break from the detectives who seem to have sprung to life with the full knowledge of how to do their job. And since Neal is working on his Masters in 18th Century English Literature, you pick up some knowledge on that subject quite painlessly too. There’s a few more in the series, but I’m just reading them now. I’ll get back to you on them. Update: The Trail to Buddha’s Mirror will give you San Francisco fans a great slice of The City, as well as an amazing look into life in Communist China. Winslow gives you a sense of place as well as anyone.
Dave Barry – Anything. There’s a tendency to be too hip to like anyone as popular as Dave Barry, but don’t make that mistake. Anyone who can be as consistently funny as Barry deserves a tip of the hat from guys like me. I find it’s better to keep Dave’s books lying around to read in snippets between novels rather than plod straight through, but either way you should have fun with his collections of essays on almost everything. Don’t buy the bullshit that he’s just a doofus plodding his way through life. There is some seriously skilled craftsmanship to what Barry does (Be sure to check out Dave Barry in Cyberspace — Ed.).
P.J. O’Rourke– See Dave Barry and add reprehensible politics. He’s always smart, entertaining, and worth your time. The article he did for Rolling Stone on trying Ecstasy for the first time had me giggling more than if I’d eaten the drug myself. P.J. is one of those guys, however, who makes you feel as if all the fun that is ever going to be had, was had before you were old enough to take part in it. So younger readers and those who can’t deal with the paradox of a hip conservative, may want to pass. (Especially Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the Entire U.S. Government, probably the funniest description of the federal government ever. — Ed.)
Tim Cahill – Jaguars Ripped My Flesh, Pecked to Death by Ducks, A Wolverine Is Eating My Leg, Road Fever: A High-Speed Travelogue – If you like your non-fiction with spice and humor, then read Cahill, the guy who nearly invented adventure travel writing. Most of his books are collections of articles written for Outside, Esquire, The Rolling Stone, and a bunch of other big-time magazines. He goes into the most extreme situations, from cave-diving to infiltrating a cult, without ever forgetting that fear always walks hand in hand with adventure, and that humor is the best defense against fear. Cahill’s writing was instrumental in giving me the courage to take the risks required to go research Coyote Blue and Island of the Sequined Love Nun. (If you like Cahill, check out Last Chance to See, by Douglas Adams and Mark Carwardine [Also a great CD-ROM — Ed.]). By the way, Tim Cahill is a helluva nice guy too.
That’s it for now. This is by no means a complete list, but just what came to mind this morning while I was trying to avoid working on my new book. I’m always open to suggestions, so e-mail me if you’ve come across some great reads — especially funny novels. And don’t jump on me if I left someone out. (Remind me gently, instead.)
Pass some time with Scott Adams cartoons and writings, especially The Dilbert Future: Thriving on Stupidity in the 21st Century, Gary Larson‘s cartoons, Marx Brothers and Woody Allen movies, any movie written or directed by Harold Ramis, Barcelona, a very funny but often missed comedy by writer-director Whit Stillman , Chasing Amy, a harsh but funny movie by the director of Clerks. Rent Harvey, In the Mood, Bull Durham, Arsenic and Old Lace, Evil Dead II, City of Lost Children, Much Ado About Nothing, Fargo, Fearless, The Seven Samurai, Raising Arizona, and a half-dozen Women in Prison movies. You should be thoroughly confused by now.
Here’s a few that have been recommended to me by you guys but are still on my “TO READ” list: Matt Ruff (Fool on the Hill, a must-read, is finally back in print! — Ed.), John Kennedy Toole‘s A Confederacy of Dunces (yes, I read this, but it was so long ago I don’t remember if I liked the book), Terry Pratchett (funny fantasy stuff), Tom Holt (Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? – more funny fantasy stuff from Britain), Barbara Kingsolver and Sherman Alexie (esp. Reservation Blues — ed.) have been recommended for you Native American fans. I’m boycotting Tony Hillerman‘s Navaho stories because Jim Chee left his damn gun in his damn truck too damn many times and deserves to die for it. (Just kidding.) – CM
If you’re still hungry, and you want to go off the deep end of classic comic writings, check out: James Thurber, Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker, Ambrose Bierce (The Devils Dictionary is a good starter (and only 80 cents! — ed.), Oil of the Dog** is my favorite), Mark Twain (duh, try Letters from Earth), J.P. Donleavy (try the Onion Eaters**), E.B. White, Jonathan Swift (Yeah, the Gulliver Guy, read A Modest Proposal (80 cents! love those thrift editions — ed.), Jean Shepherd (try In God We Trust:All Others Pay Cash), Richard Brautigan (try A Confederate General from Big Sur, or The Hawkline Monster), Bruce Jay Friedman (try The Lonely Guys Book of Life ** (but check out the collection — ed), Kingsley Amis (The Ginger Man **, The Green Man), Saki (or H.H. Munro, read the Chronicles of Clovis), P.G. Wodehouse (Jeeves and Bertie stories), John Irving (The World According to Garp, A Prayer for Owen Meany), J.D. Salinger (The Catcher in the Rye), early Martin Amis (Cigarettes **, Money : A Suicide Note, The Rachel Papers), H.L. Mencken (A Mencken Chrestomathy is a good start -more social criticism than humor, but worth checking out), Don Marquis (Archy and Mehitabel), Garrison Keillor (The Book of Guys is good start, and CDs of the Lake Wobegon Tales are masterpieces of oral story telling)and oh, hell, there’s a ton more… I’ll add to the list as they come to me.
** indicates currently out of print. Look for it at your local used book store, or bug a publisher until its back in circulation!
Updated 3/17/98, and again 1/29/2002