Tuesday, April 24, 2012

An Evening of Long Goodbyes, by Paul Murray

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Without a doubt, this story is among the five funniest books I've ever read -- and I'm a big fan of such funnymen as Tom Robbins, Kurt Vonnegut, and Dave Barry. For that reason alone, it's worth reading.

What sets An Evening of Long Goodbyes apart from so many other funny books, though, is not simply that its writing is so hilarious. I don't want to say that anyone can write a bunch of one-liners (though there are plenty of hack stand-up comedians out there who think they can), but this book contains a much more nuanced and difficult-to-deliver style of humor than the set-up-to-a-punch-line formula: the narrator, Charles Hythloday, is either the world's most oblivious man or else the master craftsman of denial, and through his perspective the reader is able to see his world as he simply cannot.

Even if Charles had a particularly developed sense of humor, it would be so aristocratic (not to be confused with the well-documented Aristocrats joke) as to be inaccessible. No, what we are privy to is the story of a man who puts himself in the worst possible corners, whose naivete about the world at large rivals that of a particularly sheltered kindergartener, whose delusions are so grand that we almost -- almost -- wonder whether he is mentally restricted.

He's not ill, though, which is to say he's fully recognizable as a human being with very human foibles and hang-ups that cannot be simply explained away by a clinical diagnosis. Therapy may help this character, without a doubt; but when we laugh at his story, we're laughing at the world he has built around himself. It's not so much finding humor in a person falling down as it is finding humor in a person stepping on the banana peels that he has spent his life strewing about his own lawn.

Unlike some funny writers, Paul Murray doesn't let his humor horse pull the plot cart. Charles has much growing to do, and his story of self-discovery and his claiming of self-awareness comes first. He can't help it if humor arises from the situations he places himself in, or from the delusions he has spent a lifetime building. The jokes never feel hollow, because we're never cheated out of the story's substance.

Life really is funny, when we think about it. Which is probably why those funny stories that take life itself seriously (including Murray's other novel, Skippy Dies) are the most hilarious of all.

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