Comedy rules – two great American novels 

We were in my last blog on the road in America, fifty years ago, give or take.

It put me in the mood for more America. Better wild and offbeat, I thought, rather than Frantzen-style intensive scrutiny. So having read the blurb I picked up Paul Beatty’s new novel, The Sellout, and read it just a week before it won the Man Booker prize last Tuesday. And that put me in the mood for a novel written almost fifty years ago, John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

We’re in New Orleans, well away from all the California fun and games. Toole creates one of the great comic heroes, Ignatius J Reilly. A medievalist by education and inclination, preferring his own room and company, yet forced to work he creates chaos in the sales office of Levy Pants, and confusion in the streets as a hot-dog salesman. He is wonderfully quotable.

Optimism nauseates me. It is perverse. Since man’s fall his proper position in the universe has been one of misery.’ Advising us to avoid all of history apart from the early medieval he recommends that ‘for the contemporary period , you should study some selected comic books’. Strangely prophetic. ‘I suspect that I am the result of a particularly weak conception on the part of my father. His sperm was probably emitted in a rather offhand manner.’

Ignatius’s New Orleans is a place I’d want to visit: I was there in 1971, and might have met him, had he existed… but I listened to jazz and didn’t scratch below the surface.

Likewise Dickens, the LA ghetto brought back to life in Paul Beatty’s novel. Dickens had somehow dropped off the map. Along with segregation – blacks shutting out whites – Beatty’s hero and narrator wants to put it back. He also unwittingly takes on Hominy, a one-time child actor who insists on being his slave. So as a black man he’s taken before the courts, on charges of slavery and segregation, and the novel begins and ends with the case brought before the Supreme Court. Black comedy in every sense, but such is Beatty’s commitment to irreverence that he absolutely gets way with it.

Unlike Jonathan Frantzen’s families, who I wouldn’t want to meet, I’d love to have got acquainted with Toole’s and Beatty’s characters in real life. Though maybe not more than acquainted….

And now we have Donald Trump acting out one of the great American comedy turns. Only it’s not comedy. Would he was a novel, and we could laugh.

America shares its life with us. We could be put off but we know, or we should know, that our own lives in our own countries are just as absurd, just as lost and lonely, mixed-up, angry, funny, devoted, passionate. So two cheers for America. If only we could slip in there, past the miserable souls who staff the airport arrival halls – and wearing ear mufflers which let in the roar of both the big city and the prairie winds but shut out the news networks which blight every bar and home.

Something for Google to look into. I don’t want a Google glass which enhances my experience. Rather mufflers that screen out …

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