For some reason, silly novels never work out for me. I’m not talking about writing them. We’ll get to that in a minute. I’m talking about reading them. And yet, I keep trying in hopes of finding a good silly novel.
Maybe it’s the premise that throws me off. See, these novels always end up coming off as just ridiculous. It’s as if the authors go out of their way to find humor that comes off feeling forced and…well, silly. The humor feels weak, as if they’re reaching.
Take for instance the latest attempt, Potboiler by Jesse Kellerman. It looked to have a good premise. Take one Arthur Pfefferkorn, a has-been college professor with long-dead literary aspirations. His college buddy Bill, writing under the pen name William de Vallée, has a string of best-selling novels to his name centered around a character named Dick Stapp. Arthur, meanwhile, has one literary novel, written twenty-plus years ago, that garnered little attention and less money. He’s on the edge of poverty, his wife is dead, and his daughter is semi-estranged from him.
Then he receives word that Bill has died in a boating accident. He flies to the west coast to attend the funeral and goes home with Carlotta, Bill’s widow and Arthur’s true love. Of course they end up going to bed together but, before they do, she takes him to Bill’s office, where the only copy of Bill’s latest novel sits on the desk. Later, Arthur slips back into the office and spends all night reading the novel. He still has seventy pages left when the sun comes up, so he steals the manuscript and takes it back home with him. When he finally finishes it, he discovers it wasn’t complete.
This gives him an idea. He rewrites it on his computer, being sure to edit out most of the cliché phrases, and submits it to his agent.
It makes him rich.
For a while, this is great. He’s able to buy things he never could and fly to LA every couple weeks to spend time with Carlotta. But then he gets a letter from Bill’s agent that simply says “See me.” No phone number, no specific time, but the return address is there. Arthur finally goes, only to find out that Bill was actually a courier, and his novels contained coded instructions for agents operating in the countries of East and West Zlabia, which seem to be somewhere between former Soviet satellites and impoverished Muslim/African nations. Put both together and they’re about the size of a medium city. The border consists of a one-eighth inch bump of concrete down the center of the town’s main boulevard.
And now they—we’re not 100% sure who they are—want Arthur to take Bill’s place, and they’ll do this by supplying him with manuscripts that he isn’t to edit (except for deliberate typos placed there so it won’t look too good). Arthur will make good money off the arrangement and everybody will be happy.
Except, of course, that Arthur isn’t. Who is he killing with his hidden instructions? What kind of changes is he causing in the world that he might not necessarily approve of? Of course, asking these kinds of questions means there’s trouble on the horizon for Arthur.
Jesse Kellerman is the son of best-selling writers Jonathan and Faye Kellerman. I’ve read several of Jonathan’s Alex Delaware novels, and I really like them. I haven’t read any of Faye’s, though I probably should. And this is the first of Jesse’s books—he has four, including this one—that I’ve tried.
He’s a good writer. No doubt that the talent runs true. I don’t think he got a publishing contract simply on the strength of having pedigree—though I’m sure that didn’t hurt in a business that very much seems to depend on who you know.
But I can’t find it in myself to recommend Potboiler. I won’t say don’t read Jesse Kellerman. I’m going to try one of his others before I make that decision. But for me, Potboiler did the same thing all the other silly novels I’ve read does: fell short of being genuinely funny, which I assumed was the aim.
I’ve read several, too. From Harry Harrison’s Bill the Galactic Hero to Carl Hiaasen’s wacky Florida and Tim Dorsey’s
serial killer Serge T. Storms (if I remember the name right) who is a Florida history buff and constantly off his meds. All of them were mildly entertaining, but didn’t reach a level of humor that I liked.
Maybe it’s just me. I mean, there have been some successes. Patrick McManus’s series about Bo Tully, an Idaho sheriff, are better. But Mr. McManus has made a living as a humor author, a regular contributor to magazines like Field & Stream and Outdoor Life. The plots in his books are serious, but there’s humor thrown in, just as there is in real life.
That’s what I’ve striven for in my books. I’m not shooting for a humorous story, not even in Spree, which has characters more reminiscent of Beavus and Butthead than, say, Holmes and Watson. Humor comes up all the time in everyday life, and it seems to come up more often in stressful situations. It’s our way of dealing with the tension. And, since my Rural Empires novels deal with some dark subjects, I feel I should balance them with humor. Lyle Villines is the kind to be dry and sarcastic in his wit anyway, and that makes it easy to write his brand of humor.
I’m not sure I could write a humorous novel. You have to have a special talent to do that. We’ve got a good humorist in our writing group (find him at What’s So Funny?). His stories are consistently funny, with some of them being genuinely uproarious. But I don’t know that I could maintain something like that for the course of an entire novel, and we already know I’m not that good at shorts.
So I guess I’ll labor on in my crime wave and see if I can pull some one-liners out along the way. Meanwhile, I’m not sure I can swear off trying to read silly novels. They’re kinda like a car wreck: you don’t want to look, but you can’t help yourself.
The burdens of life.