I’d first like to preface this list of 5 hilarious novels worth owning by warning you that, a) These books are not suitable for children, and, b) Many of these books may not be suitable to those with delicate sensibilities, firmly-held and polarizing beliefs, or the squeamish. That being said, these are some of the funniest works of literature I have ever read.
Before we begin, my preferred literary genre is satire, the more outrageous the better—novels that push and question the limits of reality, sanity, acceptability, notions of ‘right and wrong’, and social convention. And each novel on this list falls into that broad-ishly outlined category. From the patently absurd to the deludedly rabid; hyperbolic, embarrassingly revealing, and disconcertingly perceptive, these novels are uncanny in their observations of both humans and humanity, life and living. The more ridiculous they are, the more eerily accurate they seem. Like any proper work of art, each of these works imitates life—in it’s own, well, inimitable way. After all, if we can’t laugh at our own short-comings and missteps, what’s the point? So, without further ado, here are 5 hilarious novels worth owning, or at least reading, in no particular order:
Et Tu, Babe, by Mark Leyner
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to huff a preserved vial of Abraham Lincoln’s morning breath? Of course you have. Well, read Et Tu, Babe. Because it’s probably the closest you’ll ever get to the real thing—and, based on how it’s described, it may be as close as you want to get. That’s the event that sets the plot into motion, a meager plot that’s secondary. It’s the antics, the meshing of literary styles—the sheer excess of language and description and everything—that makes this book, and more-so this author, among the most unique and funniest I’ve read. Other things to look forward to are: internal organ tattoos, bionic bodyguards, pathological consumption of unheard-of mind-altering substances and steroids, and myriad other oddities that that are so ludicrous, and just shy of reality.
A novel that, each time I read it, makes me laugh so violently that tears stream down my face and my stomach clenches, be careful if reading it in public. A comedically caustic indictment of American excess and the image-of-the-self, by a thoroughly untrustworthy narrator, full of early 90’s pop culture references, outlandish egoism, grossly specific medical jargon, and so many unrecognizable words (and in only 176 pages) that a doctor, a dictionary, and a linguist, reading it together, would still encounter foreign words. Because they’re made-up. Google them, and all you will find are quotes from passages of the book.
To accurately portray this novel would require a paper many pages in length. And I don’t have the time or, frankly the inclination. Read it for yourself. Or at least check out the synopsis and his other works, which include the comedic/medical book, co-authored with Billy Goldberg, M.D., Why Do Men Have Nipples? Hundreds of Questions You’d Only Ask Your Doctor After Your Third Martini, and, with my personal endorsement, The Tetherballs of Bougainville, here. I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
While I certainly hope everyone’s at least heard of this novel, I feel compelled to add it anyway. The best satirical work I’ve ever read, Catch-22 embodies the horror and futility and hilarity of war, government bureaucracy, and the dangers of untethered capitalism in a way that is, at times, intentionally paradoxical (hence the phrase ‘catch-22’), insanely rational, and blindingly simple in its complexity. Major John Yossarian is a man so utterly sane and rational that everyone around him thinks him crazy. A quote from Chapter 2 of the book best sums it up:
“They’re trying to kill me,” Yossarian told him calmly.
“No one’s trying to kill you,” Clevinger cried.
“Then why are they shooting at me?” Yossarian asked.
“They’re shooting at everyone,” Clevinger answered. “They’re trying to kill everyone.”
“And what difference does that make?”
One of my all-time favorite books, it took a second reading to begin to comprehend the nebulous, interstitial plotlines. And I probably need to read it again. Mocking and sardonic, Heller captures those vague idiosyncrasies that underscore those massive decisions that, knowingly or not, dramatically affect our lives, juxtaposing those surreptitious complexities with the simplistic, innocent logic of a child. And, once you’ve finished Catch-22, you can read the sequel, Closing Time.
Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
Portnoy’s Complaint is Philip Roth’s 1969 landmark novel, both in its exploration of American-Jewishness, and in issues of censorship. Taking place entirely in the office of Alexander Portnoy’s therapist, Dr. Spielvogel, we are treated to a 289-page romp through the neurotic psyche of the narrator. From thinly-veiled Oedipal urges, to his discovery of masturbation—of which there is quite a lot, quite diverse, including scenes that would make the ‘Apple-Pie’ scene from American Pie seem like child’s play—and the unquenchable libido of a teenager, to his resultant shame in his compulsions, as well as his fascination with ‘shikses‘, or non-Jewish women. The narrative form is that of the protagonist spewing forth a monologue, uninterrupted and unfiltered, in which he recounts every memory he has, often going so far as to attempt to self-analyze, imploring—begging—the doctor for answers. But the doctor doesn’t say a word, not until the final page, serving as something of a punchline and dripping with irony. This quote, from the first page of the book, provides a better explanation than I ever could:
“Portnoy’s Complaint n. [after Alexander Portnoy (1933- )] A disorder in which strongly-felt ethical and altruistic impulses are perpetually warring with extreme sexual longings, often of a perverse nature. Spielvogel says: ‘Acts of exhibitionism, voyeurism, fetishism, auto-eroticism and oral coitus are plentiful; as a consequence of the patient’s “morality,” however, neither fantasy nor act issues in genuine sexual gratification, but rather in overriding feelings of shame and the dread of retribution, particularly in the form of castration.'”
And, no, this is not a description of an actual medical condition, but merely the author’s own invention, serving as a prelude to his profoundly revealing novel that, despite unabashedly shocking and graphic detail, hits a lot closer to home than any of us would willingly admit. One of the most celebrated and prolific American novelists, he is considered by some (such as me) to be as representative of American fiction as Mark Twain.
Wake Up, Sir!, by Jonathan Ames
Another novel featuring a (stereotyped) Jewish protagonist, with often less-than-subtle nods to P.G. Wodehouse’s ‘Wooster and Jeeves’ novels (which, I must admit, I am unfamiliar with), Wake Up, Sir! is as raucous as it is endearing. Jonathan Ames, creator of the HBO show Bored to Death (starring Jason Shwartzman, Ted Danson, and Zach Galifinakis), sets this novel in upstate New York, at an artists’ enclave. Alan Blair, the main character, is an alcoholic novelist living with his aunt and uncle in New Jersey along with his valet named—you guessed it—Jeeves.
Retreating to an artists’ colony with the hopes of reviving his writing career and finally finishing his second novel, a series of farces and despair play out in a surrealistic setting. But perhaps my favorite moment in the novel is a long, drawn-out sex scene between the narrator and a woman while at the colony. It is a sex scene unlike any other in its hilariously tender perversity, featuring most prominently a woman named Ava’s equally prominent nose. It’s been a while since I’ve read the novel, and my recollection’s not as great as with some of the others, but the sex scene, as wonderful and outrageous as it is, only works because of Ames’ masterful prose and uniquely adept details and descriptions.
Follow this link to purchase Wake Up, Sir!, and while you’re there, check out Bored to Death—it’s a brilliant show.
Money: A Suicide Note, by Martin Amis
Son of acclaimed British author Kingsley Amis, Martin Amis commands something of a cult following himself. Money: A Suicide Note, greedily exposes the excesses of capitalism, primarily through the main character, John Self. A Brit, Self comes to New York City to work on a film, lavishing (or languishing) in the hedonistic pleasures of alcohol, drugs, gluttony, prostitutes, and pornography. And spending entirely too much money as he satiates his growing urges.
Harassed by a voice over the telephone, known as ‘Frank the Phone’, trying to sort out his love-life—both in America and Back in Britain—and dealing with film stars cast in roles anathema to their personalities (and who, for some reason, find it extremely difficult to, you know, act those roles…), Self eventually returns to England. Which is where the plot takes a detour, a twist. Struggling author Martin Amis also makes a cameo appearance, though ‘vaguely’. Darkly comedic and acerbically poignant, Money: A Suicide Note portrays the dangers of excess in a readily accessible, if somewhat unnerving, reality. Get Money: A Suicide Note at Amazon today, and check out his other works while you’re at it.
This list is hardly definitive, and everyone has their own taste in entertainment, but if you’re in the mood to read something that will make you laugh out loud—a difficult task for any writer—then any one of these books will do. I encourage you to add your favorite works of comedic literature in the Comments section, as I am always looking to discover new works and writers. And, if you guys like this post, I can do another. And another. And probably even one after that. I hope this list is helpful in your literary pursuits.