The divine human comedy

BOOK REVIEWS: Four titles that redefine how one should read comedy

If there’s a common thread running through the four novels today, it’s how gentle comedy can be a most effective way for bringing home a message. From examining our fascination for the occult, to thinking up a near-future, making a statement about the young Black American today, and our need for legends and tall stories; this quartet of books employ humor in great, imaginative ways.

The Stranger Times’ by C. K. McDonnell

Think ”Stranger Things” but set in Manchester and with adults working for a sensationalist tabloid as the main cast, and you’ll have an idea of the premise this novel brings to the table. Mix in the occult and sorcery, a dash of the supernatural and dark forces at odds with each other, and have this all seen and observed through the prism of a band of ragtag tabloid journalists. It’s a heady blend of hilarity, the most stubborn (the “Stranger Times” editor), and a staff of oddballs, failures in life, and the most benign of personalities. It all starts when an American “wizard” comes to Manchester for some (at first) unexplained reason and a spate of mysterious “suicides,” with people jumping off the same building, which starts having the ”Stranger Times” hoping-to-be staffer questioning why this could be happening. 

McDonnell even throw in a were-creature (not quite a werewolf) into the picture, and this is all offset by the mundane nature of how we’re exposed to the workings of the tabloid. Editorial meetings that are ridiculous, days of “sharing”—when people off the street with weird stories are allowed to pitch their tales to the tabloid—and the constant struggle between press rights and law enforcement. A funny novel that deserves an appreciative audience, and count me as a fan of McDonnell’s writing.

‘Qualityland’ by Marc Uwe-Kling

Imagine a near future where the concept of data privacy doesn’t even exist anymore, a world where on-line behemoths like Amazon++ make choices for us with such confidence that they’re delivered to us, and we can’t return the merch. A world where AI’s and android robots have effectively taken over most of the means of production and are doing such a great job. Think of a world where dating apps dictate who we have relationships with based on social ranking. You’d think such a world could never exist, but it is the logical extension of what’s going on in the world right now, and German author/journalist Uwe-Kling has so much fun envisioning this dystopian utopia.

Rich with irony, we start off by being introduced to this future nation that is called Qualityland (because the original name of Equalityland did not resonate). In the end, people on the top didn’t mind protecting hierarchy and inequalities for just as long as you promised “quality” of life, the people were happy. In the novel, we follow the exploits of Peter Jobless as he tries to return a dolphin dildo that the QualityStore insists he needs and wanted. Hilarious in parts, and cautionary in others, this is a read that makes the absurd feel like it’s right around the corner.

‘Black Buck’ by Mateo Askaripour

Darren is a young 20-something African American working at a Park Avenue Starbucks when he convinces the tech mogul from upstairs to buy a particular latte that he didn’t particularly have in mind. Recruited to then work for the mogul’s sales force, Darren finds he’s the only non-white face on the floor. This is a great satire about the American workforce and about moving up in a PC world. Filled with sharp insights and social commentary, it’s also hilarious, written in parts like a sales manual.

Some might be quick to dismiss this as a mere updating of “Trading Places,” or the black version of the mentor relationship we saw in such films as Wall Street. But it is that and more. The Sumwun tech start up sells “counseling,” and there are things being said about our online world and the pro’s and con’s inherent in them. There are twists about reverse discrimination, and how prevalent is cultural assimilation. Oh, and the inside joke is how the bosses at Sumwun call Darren “Buck,” and it’s because they’re making fun of how he’s not some college degree hotshot, but from Starbucks downstairs. 

‘Cuyahoga’ by Pete Beatty

Beatty has fashioned a larger than life, wooly, tall tale that’s reminiscent of the Paul Bunyan story that helped fashion the US legends of yesteryear. In truth, one can see this as one of the original forms of entertainment that prevailed as the nation was stretching its metaphorical limbs. Based on derringer-do, exaggeration, and a full commitment to fantasy lodged in the everyday and mundane, it’s escapist in a big way that became such a trademark of American lore. In this case, Beatty sets his sights on Ohio, and the competition between the fledging twin cities of Cleveland and Ohio City. No prize for guessing which city came out the victor.

Our local hero is a man named Big (short for Big Son), the kind of plucky individual who wrestles with alligators, digs down to the center of the Earth to make a deal with the Devil, and will push Ohio City as the center of its Lake Erie universe. Narrating the proceedings is Meed, Big’s younger brother, and—wouldn’t you know it—Meed is short for Middle Son. It’s this kind of sense of humor that abounds in Beatty’s writing style, like how when he describes Big’s physical attributes, in such terms as “Hair and teeth seemed to have muscles.” It all really works and it helps keep the narrative moving, highlighted by how Big is such a failure in getting his one true love to marry him, as she divines he has no real prospects other than being a local hero.