Tragi-comic drama

2012-08-22 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

The Humorist

Russell Kane

Simon & Schuster

THIS is Russell Kane’s first novel and the writing reveals a satirical take on the workings of the mind of a murderer who has never laughed or smiled, or felt the warmth of human empathy.

The author is himself a very accomplished comedian and the way he manipulates his words into intimate pictures of mental and physical distress is very similar to the way a stand-up comic works his audience.

Benjamin White is the humorist of the novel. He works as a comedy critic with an extraordinary gift of the understanding of comedy at its deepest level. And the novel turns on the protagonist’s discovery of the immense power that this deep understanding gives him, namely, the power to kill.

The novelist’s choice of preface by Virginia Woolf seems to support allegorical intent. “The beauty of the world, which is so soon to perish, has two edges, one of laughter, one of anguish, cutting the heart asunder.”

This observation, about aspects of the nature of being, is supported by Freud, who had this to say about the cathartic nature of laughter. “Humour is one of the highest physical achievements of man, its fending off of the possibility of suffering places it among the great series of methods which the human mind has constructed to evade the compulsion to suffer.”

One of the interesting aspects of the novel for me is that it is not really funny. It is actually tragedy dramatically presented in comic rhythm. How often does one describe their own reactions to a comic situation by exclaiming: “I could have died laughing”?

Russell Kane writes this in his first chapter: “I ran the Monty Python sketch through in my head. The one where Germans die in the trenches at the hands of a powerful English joke. Their skit is our modern rewrite of a perennially told myth.” The writing also brings vividly to mind Humphrey Bogart delivering his one liners in the film version of Raymond Chandler’s novel The Big Sleep.

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