Comedy in Fiction
When I was in the first grade, my class took a field trip to Santa Claus Land, an amusement park in southwestern Indiana. My mother gave me a quarter in case I had need of it. Maybe I’m thinking about this because it’s Mother’s Day, or maybe because this happened in May when it was hotter than it should have been, and at a time when there was no air conditioning in our school bus. The point being that on the drive home, everyone was extremely thirsty. Parched, I guess you could say.
What a blessing it was, then, to find a roadside cafe open for business with cold bottles of pop for sale. I remember sitting at the counter on a stool that swiveled and asking the waitress how much a bottle cost.
“A dime,” she said.
My heart sank. “I don’t have a dime,” I told her, and she was kind enough to bring me a free glass of ice water, which I drank while watching my friends guzzle Pepsi, Coke, orange Nehi, 7 Up.
When I got home and told my mother this story, she asked me why I hadn’t used my quarter to buy a bottle of pop.
“Because it wasn’t a dime,” I said. “I had to have a dime.”
“Son,” she said. “It’s time we had a talk about change.”
Now, when I look back on the boy I was, I find myself laughing at his ignorance. Then, in a tick, the laughter always dissolves, and I look a little closer, and I find myself wishing I could tell that kid what a quarter is. “You could have had a bottle of pop,” I want to say. “Heck, you could’ve had two bottles!”
That’s when I remember that glass of ice water. Even though I was glad for it on that hot day, I also felt how it marked me as the kid who didn’t have enough money to buy a bottle of pop. As I look back on that first-grader, drinking ice water and wanting so badly to have what his friends were having, I start to feel the yearning underneath the comedy. I start to feel the wanting and its frustration, which makes me a little sad, and that’s another important element of the comic in fiction. The funny and the sad are often contained within the same character, the same event.
I also think of my mother and how she never planned to have a child. Things happened, though, and I was born when she was forty-five. Nearly twice the age of my friends’ parents, she must have been sensitive to any imperfections in her own maternal skills. She was a grade school teacher. She taught kids about change all the time. How could it be that the lesson had never made its way to me? I also think about how my mother was such a timid woman. I inherited her shyness. I didn’t like standing out from the crowd the way I did that afternoon in the cafe. When my mother said we’d have to have a talk about change, I felt her own embarrassment.
On the surface, this is an amusing family anecdote that gets told for years and years, and everyone laughs. Beneath the surface, though, lies a more human story of a shy kid, an unused quarter, a desperate want, a deep embarrassment shared with his mother.
I’ll never forget that my mother and I were alone in our house that day. She poured Pepsi over ice in an aluminum drinking glass, and I sipped the foam the way I liked to do, and then I drank and drank while she got some coins from her purse—pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters—and started to teach me what was what. Each coin contained a certain number of the others. My quarter was made up of twenty-five pennies, five nickels, two dimes and a nickel. A whole was made up of its parts, just the way characters are in fiction.
A drowsy late afternoon in our farmhouse. My mother and I, connected somewhere deeper than anecdote because of what we shared: the wanting, the embarrassment. The context of our story—that timid kid who wanted a cold bottle of pop, my late-in-life mother who wanted to prove that she could indeed be a good mother at her age—gives the amusing story its weight and makes it something I can’t forget. Comedy in fiction should never exist for the sake of the joke alone. It should have something to show us about the human condition. It can be truly memorable if the writer doesn’t neglect the human beings at the heart of the humor.
A beautifully written and touching post that offers a guideline we all might consider.
Thanks so much for your comment, Maureen.
So true. So often when I begin by laughing at a story, I surprise myself with sudden tears.
Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, Toni. All good humor comes from pain.
Another lovely memory transferred to the page in the form of an essay.
As I am a character-driven writer, I found your observations especially insightful, and, what’s more, poignant. Every one of my stories arrives via the characters, which has always seemed to be the way my mind works. Often I’m reminded of a quote attributed to, I believe, Henry James: “Character is conflict, and vice versa.”
This memory of your mother and you that you have so selflessly shared with us deepens one’s understanding of your other works. Does it seem strange or obtuse to you that while I was reading this essay, I found myself thinking of Clare Mains, one of my favorite characters in American fiction, and one about whom I still ponder from time to time despite the fact that seven years have passed since I read your masterful novel?
What you have illuminated in this essay — for those of us who love to read and write — is an element that is absolutely vital to reading and writing well: the ability of our species to recognize, feel, and extend empathy to others. It is, at heart, what art means. I believe this passionately, and when I discover writers who do it as well as you — or Richard Russo, Adam Johnson, Eudora Welty, and Harper Lee (to name a few) — I feel as though I have happened on a wonderful friendship. As my favorite epithet states: “Only connect.” It’s why we’re here, why we live, why we feel.
As for comedy, the best of it must have a sense of sadness, perhaps even tragedy. And while reading your essay, I thought instantly of John Kennedy Toole’s “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Certainly it is one of the funniest novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading — one of those experiences during which one laughs and sometimes outright guffaws and cares not a whit that he incurs rather odd looks from others. Still, for all the raucous humor that’s on evident display in Mr. Toole’s novel, there were moments when the tears that sprang to my eyes were not solely the result of having my funny bone tickled.
Which is all to say, the best writing reminds us that we are alive and capable of emotions — an observation about which Marilynne Robinson wrote quite succinctly in “Gilead” and channels to us through her narrator, John Ames:
“It is an amazing thing to watch people laugh, the way it sort of takes them over. Sometimes they really do struggle with it. I see that in church often enough. So I wonder what it is and where it comes from, and I wonder what it expends out of your system, so that you have to do it till you’re done, like crying in a way, I suppose, except that laughter is much more easily spent.”
John, thank you for leaving such a thoughtful comment. I’m particularly glad that you included that quote from “Gilead,” which serves to illustrate the point that laughter is always so much more than that. I love the notion that laughter asks something of us, costs us something.
It doesn’t seem strange at all to me that you thought of Clare Mains while reading my post. I drew upon my mother quite a bit with that character, and I was overcome with emotion at the end of the book when Clare goes to the Mackey house to say she’s sorry for their loss. I remembered all the times that my mother had stood with her shy dignity and apologized for mistakes I’d made. The fact that you see the similarities between Clare and my mother pleases me.
You’re so right about the Henry James quote: “What is character but the determination of incident.” To go further with this, we might say that character always creates incident, and incident reveals character.”
Thanks for the great comment, John. Very thought-provoking!