Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Detectives Beyond Borders dissects a joke

The wait is over. It's been barely a week since I finished reading the first volume of Robert Musil's The Man Without Qualities, but when the book in question is quite possibly the greatest novel of the twentieth century, a week seems long. But my copy of Volume 2 arrived today, and I shall keep you posted as appropriate. The novel's third part, with which Vol. 2 begins, is called "Into the Millennium (The Criminals)," so I suspect I'll come up with a post or two to interest the crime readers of intelligence and good taste who visit Detectives Beyond Borders.

I made good use of the inter-Musils interval, reading, among other things, one of the greatest Icelandic sagas, Allan Guthrie's funny, violent, touching novella Kill Clock, and a whole bunch of newer writing influenced by pulp, paperback originals, and 1970s and '80s adventure stories.

Along the way, I revisited a previous comment I'd posted about wiseass crime writers, talented authors whose good jokes occasionally obtrude on the story rather than helping it along. Such jokes sometimes seem to me the verbal equivalent of an actor mugging for the camera.

Eric Beetner has an interesting relationship to those guys. I read two of his books while waiting for TMWQ2, the novella Dig Two Graves and The Devil Doesn't Want Me, a novel. Beetner is good at creating entertaining variations on crime themes, such as the prison story and the revenge tale (you might call his takes on the former two, in Dig Two Graves, oral storytelling), the road epic, and the saga of the aging hit man and the hotshot young gun. (The latter works all the more because the young gun is such a little shit.)

I thought some of Beetner's jokes were a bit jokey in the novella, but hell, it's a novella. When he stretched out to novel length, in The Devil Doesn't Want Me, I was pleased to see an occasional rueful tone to some of the jokes, which shows me that the guy has chops and that he knows how to create a range of moods.

And the book is filled with good things: amusing byplay involving FBI agents who never get involved in the main story, and trenchant observations about the new Las Vegas and the old, among them. But a time or two, I think Beetner loved a joke too much to let go once he'd told it. Here's an example: The protagonist, Lars, a middle-aged hit man who keeps body and soul together with yoga, contemplates his superiority to the musclebound thug holding a gun on him:
"Guys like the big brute...smashing Lars' own gun hand into the tile floor cared only about the muscles. Lifting, squatting, pumping. For what? A thick neck like that can't turn to check out a great ass anymore."
That's the kind of touching, surprising, humanizing thought that Allan Guthrie is so good at. But Beetner has Lars continue the thought:
"And why did evolution put a swivel on a neck if not for that?"
That may be funny, but what does it add? What does it say that the preceding lines did not? I say Beetner should have cut the line and saved it for another book. To me that coda to the joke was a bit like being elbowed in the ribs and asked "Get it? Ya get it?" And that was all the more frustrating because the first joke was so good.

Your questions: Am I wrong? And what makes a joke function effectively as part of a story?

© Peter Rozovsky 2013

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Blogger Gerald So said...

Hi, Peter.

I don't think the last line weakens the whole much, but I see your point about cutting it. On the other hand, if Lars is the type of guy who often doubles down on his jokes, I might leave it in for consistency.

Humor is always a balancing act. No one learns to tell great jokes without occasionally going overboard. Even great comedians occasionally go overboard.

As part a story, jokes are effective when they reveal character. "What kind of jokes would this guy tell, if any, and when?" They also affect pacing, either appropriately lightening the mood or sticking out as inappropriate.

January 29, 2013  
Blogger Dana King said...

Jokes can work two ways. If you drop all pretense and go for the laugh, fine, but it should be in context, and it had better be funny, or the writer is going to look like an ass.

The other is to drop them in like truffles. maybe not everyone will get them, but so what? Not getting every funny line doesn't mean you won't like the book; it just means you won't like the book as much as someone who got all the funny lines. For these, you have to trust the reader.

Frankly, I would have left out the followup line about the neck. It's a good line, but it gilds the lily a bit. It should work great in a different setting, where it does the heavy lifting.

January 29, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

All jokes and humor are rooted in truth and reality (whatever those are).

January 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Dana: Following on from you suggestion that it may be all right to drop all pretense and go for the laugh, I would say that if unless an author decides to do that, his characters had better not have any clue that they're doing or saying anything funny. I think Beetner's followup line violates that, which is why it took me out of the story, thought just for a moment.

January 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T.: "Whatever they are" is right, but fiction can be more complicated than reality, in a way. What truth and reality? The character's? The story's? The narrator's? The reader's? The author's? A joke can work or fail for any number of reasons, I think.

January 29, 2013  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Gerald, you're right. That line does not weaken the book much. But weaken a story at all if one can avoid doing so? Though Beetner may similarly repeat a joke one other time, I don't think that doubling down is consistent with Lars' character. A defender of the follow-up line (including, perhaps, Beetner himself) might argue that it reflects Lars' contemplative and analytical tendencies, that it amplifies the thought expressed in the first joke. But a joke, especially a good one, has greater impact than an ordinary line of narrative or dialogue. It may not require amplification.

Guthrie's jokes reveal character, which is why I laugh my ass off at them. So does Parker's "Shut up, Grofield" in The Score.

January 29, 2013  
Blogger R.T. said...

Truth and reality are not measured by relative values. They are absolutes. But this forum is not the place for moral philosophy.

January 29, 2013  

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