Ah, yes, summer. With its plenitude of bright reading light, and ample supply of baseball card bookmarks (Kirby Puckett is resting between Leaves of Grass, a rookie Joe Charboneau seems to prefer it Under the Volcano), this is the ideal time of year to crack open a good book. The only thing missing? A luminary with a sharp sense of humor to help guide the way. While discussing his new book, Arts & Entertainments—a novel that promises to be the most entertaining of the summer—we asked author Christopher Beha what other literary knee-slappers should be on our list. Here’s what he told us. Take it away, Chris.
I’ve never quite been sure what people mean when they talk about “summer reading,” as though the rest of the year we all read to punish ourselves but for a few short months we can allow ourselves to read something enjoyable. Nonetheless, my new novel, Arts & Entertainments is being published this week, which I guess means it fits the bill. And since my book is a comic novel (one that I hope could happily occupy an afternoon at the beach), I thought I’d suggest some of my own favorite comic novels—good for any time of year.
The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark
One of the most wickedly funny writers who ever lived, Muriel Spark is probably best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, about a captivating girls’ school teacher with a fascist streak. The Girls of Slender Means, which takes place at a London rooming house for single young women near the end of World War II, is at once funnier and nastier.
Our Man in Havana, by Graham Greene
The name Graham Greene conjures up atmospheric political thrillers like The Quiet American or moral dramas like The End of the Affair, but he was also a great comic novelist. Our Man in Havana, about a vacuum cleaner salesman who finds himself accidentally caught up in a Cuban espionage plot, is his funniest book.
Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh’s first novel was one of his funniest, and certainly his most purely comic, although the sharp social commentary for which he became known was already present, as the Gibbonian title suggests.
Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis
This is probably the best campus novel ever written. Jim Dixon—whom Amis based on his best friend, poet Philip Larkin—is a hapless young college lecturer who wouldn’t be out of place in a Judd Apatow movie. He drinks too much, misbehaves, and is lousy with women, but he inevitably comes out ahead of his pretentious superiors.
Pnin, by Vladimir Nabokov
Pnin is another great campus novel, about a hapless Russian émigré who bears some resemblance to the book’s author. This book is not as daring in form or content as Pale Fire or Lolita, but it ranks with those books among Nabokov’s best.
Sabbath’s Theater, by Philip Roth
This book is every bit as funny—and every bit as dirty—as Portnoy’s Complaint, while having all the depth of Roth’s late masterpieces. If it were the only thing he’d written, it would be enough to rank him among the great American novelists of the past fifty years.
A House for Mr. Biswas, by V.S. Naipaul
Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in 2001, mostly for morally sharp chronicles of the post-colonial world, but he began his career with a series of comic novels based on his childhood in Trinidad. A House for Mr. Biswas is the best of them. Based on Naipaul’s father, the endlessly striving Mr. Biswas is one of the great comic characters in fiction.
Turn, Magic Wheel, by Dawn Powell
Every few years there is a Dawn Powell revival, after which she slips back into obscurity, awaiting the next. She ought to have a permanent place on readers’ shelves, because her send ups of Greenwich Village bohemians in the thirties and forties—hipsters before there were hipsters—are among the purest pleasures out there. Turn, Magic Wheel is my favorite. When you’re ready for more—and you will be—try The Wicked Pavilion or The Locusts Have No King.
At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien
Flann O’Brien aka Brian O’Nolan aka Myles na gCopaleen ranks just beneath Joyce and Beckett among the great Irish writers of the twentieth century. He is actually funnier than either of them—which is saying quite a lot. At Swim-Two-Birds is his masterpiece, one of the weirdest great novels ever written.
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
Since his death in 2007, David Foster Wallace has been treated as a kind of secular saint, and his 1000-page opus Infinite Jest as a forbidding post-modern masterpiece. What sometimes gets lost is how funny Wallace is and what a pure joy it is to read this book—as befits a novel about a movie so addictively entertaining that it reduces its viewers to a quivering mess.
Christopher Beha is a deputy editor at Harper’s Magazine. His essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review, The London Review of Books, The Believer, Bookforum, and elsewhere. He is the author of two novels, Arts & Entertainments and What Happened to Sophie Wilder, and a memoir, The Whole Five Feet. He is also the co-editor, with Joyce Carol Oates, of the Ecco Anthology of Contemporary American Short Fiction. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife.