For kids raised on 90’s-era Saturday Night Live, the name “Jack Handey” is
synonymous with “Deep Thoughts”–absurd observations read by Phil Hartman and
sprinkled throughout many episodes. I learned that the name belongs to a
living, breathing comedy writer (and not just a character for the bit) when he
started publishing essays in “The New Yorker.” These were like long-form Deep
Thoughts: completely random and hopelessly naive. I couldn’t get enough.
The Stench of Honolulu is a full novella, and for years, I’ve been really
curious to see what Handey can do with that much space.
In some ways: it’s exactly what I expected. From the voice to the bizarrely
specific personal details (like his animosity toward a friend named Don or his
pride over a funny cowboy dance), this felt like an extended silly tirade.
I don’t mean to minimize the work, though. As much as I love absurdism, it’d be
a disservice to simply say Handey’s writing is cartoony. His word choice and
rhythm are deceptively subtle. Each sentence is carefully crafted to sound
simple-minded and self-assured, with the payoff usually coming when Handey’s
alter-ego unconsciously reveals his misconceptions or insecurities. The effect
is a kind of literary pratfall:
We weighed anchor, cast off, and did some other nautical things. I want to
say “screwed the pony,” but that’s not right.
To read it and conclude, “I could write nonsense like that,” is a little like
watching Buster Keaton and saying, “I could fall down.” Maybe I’m trying too
hard to justify my immature sense of humor, but I think this subtlety elevates
the novella above an X-rated chapter book (and it may be what earned the praise
of George Saunders–another author who knows how to write lovable idiots).
The trouble with The Stench of Honolulu is the format. It’s just too long to
support Handey’s ramblings. As the story progresses, fantasy melds with reality
in a way that’s rare in his essays and somewhat confusing for the reader.
Rather than determining how and why Handey’s narration is unreliable, you have
to recognize which bizarre details are accurate. More than being disorienting,
senseless plot points can feel simply immature, undercutting the above
highfalutin literary analysis of Handey’s larger body of work.
The Stench of Honolulu got me to laugh out loud multiple times, and I can’t
fault any book which does that. But it’s not a jumping-off point for Handey’s
work. Start with his
essays. If you’re still on
board, then Honolulu awaits.