In high school in the nineties there was always some dude who would take it upon himself to recite Jack Handey's Deep Thoughts in Monday morning homeroom. Deep Thoughts, in case you are younger than 30, was Saturday Night Live's iconic, weekly 10-second pensée, written by comedian Jack Handey. They were perfect quips for an up-and-coming class clown. Dave (as he was invariably called) would secure our attention by attempting a Ginger Baker drum solo on his desk with two Bic pens, then flip his greasy, hashish-scented ponytail over his shoulder and announce in a monotone. "If trees could scream, would we be so cavalier about cutting them down?" (Long pause in which the homeroom teacher would roll her eyes but wait for the punchline.) "We might, if they screamed all the time, and for no reason."
At this, half the class would erupt into laughter while the other half shrugged and muttered "Whatever," and got on with the business of planning which extra-curricular activities would look best on their pre-law application. I guess it's no surprise which half of the class I fell into, but I understood my serious classmates' impatience. Deep Thoughts was openly juvenile – a step backward from the sophisticated air of irony some of us were trying so hard to cultivate. I didn't always get them either – kind of like the "hilarious" New Yorker cartoons my parents were always chuckling at – which made me wonder if the more cryptic ones were designed to mock me, the pretentious adolescent sitting at home on Saturday night with nothing better to do. I think it's now safe to say that was true.
The point is, Jack Handey, the legendary comedy writer behind Deep Thoughts, has a strange and intimidating legacy to live up to with his first novel, The Stench of Honolulu.
Like most of Handey's limited body of work, the book is elliptical, unemotional and weirdly detached from reality. The terms "surrealist" and "absurdist" are often used to describe Handey's work, but I actually think his jokes stem from the opposite impulse. True, his stories and characters do not seem to exist in the real world, but the swift movement from the metaphorical to the literal is at the heart of his best jokes. He enjoys nothing more than taking a truism that has lost all regular meaning and restoring it to earnestness via a deadpan punchline. ("Sometimes a child's face says it all," he writes. "Especially the mouth part of the face.")
Much of the plot in The Stench of Honolulu is really just an excuse for jokes – a lavish demonstration of Handey's love of the cliché teased out to its logical and literal conclusion. For example, the opening line and inciting incident: "When my friend Don suggested we go on a trip to the South Seas together and offered to pay for the whole thing, I thought, 'Fine, but what's in it for me?'" And then just a few pages later, "Why, then, you're wondering, did I call Don back and agree to go on the trip with him? Someone lit a fire under me. And that someone was Conk and Conky Pingle. They dragged me into an alley and lit a fire under me."
Why are these jokes funny? Because they take our expectation of what is coming and upend it completely. They are drone strikes in the war against cliché.
A lot has been written about Handey since The Stench of Honolulu appeared last month. After ignoring him more or less completely for the past couple of decades, it's as if the world has suddenly remembered what a genius he is and wants to give him his due. I've read a great deal about how he lives a quiet life in Santa Fe, N.M., with his wife, Marta, how he refuses to put Deep Thoughts on Twitter because it's "too perfect a medium" and how he aspires to a single ambition: to write the ideal joke. Ideal, in Handey's estimation, is as short as possible. He aspires, in essence, to write the ultimate haiku of modern humour. "Take my wife – please," is the example he cites repeatedly in interviews as the gold standard in minimalist comedy, with his own shortest joke following at a distant second: "The crows seemed to be calling his name, thought Caw." His ambition reminds me of Flaubert's admission in a letter to a friend that what he would like to write most is "a novel about nothing." And in The Stench of Honolulu Handey has essentially done just that.
Like the Deep Thoughts that made him famous in the first place, Handy has created a work that is simultaneously timeless and irrelevant, genius and vacuous, a book for people who want to laugh and escape and think – but not that hard. A Deep Book, for the ironically detached children of the 1990s. Enjoy it, Dave. This one's for you.