If you need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows, Beaufort's the one. The earth quakes and we consult Richter's Scale. Pain has Wong-Baker and the McGill Questionnaire. American terror looks to five bright colours on a slider of alarm, which isn't as many levels as pandemics (six phases of alert) - but then pandemics don't have the colours.
Is it frivolous to ask, in the face of all this pain and flu, just how you measure the magnitude of funny? A storm you can peg by wind power and wave action, that's an 8, Fresh Gale, breaks twigs off trees, generally impedes progress . With funny, the best you can do is a motley collection of physical responses and bodily breakdowns. A funny writer can cause you to cramp up, lose your balance, micturate. But is a book that makes you cry tears funnier than one that causes you snort and sneeze?
It's a question that comes up with W.E. Bowman's 1956 classic The Ascent of Rum Doodle . It's not as if you can really compare it to other superiorly funny books, Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complain t, say, Flann O'Brien's At Swim-Two-Birds , Charles Portis's Norwood , except to say that each contains its own genius. (Roth might actually be more effectively gauged using the McGill Pain Questionnaire.)
I guess what you're left with is the straightforward personal testament. So. The Ascent of Rum Doodle is out-and-out the funniest book I know. When I first came across it, I registered a 153.1 on the Are You Kidding Me? scale of righteous indignation. Why wasn't it better known? This is a common response, Bill Bryson suggests in his introduction to a 2001 Rum Doodle reissue: It's not easy to comprehend how a book this fresh and frabjous could have gone missing for 30 years.
Born in Yorkshire in 1912, Bowman spent most of his career as a civil engineer. (He died in 1985.) Late in life, he sketched out a 139-word autobiography. "I appeared at Scarborough in 1911," it begins. "In 14 the Kaiser shelled the place. In 18 my father and some others fettled the Kaiser." After a stint in the Royal Air Force ("In 45 we fettled Hitler"), he meant to write, "but lapsed into engineering."
In 1956, Rum Doodle met with modest success (high praise in faraway corners of The Bulawayo Gazette) and lavish indifference (no national British press). His publisher brought out a second novel, a sequel (sort of) called The Cruise of the Talking Fish (funny but nowhere near RD funny - breaks no twigs off trees). Bowman's third novel never made it to print, and a little later his publisher sank. This is when, switching to mountaineering lingo, Bowman's small oeuvre fell into a crevasse.
Published three years after Hillary and Tenzing first clambered atop Everest, Rum Doodle records an English expedition to the eponymous higher-yet Himalayan peak, a mighty eminence rising 40,000½ feet above tiny Yogistan. If you liked Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air , well, congratulations. Instead of the human spirit battling extreme conditions and dying in their teeth, think champagne and butter beans and two men sleep-wrestling in their tent, so entangling themselves that they have to be extricated by porters.
Bowman's hero, if you can call him that, is Binder. Proud, brave, loyal as a Labrador, a natural-born leader of men (just ask him), Binder is also as dense as a hiking boot. As a narrator, he's not so much unreliable as blindly idiotic. Much of the pleasure here fits into the breach between Binder's view of things (all well and good) and what's really going on (utter chaos).
Joining him is a company of six bumblers unmatched in the annals of blundering. The doctor, Prone, is perpetually ill, "smitten with mysterious and complicated symptoms," ranging from pallor and sighing to bleeding to death from a shaving nick. (When he ices the latter wound, he comes down with frostbite and surgical shock.) Wish is the scientist; on the way to meet the mountain, he's the one who fixes the ship's position at 153 feet above sea level. Returning to Rum Doodle again, the chortling starts as soon I see the cover. We need a word for the particular pang of regret that comes from knowing you'll never again read a favourite book for the first time - "rumdoodle" might be the ticket.
In London, as the company prepares for departure for points far east, the navigator Jungle turns up lost. "He rang up to say that he had taken the wrong bus," Binder reports, "but he had just caught sight of the North Star and expected to join us shortly."
Meanwhile, the rest of the party reaches Yogistan, where Binder discovers that, due to a mistranslation, he's mistakenly hired 30,000 porters, all of whom have to be fed to keep them from looting the expedition stores.
It's nearly impossible to isolate a favourite passage, but the crevasse incident is hard to pass up. Lost again, Jungle descends into a crevasse - easier that than traversing it. When he doesn't emerge, Binder sends a man down to the rescue. But. How to talk to these two? In goes another man with a walkie-talkie, followed by Wish, then Prone (bearing champagne). Finally, when it's just Binder standing at the surface, alone but for several hundred porters, he bursts into tears. Is the game up before it has even begun? Will he never see his companions again? Or, just maybe, will they emerge intact, drunkenly singing music-hall songs?
Somebody somewhere must have plumbed the book for its deeper tints and meanings. I'm certain you could read it for variations on the theme of English bloodymindedness, or as an ice-pick aimed at the heart of jingoism.
On the literary side, there must be someone else who's measured the stick Rum Doodle might be said to give to the long, high-minded tradition of writing travellers, the Kinglakes and Leigh Fermors and Chatwins. You could listen for the book's comical vibrations, how much they jibe with Waugh's or Wodehouse's, or what about the boys from Beyond The Fringe and Monty Python? Bowman does, no doubt, slide comfortably into the ranks of brainy, exuberant nonsense-mongers such as Spike Milligan and J.B. Morton.
Trying to parse all this, the outright hilarity, feels like futile foolery. Is it enough to say that Bowman's mountain-fettling classic is a book that's utterly true to itself, never succumbing to any piety, resisting all pressure to stand up straight and behave? What surprises me still is how sweetly the whole thing holds up in a way that simple spoof never does.
I'd go on. It might be more efficient for all concerned if I changed the mood to plain imperative: Go! Read! Laugh! Last spring I gave a copy to a friend just before he boarded a flight to Vancouver. He called from the sky, later. Jungle had gone down the crevasse. The rest of them were heading in. As he started to read aloud, gasps of laughter filled the phone. I could hear background mirth from the plane, and I was laughing, now, too. Rum Doodle hits you hard: I had to stand up, move around, until I had sit down again, to rest.
For the next week I'd get these calls from Vancouver, short recitals, sometimes just the gusting laughter and a page reference. Listen to this. Remember? Pong the Yogistani cook terrorizing the Englishmen with his noxious meals. Binder freezing his face to the mountainside by weeping. Britain maybe doesn't have quite the stretch of geography to make it as meaningful, but in Canada, at least, The Ascent of Rum Doodle is funny that spans a continent.
Stephen Smith is a writer and critic in Toronto.