Well, I was at my wits’ end, trying to find a short, upbeat book for December to read in my book group and feature in my bookstore, and I figured anything goes, maybe I’ll just do something completely different and go back one hundred years to a comic classic I’ve never read, always meant to, and have heard praised throughout my reading life and bookselling career.
I’m talking about Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). Connie Willis, one of the really literate science fiction writers of our time, used Jerome’s subtitle as the title of one of her own novels. The little British classic has been released in kazillion different editions, all of them with charming covers and many with illustrations, so you’d think it was some kind of adult Wind in the Willows. In fact, I had two very pretty versions to choose from, and since I couldn’t decide, I read a page in one, a page in the other, enjoying the pictures in both.
I already knew Jerome K. Jerome as one of the great Victorian ghost story writers. I had heard his style in Three Men in a Boat compared to P. G. Wodehouse, no idle compliment. I was perfectly willing to surprise everyone by choosing a book first published in 1889 and maybe even featuring it in different attractive editions.
Then I began reading it.
And though the writing style is elegant and economical, and it’s bristling with wit and the idea is essentially a funny one, I promptly had a problem. All right, I’ll admit, the dog Montmorency is a delightful character – but the throwaway scene where he kills a cat and the owner screams “Murderer!” is played for laughs and the building laughter of the scene died in my throat. That’s not funny. In another scene, the dog is disciplined with a frying pan. Ouch. No laugh from me. These must have played differently one hundred years ago. They don’t generate chuckles now.
But what became increasingly less and less funny were the characters. I’d always heard that Harris, George and J were delightful. They’re three twentysomethings who decide to rent a boat and take a journey on the River Thames from Kingston to Oxford. You watch them plan. You watch them pack. They’re like male ditzy blonds. What slowly starts to rankle is the humor of their upper-class idleness and helplessness. These three young gents haven’t a care in the world and can hardly drag themselves out of bed. They have no interests other than dining and drinking. Yes, we’ve already been assured by the author that they are going to get into many comic bungles, but I don’t see them as charming clowns. They’re lazy, aimless and privileged, they’ve never worried about money in their lives, they have no idea of real hardship or danger. I sincerely hope by the end of the journey they wake up to the reality of life, but I won’t be sailing with them long enough to know.