• So far as I know, no one has ever written a novel about an opera librettist (though I can recommend a witty and knowing novel about the backstage world of opera, Brown Meggs’ “Aria”). But two of my other professions, that of drama critic and biographer, have been the subject of comic novels that are both exceptionally readable—albeit in different ways.
The eponymous anti-hero of Wilfrid Sheed’s “Max Jamison,” published in 1970, is a notoriously crotchety drama critic for a weekly newsmagazine who awakes one day to find himself smack dab in the middle of an excruciating midlife crisis with spiritual overtones: “Closing the Times was the end of his religious observance for the day. He wished real religion wasn’t quite so damn impossible. There was a need for it that the Times didn’t really fill.” Comprehensively unhappy with every aspect of his life, Max resolves to brighten up his pitch-dark point of view by taking up with a much younger woman, a decision that leads with staggering promptness to frighteningly funny grief.
Part of what makes “Max Jamison” so readable is that Sheed is very, very shrewd about the New York literary racket. Needless to say, much has changed since 1970—among other things, the weekly newsmagazines no longer cover Broadway other than sporadically—but the big picture remains all too recognizable four decades later. Max himself is a most interesting figure, a semi-lapsed intellectual who used to write for the little magazines and now pontificates in the mass media (“He had sensed that in educated America, humor was the number 1 language, for criticism, passion, even cooking: and he set about learning it with grim intelligence”). Harold Ross was undoubtedly right as a rule when he said that “nobody gives a damn about a writer and his problems except another writer,” but “Max Jamison” is an exception, a portrait of a miserable writer that is at once sharp-edged and sympathetic.
• If it’s brainy slapstick you seek, I commend your attention to Mark Dunn’s “Ibid,” published in 2004. The conceit of the book is that Dunn himself has written a biography of one Jonathan Blashette, a turn-of-the-century circus freak (he was born with three legs) who invented underarm deodorant for men and later became a noted philanthropist. Then Dunn’s publisher accidentally destroys the typescript of his book—except for the footnotes. Hence “Ibid,” which consists of 253 pages of source notes for a biography that no longer exists. Some are gnomically short, others absurdly long, and all are written in a style best described as deadpan silliness:
17. She was trampled in the Wilmington nylon riot of 1940. Barbara Sadler, Nylon Riots: An Exhaustive History, Volume 3 (Chicago: Sartorial Press, 1953), 255-57. Hiram Diles’ wife, Cassia, recovered within a couple of weeks. Her sister Magda required surgery and two years of intensive psychological counseling.
Such inside foolery is not for everyone, but “Ibid” made me laugh out loud several times in a crowded airport departure lounge, which is a pretty high batting average for a comic novel.