Friday, March 31, 2006

Sailing the Seven Seas of Laughter

Being funny is damn hard. How many times in your own life have you told a strange or witty story to a friend, only to have that friend stare at you blankly, obviously not getting whatever clever witticisms you are trying to impart. Lots of times, I would assume. And without the visual cues of facial expressions and gestures, it’s only tougher with writing. But Keith Thomson has a real knack for it, as shown by his new novel Gus Openshaw’s Whale Killing Journal.

Gus Openshaw, catfood cannery worker and the star of this raucous farce, is a man on a mission. An enormous white sperm whale dubbed “the blubbery bastard” killed his wife and child and tore off his arm and Gus wants vengeance. Through a bizarre loophole he obtains a special license to hunt the whale and uses his life savings to purchase a boat and hire a ragtag crew of violent pirates, Caribbean natives, and a Korean Assassin turned chef.

The real joy of the book comes through the way Thomson simultaneously lampoons and pays homage to a number of high seas novels and stories, particularly Melville’s Moby Dick. Aside from the number of pointed jokes made about sperm whales, there are a number of smart little references to Thomson’s inspiration. While Moby Dick offerered Queequeg as a noble native hunter, Thomson provides the goofy harpoon throwing native named Flarq. Thomson’s illustrations of whales, coffee cups, and boats, billed as scrimshaw drawings by Flarq, work as cartoony versions of the woodcut prints done by Rockwell Kent for a special printing of Moby Dick in the 1930’s (images just below are by Kent and Thomson, respectively, for comparison).

The references continue through the very format of the book. Delivered in short chapters designed to appear like blog entries, Thomson pokes fun at the history of Moby Dick. When it was first published the Melville novel was marketed as a factual travel narrative; they were all the rage at the time and Melville took full advantage of their popularity (James Frey, anyone?). You can certainly argue that the blog is the new equivalent of the travel narratives of yesteryear, providing us a window to the world we wouldn’t have otherwise. The blog format gives Thomson some sly opportunities Melvillle would have loved. Gus responds to emails from his readers, everything from marriage proposals to references to questions on sailing to hate mail from PETA (check out the book’s site for examples).

But as deep as some of these Melvillian references and jokes dig, there’s wild humor and crazy action aplenty to entertain those who have never read, or just don’t remember, Moby Dick.After the crew sets sail they enter a series of bizarre, episodic adventures with narrow escapes from pirates, whale-worshipping natives, gun-runners, and the U.S. navy. Much like the Hitchhikers Guide books by Douglas Adams, Thomson uses the strange obsessions and personalities of the characters to land them in continual trouble but still manage to slip away through dumb luck. After all the narrow escapes the crew faces down the whale in a hysterical climax worthy of a Monty Python sketch with a high special effects budget.

Thomson’s work here is not high art by any stretch, and I don't think he would claim it to be. But his comic timing is tight, and his humor, covering the full range of smart literary references to dumb fart jokes, should force a smile onto many a mouth. So if you need a break from serious thoughts, office politics, or politics in general join Gus on his voyage. It’s a fun, raucous ride that will take you away from your own humdrum life, if only for a few days.



Ginny said...

Very nice! I was lucky enough to be along for the ride from the beginning, when the blog was just a way for Keith to play with narrative while he was supposed to be writing his first novel. Of course, we didn't know that then. We thought he was some famous guy's friend - such was the buildup at the time.

While we waited impatiently for another post to advance the story, we "shipmates" began blogs of our own, created personas, and made incessant, tactless hand jokes. It never ceased to amaze us how Gus could blog with one hand while fighting off corrupt Venezuelan officials with... Stupid George's head.

It was a lot of fun. I'm now waiting impatiently for my copy to arrive.

Hebdomeros said...

Wish I could say I knew about it when it was just in blog form, but it somehow slipped by me. I'm sure it was lot of fun, though! Being able to read some of the responses that are still up is fun enough. The printed version is still a riot....

Thanks for posting....always nice to have another view.