Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Book: Damp Squib

Uncle Dynamite by PG Wodehouse WW Norton & Company, 1948

Provenance: Half-Price Books. This was a whim purchase a few months back, while I was looking for something else. That happens sometimes. OK, that happens a LOT.

Review: It is a well-known fact that I am a big Wodehouse fan, but even I must admit there is greater Wodehouse and just-average Wodehouse. Greater Wodehouse just drips with class-system wackiness, sly banter, and preposterous situations. Wooster and Jeeves stories are the hallmarks of this, but we also see good examples out of Blandings Castle as well. Greater Wodehouse thrives in the interwar years, where makes a fanciful portrayal of a world a short train trip or tram ride from the city hustings of the author and the audience.

Just-average Wodehouse still has the brilliance of language and the twistiness of plots, but it feels like the pilot-light has gone out. And part of it is that Wodehouse created a space in which he could write stories, and those stories in turn have defined his output. Having built his own personal genre, he was now bound by it. He could write gloomy reflections on the intangible nature of the soul, but it probably would not sell in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post

Anyway, the story at hand. Uncle Dynamite is Uncle Fred, a local lord (Frederick Altamont Cornwallis Twistleton , 5th Earl of Ickenham) of WC Fields disposition (though of slenderer build), and notable for drinking, gambling, creating a general nuisance, and getting up in other peoples' business. He uses that last talent for what (he presumes) is good, such as trying to put lovebirds back together and pilfering statuary busts containing gems that a young lady hopes to smuggle into New York without those bothersome tariffs (such Macguffins abound in these stories). Uncle Fred lies effortlessly, takes on false identities, and then imposes additional false identities on others. Uncle Fred is a recurring a number of stories by Wodehouse. If it was reincarnated today, the entire canon would be called the Wodehousiverse, and get five separate shows on Netflix.

The stock characters are here, a commedia dell'arte set in the green and pleasant lands, a day's motorcar drive from the Smoke. Here we find the headstrong young woman, the young man who can't quite figure out how he got engaged, the shy, blundering lunk, the petty tyrant lord of the manor, the long-suffering wife, and the stiff-necked constable. There are mix-ups and false identities and numerous petty burglaries. One of the charms of the book is watching Dudley dig himself out of one obvious prevarication while setting himself up for the next.  

And it works. All the pieces slide into place, one lie leads to another leads to a third effortlessly, and the clueless young man finds himself dancing around exploding revelations. If this was a sitcom, it was a very nice episode.  I would not say that the author is coasting, but I think he has tamped on the brakes a bit too hard. 

This was written after the war, after Wodehouse soiled his reputation by doing light, airy radio broadcasts from a German POW camp. Post-war Wodehouse tends to be nostalgic, pining for an age that no longer exists in a land the author cannot return to. Manor houses, train stations, smuggling diamonds all belong to another era, a black-and-white film of a lost period where serialized stories lived in the glossy magazines. It's good, but not Greater Wodehouse.

But even OK Wodehouse has its moments - this is worst pun I have encountered yet:

"Yes, my dead wife, I am glad to say, continues in the pink. I've just been seeing her off on the boat at Southampton. She is taking a trip to the West Indies."


"No, she went of her own free will."

Try the fish, and remember to tip your waitstaff. More later,