The Humorist, By Russell Kane

A smart comedian brings off that tricky first novel with energy and wit.

Julian Hall
Thursday 03 May 2012 15:37
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Frenetic brainbox: Comedian Russell Kane
Frenetic brainbox: Comedian Russell Kane

When I read that the award-winning comedian and frenetic brainbox Russell Kane had secured a book deal for a tale about a misanthropic, anhedonistic comedy critic, my first reaction was "Really? And he doesn't even know me that well..." I realised a few pages into the book, however, that any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, was purely coincidental. Kane's anti-hero, Benjamin White, has a synesthesia-like ability to recognise the form of jokes; the capacity to make a joke that kills, and the ability to earn both respect and a living by reviewing comedy.

Monty Python, Bill Hicks and Lenny Bruce are namechecked and imagined to have paved the way for the journey of Benjamin White's "gift". Elsewhere, some thinly veiled parody is applied. A deconstruction of fictional comic James Dakota by White reads how an uncharitable review for Kane might: "typical upper-working-class, few Penguin-Classics-in-the-hard-drive drivel."

As with all White's critiques, his words here have been "humanised" by Miranda Love, his "mentor" at Review, the journal where he works. Before she gets his hands on "Benji", the responsibility for this man who has never smiled or laughed has been passed from his parents to "the Centre", where a doctor tries to normalise his lack of reaction in the face of joy. Ultimately, via some research for an article, it is an academic-turned-shaman who takes White and his talent to a logical and physical extreme, supplying a punch-line release .

The climactic period of the book, where shaman and student fight over whether comedy is form over content, reminds one of the kind of contretemps that Douglas Adams could colour so well. Kane is also no slouch at building a scene overflowing with both tension and humour. The blurb directs the reader to make comparisons with Will Self, Michel Houellebecq and Martin Amis. The satirical and surreal qualities of the former are present, as is the casual-yet-compelling inhumanity of the latter two.

Crucially, Kane's own voice - a driving, occasionally overwrought, stream of interlocking description and observation - is dominant. What is most interesting about The Humorist is that a critic could never have written it. Only a comedian could be so sensitive to the rhythm and the weighting involved in this art form.

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