For my birthday last week I received quite a few books that I’m really excited about reading. I love getting books as presents, especially because people often tell me that they don’t like to buy books for me because they’re afraid I’ll already have read them (a valid concern, I suppose, and not one that promises to lessen as I age). So when I do get books for my birthday it’s as lovely as finding people who will happily and enthusiastically play Scrabble with me (ideally more than once).
One of the books I was given is The Hippopotamus, by Stephen Fry, a gift from my sister, and it’s been moved to the top of my reading pile because it promises to be really, really funny and because my sister wants to read it after me so I have to be sure to finish it and send it to her before I fly the country again.
I launched into The Hippopotamus accompanied only by my familiarity with its author, Stephen Fry, the British comedian I know best from the A Bit of Fry and Laurie, his cameo appearances as Dr. “Gordon, Gordon Wyatt” on the series Bones, and of course, as the inimitable gentleman’s gentleman Jeeves, from the television version of P.G. Wodehouse’s classic Bertie and Jeeves books.
The protagonist of The Hippopotamus is Ted Wallace, a minor poet who has just been sacked from his paid gig as a theatre reviewer, all over “some frantic piffle about shouting insults from the stalls at the first night.” I’m a few chapters in and can say that I think the book is very, very funny…it’s definitely in the great British comedic tradition that contains writers like G.K. Chesterfield, Wodehouse, Evelyn Waugh, and (the perhaps not quite so British) Oscar Wilde, but crossed with a more contemporary–and more obscene brand–of comedy that evokes some of Russell Brand’s monologues and other acts more reminiscent of the stand-up stage, rather than the traditionally more reserved tone of literary comedy.
Reading it, I can’t help reveling in Fry’s use of language (though I definitely need to brush up on my Briticisms); nor can I help imagining Ted Wallace as a character inhabited, by Fry the actor, to a drunken, horny, and intellectually raging tee that would deeply, deeply offend Jeeves.
I can’t say that I think Fry is an equal to Wodehouse or Wilde, but there’s plenty of hilarity to The Hippopotamus, and judging from the book’s epigraph (“The Hippopotamus” by T.S. Eliot) there will probably be, however craftily or crassly disguised, plenty of heart.
If you like The Hippopotamous: Try any of the great comic novels of P.G. Wodehouse, particularly all the Bertie and Jeeves stories, A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall or Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Or take a peek into some of Fry’s other books, like his first novel, The Liar, or his autobiography, Moab is My Washpot.