A genuinely funny book is one of life's simplest pleasures, but finding the real stand-outs is never as easy. We asked some leading lights of comedy and literature to nominate the books that make them laugh out loud, and here are the resultsMore
If you can swallow the tragedy of its publication, then A Confederacy of Dunces is a comedic masterpiece whose pages sing with one of the greatest fictional creations in literature. Toole wrote the novel – set in New Orleans – in the early 60s, and his failure to find it a publisher led him to eventual suicide in 1969. (Its subsequent success and posthumous Pulitzer in '81 only compound the grim irony.)
The book follows obese savant Ignatius J. Reilly's doomed attempts to integrate with society – a Don Quixote of the Deep South – only with hot dogs for windmills. You'll buy copies for friends.
(Review by Seb Hunter)
It is a gift to the satirist to live in turbulent times but there still remains the task of encapsulating them. In Vile Bodies, an ostensibly superficial comic novel (Waugh wrote to Harold Acton, "It is a welter of sex and snobbery written simply in the hope of selling some copies") Evelyn Waugh brilliantly, hilariously, unflinchingly but always humanely pinions a society which is in thrall to gossip and decadence, traumatised by war and financial catastrophe yet unable to stop itself rushing headlong into further and deeper cataclysm. This is a book as much for our age as for Waugh's.
I had come to loath Bill Bryson, but on holiday a couple of years ago The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid was the only book around. After three pages I was laughing aloud. When was the last time a book made me do that? Actually, 1989, The Lost Continent, Bryson's first book. In between, he had become hugely successful, but his books were increasingly lazy, stuffed with stereotypes, and crushingly formulaic: cosy chuckles for tedious old farts.
The Thunderbolt Kid captures the hilarious innocence of a time when men had flat-top hair cuts that left them "looking as if they were prepared in emergencies to provide landing spots for some very small experimental aircraft". There was an unbridled enthusiasm for all things atomic (from cocktails to motels and, of course, bombs) and unending culinary innovation, (spray-on mayonnaise, frozen salads, liquid instant coffee in a spray can).
The set pieces, such as Mr Milton diving disastrously from the high board ("He hit the water – impacted really is the word for it – at over six hundred miles an hour, with a report so loud that it made birds fly out of trees up to three miles away."), or the young Billy walking in on his parents having sex, still make me snort helplessly. I always put the book down happier than when I picked it up.
(Review by David Mills)