First came the memoir, then the glut of memoirs, then the twofer, then the glut of twofers. Part memoir, part cookbook. Part memoir, part spiritual guide. Part memoir, part manifestopart mystery, part how-to, part self-help, part style manual, part travelogue, part gardening journal—with all of these parts rarely adding up to a whole worth reading, much less rereading. And now comes Andrew Hudgins’s The Joker, part memoir, part joke book, but so fresh and original that it seems without precursor. Like a good joke, it doubles our vision, inserts anarchy into logic, pleases us with its felicities of phrasing, and stuns us with a truth we recognize two beats after we hear it.
Hudgins, a military brat, moved often as a child, his father stationed in France, California, England, Ohio, and elsewhere, but these locales had little influence on his parents’ Southern Baptist convictions. Hudgins’s family eventually settled in Alabama, where he attended high school and college, and later he studied writing at Iowa and Stanford. Now a professor at The Ohio State University, he’s published eight highly regarded books of verse. His poems, often in graceful stanzas conversant with the Southern narrative tradition, are infused with history and religion. They are also often darkly funny. (“Praying Drunk” begins “Our Father who art in heaven, I am drunk / again. Red wine. For which I offer thanks.”)
Despite the humor in his poems (including a book titled Shut Up, You’re Fine! Poems for Very, Very Bad Children; Overlook, 2009), his fans will be surprised by the zany, often indecorous, occasionally offensive, 300-plus pages of The Joker, which tell Hudgins’s life in jokes and through jokes. In the opening pages, the “compulsive joke teller” recalls a gaffe at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. After both Anthony Hecht and John Hollander—distinguished, dignified, occasionally cranky gatekeepers to the Cathedral of Literature—comment during their readings about the pretentiousness of sipping water between poems, Hudgins announces during his reading that he’ll drink from the “nonpretentious side” of the glass. Standing at the podium, under the hot scrutiny of the audience, he tips the far lip of the glass into his mouth so the water pours down his shirt and pants. Exactly half the room laughs. “The non-laughers,” recalls Hudgins, “obviously thought my clowning was a breach of the decorum of poetry readings—precisely the thing the laughers enjoyed.” Predictably for all but Hudgins, “Hollander and Hecht perceived my buffoonery as a barely concealed way of calling them pretentious,” and Hudgins’s “self-loathing” ensues. This squirm-inducing anecdote suggests that the joke is often going to be on Hudgins, but that’s all right, too, for he wants more from us than good-natured chuckles. He wants us to squirm, too, and to consider the squirm, and the joke gone wrong, and the neediness and aggressiveness of the joker who is “negotiating an intimacy that is often unwanted.”
In his introduction, Hudgins writes that “religious bigotry, racism, sexual discomfort, and death provide the tension in jokes, the friction to wordplay’s lubrication, and in this thematic memoir of my life as a joker, the story of my life shifts back and forth in time as I explore how I learned to think about religion, race, and sex through the complex and often unattractive medium of jokes.” Early chapters describe Hudgins’s growing up as the eldest of three sons in a strict, pious, “sour” family, with parents who had “lost the ability to laugh.” A more indulgent writer would have devoted a book or a chapter or at the least a scene to the terrible secret his grandmother reveals to him at age thirteen: that he’d had a sister who died before he was born, died in a car crash with his mother behind the wheel. Hudgins provides this fact in summary but skips the maudlin close-up on his confusion and outrage. Instead he sketches, as he must for us to understand the taboo of laughter, a mother who disappears into her bedroom, sobbing and keening for hours, but who, when questioned by her son, claims she was napping. A father who backhands his son out of his chair for farting at the dinner table, who beats him with a belt for referring to a teacher as an “old lady.”
So we understand what’s at stake when, one indolent afternoon, young Hudgins simply can’t resist asking his mother, “How do you stop a kid from running in circles?” He answers: “Nail his other foot to the floor.” We wait along with Hudgins for his mother’s reaction, as “the moment between the last words of the joke and the laugh, if there is a laugh, is a fraught and complicated expanse of time.” But “the amoral logic of the joke surprised her,” and she crumples into laughter. They “share a laugh behind my father’s back,” a forbidden bonding in that mirthless house.
No wonder he became hooked on jokes. I don’t know how many there are here, but most pages have at least one, and some have a half dozen. Not once, but twice Hudgins interrupts a joke to tell another joke in parentheses—it’s almost pathological. (Indeed, later a psychologist ex-girlfriend speculates that Hudgins may suffer from a mild form of Tourette’s, which would account for his “propensity for profanity and delight in invective,” “twitchy legs,” and “muscular and vocal tics, some of them nearly involuntary.” It’s to Hudgins’s credit that the memories he recalls never seem selected for the purpose of serving the jokes. Instead one feels that there’s not a topic on Earth for which Hudgins couldn’t instantly recall an appropriate joke. Or, for that matter, an inappropriate one.
Such as the sex jokes that young Hudgins collects. He studies them because “this is what my parents told me about sex: nothing,” so he is “taught, through the oral culture of jokes, the terrors of the tribe.” He puzzles over a playground joke concerning “a piece of tail,” and even when he’s told what the phrase means, he thinks he’s being put on: Why would tail be in the front? We follow Hudgins’s fascination with “works of the flesh” that fall “below the solemnity of St. Paul’s animadversions.” Here biblical references and Latinate diction perfectly set up Hudgins’s list of interests: “toe jam, snot, spit, mucus, eye buggers, gnawed fingernails, peeled blisters, dingleberries, and both number one and two.” He “matures” into a fascination with elephant jokes in junior high: “How do you catch an elephant? Hide in the grass and make a noise like a peanut.” As a teenager, Hudgins will favor “dead-baby jokes, quadriplegic jokes, and Helen Keller jokes.” He confesses that he loves these jokes “as things in and of themselves—not things of beauty exactly, though I can imagine a definition of beauty that includes their linguistic efficiency, their powerful imagery, their probing of social norms, and their provoking strong, often conflicting, emotions.”
That definition of beauty reminds us that Hudgins the poet is the hidden face behind the jester mask, not just in his analysis of why a joke works (at one point, he scans the meter of a punch line to display its pleasing rhythm) but in his attention to language. He skillfully juxtaposes high and low diction, syntax, and cultural references (quotes from Friedrich Nietzsche and William Shakespeare bump up against George Wallace and Bear Bryant). And his variation of sentence length allows nuanced pacing. For example, short sentences about poop can morph into complex sentences with modifiers that interrupt and challenge his narrative flow, the syntax revealing the shape of his nimble thinking about the function of potty humor in society. And he’s married the joker’s timing with the poet’s metaphorical skill. Recalling a girlfriend, he writes, “I pull out memories of our happy times, like sharpened candy canes, to pierce the heart.” What a glorious way to describe dangerously sweet nostalgia. Two pages later, he describes being awakened by his dog with this ingot of brilliance: The dog “ardently licks the top of my bald head. It’s like being swabbed by an extremely affectionate slice of baloney.”
When providing the context of a joke, Hudgins creates—as in his poetry—characters through gesture and voice. (Oh, God, the racist ex-mother-in-law with the cleft palate—I refuse to quote him quoting her; you’ll just have to buy the book.) And, as in his poetry, setting is evoked though sensory details that do quick work. As a result, he’s able to nudge us from a theoretical passage into a scene quite easily. For example, Hudgins discusses inappropriate laughter, the kind that, taken to the embarrassing extreme, leaves the laugher unable to stop. Then he recalls one such human moment: an afternoon in music class when his teacher plays a recording of Medea. Hudgins begins to giggle at the stilted language of Medea’s sons who “figure out Mom’s going to chop them into stew-sized bits.” When the first son sings, “Ah me, what can I do? Whither fly to escape my mother’s blows?” Hudgins’s giggles ratchet into guffaws. When the second brother opines, “I know not, sweet brother mine; we are lost,” Hudgins completely loses it. The teacher lifts the needle off the record and walks toward Hudgins’s desk where he is “aspirating snot” like “homicidal lunatics” from movies “with spectacular and obviously flawed master plans for world domination.” But the teacher’s generous interpretation is that Hudgins’s sensitivity causes his laughter. She explains to the class that, “When we hear an event too horrible for our minds to comprehend, we sometimes laugh. We refuse to accept it.” Hudgins sucked his “humiliating cachinnations to a halt, and wiped the desktop with [his] shirt sleeve.” A weaker writer might have described his gratitude to that teacher with, “If I could remember the name of that magnificent woman, I would thank her.” Hudgins instead rewards her generosity with a burst of linguistic effulgence: “If I could remember the name of that magnificent woman, that splendid teacher toiling at a junior high school in France for American Military dependents—and I have tried for decades to call it up—I would send her a spray of white roses every year on her birthday, and then randomly from time to time, just to surprise her.”
No bouquet, however, are the chapters on race. Hudgins’s family moved to Montgomery in 1966, the year after the Selma-to-Montgomery March, and four of the book’s thirteen chapters work through the intersection of race, humor, and family. We first peer at young Hudgins between the “rickety, pincered legs of an ironing board” where his mother smokes and irons while listening to Amos ’n Andy. Hudgins enjoys these sessions because he loves the “plushness” of his mother’s chuckle; meanwhile, the show teaches him “the conventions of racist humor and the assumptions behind it.”
His mother’s racism seems fairly innocent, but her mother’s is not. Hudgins provides a detailed portrait of his fierce grandmother, a tobacco-chewing former millworker who honored “cussedness” and was “the angriest person” Hudgins had ever known. He writes, “Most of her explosive rage was aimed at ‘niggers.’ ” After offering several examples of her racism, each more horrific than the last, Hudgins stuns us with a three-word paragraph: “I loved her.” In the next paragraphs, he movingly explains their bond and refutes the argument that “nobody can love a racist” with the assertion that “Life is more complex than absolutists … find it to be. Love is not love that can only love those already flawless.”
It’s not difficult to see why Hudgins loves his flawed grandmother, but it’s a bit difficult for this reader to see why Hudgins loves racist jokes, or at least admires them for flirting with “the boundaries, the outlawed, the verboten.” He asserts that it’s possible to tell a racist joke without sharing the joke’s worldview. “Like any story, anecdote, or tidbit of gossip,” he writes, “jokes can create stereotypes or reinforce existing ones. But by playing with stereotypes, they can also reveal them for the fictional constructs they are … The taboos and ugly forces behind jokes can feed positive laughter as well as nasty laughter.” He believes that, “If we sense that the person telling a racist joke puts an ounce of credence in it, the lightness goes leaden because the malice is real.” I paused in my reading here to question whether it’s possible to tell racist jokes without being, to some degree, racist. I’ve never told a racist joke and never laughed at one. Andrew Hudgins would suggest, I think, that my humor has a blind spot. Is my zero tolerance mere self-congratulating political correctness in the face of “the last true taboo”? Like Hudgins, I am white, a Southerner, and an academic, though he has twenty years on me, and surely some of our difference lies there. Although Hudgins fails to convince me that it’s the intention of the joke teller that can make a racist joke ugly, I’m still glad for his argument and glad that he’s bold enough to make it, knowing as he must that he risks being perceived as racist. And when he writes that he has pretty much stopped telling these jokes to all but “a few friends who I can absolutely trust to understand the jokes as a sort of pure aestheticism,” and then goes on to state, “I tell fewer and fewer jokes to fewer and fewer people these days,” I feel a curious impoverishment.
The final chapters look at the intersection of humor and romance, and they are insightful and charming. He opens one chapter, “When I think of women I have loved or almost loved, I remember the luxurious, almost lascivious, delectations of shared laughter.”
Hudgins’s relationship with his current wife, the writer Erin McGraw, is grounded in humor and has been from their meeting on the porch at Yaddo. Because she’s Irish, he told her Irish jokes: “What’s Irish and stays out all night? Paddy O’Furniture.” He writes, “I loved the way our voices joined in laughter, as singers delight in their voices uniting in song.” McGraw even laughs at the same joke that Hudgins told as a young man at Stanford to a young Condoleezza Rice, who didn’t care for it. (The Stanford scene is too long to summarize here but is one of the book’s gems.) We follow the progression of love between these two writers through the progression of jokes they tell each other, jokes which become “catchphrases of our marriage.”
There’s a reason couples shouldn’t share their private jokes: They’re often not funny to others, or they’re so cutesy-pie one wants to barf. The Hudgins–McGraw jokes are funny, and while the couple seems occasionally cutesy, they also seem refreshingly dorky, so we forgive them for having a marriage so loving they compete to sneak the garbage to the curb. The intimacies of their twenty-year marriage are revealed through their jokes, such as those “spoken” by their dog, Buddy. Hudgins explains why a talking dog “is an invaluable asset to a successful marriage.” If Hudgins “speaks harshly to Erin … Buddy might say, loud enough for her to hear, ‘Sir, I don’t think I’d have used that tone of voice to address the lady.’ ” Poor Buddy developed impacted anal glands, which needed to be emptied every few months by his loving parents. Hudgins recalls their first attempt: “As I was pulling myself together to insert my index finger into the dog’s rectum, Erin looked the trembling and unhappy dog in the eye, and said, her voice solemn with theatrical empathy, ‘I want you to tell me if Daddy ever touches you in a way that makes you feel funny.’ Then we fell apart.” It’s quintessential Hudgins: scatological and hysterical.
Many memoirists share their griefs. Hudgins shares his laughs. We laugh alongside him, and then we think alongside him, considering how laughter functions in our own friendships, families, and beds. Jokes are “toys made of words” and The Joker is a marvelous toy chest. It also enlarges our understanding of what it means to be human. And that, my friends, is a valuable service. No joke.