Laughing at Augustus
A comic classic slips back into print
Jan 22, 2001, Vol. 6, No. 18 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
Being a reviewer and essayist by trade, I sometimes find myself cornered at cocktail parties -- usually by an imposing dowager or a captain of industry and almost never, alas, by the twenty-something debutante with big blue eyes. Without fail, the matron or her husband will ask me to reel off the titles of my favorite books. At such awkward moments I usually murmur politely "Boswell's Life of Johnson" or "Chekhov's short stories" or "Montaigne's essays." Conventional, unexceptional choices.
But occasionally, after a beakerful of the warm South too many, I will grow frolicsome and name P. G. Wodehouse's Leave It to Psmith or Stella Gibbons's Cold Comfort Farm or Stanley Elkin's The Dick Gibson Show. I love books that make me laugh, and I especially love books that do this through a stylish command of language. Wodehouse shoots forth two or three dizzying similes per page ("He drank coffee with the air of a man who regretted it was not hemlock"), Gibbons stocks her single classic with outrageous English hillbillies, and Elkin dazzles by transforming the talk of bailbondsmen and elderly Jewish widows into a kind of prose poetry.
In such a mood, I also frequently mention Augustus Carp, Esq., sometimes called "the funniest unknown book in the world." The novelist Anthony Burgess even dubbed it "one of the great comic novels of the twentieth century." For once, Burgess doesn't exaggerate. This brilliant, brilliant work is a masterpiece of sustained irony. The book purports to be the autobiography of a really good man, a "Xtian" (always so spelled) of the most high-minded rectitude. It is also the unconscious portrait of a monster of hypocrisy and religious smugness.
Actually, of two monsters, for Augustus takes after his father in his devotion to Xtian principles. Here is Augustus Carp Sr. as described by his son:
Somewhat under lower middle height, my father, even as a boy, had been inclined to corpulence, a characteristic inherited by myself, that he succeeded in retaining to the end of his life. Nor did he ever lose -- or not to any marked extent -- either the abundant hair that grew upon his scalp, his glossy and luxurious mustache, or his extraordinarily powerful voice. This was a deep bass that in moments of emotion became suddenly converted into a high falsetto, and he never hesitated, in a cause that he deemed righteous, to employ it to its full capacity. Always highly colored, and the fortunate possessor of an exceptionally large and well-modeled nose, my father's eyes were of a singularly pale, unwinking blue, while in his massive ears, with their boldly outstanding rims, resided the rare faculty of independent motion.
Seduced by the assured voice and that elegant syntax, a reader might almost miss the fact that Augustus Carp Sr. is short ("somewhat under lower middle height"), fat, and hairy -- a blustery, hysterical loudmouth with a Durante nose and Mickey Mouse ears.
He's also a supercilious zealot:
For with his ruthless determination, inherited by myself, to discover and expose every kind of wrong-doing, with his lifelong habit of informing those in authority of any dereliction of duty in themselves and their subordinates, and with the passion for truth that compelled him on every occasion instantly to correct what he deemed the reverse, my father had necessarily but little leisure to cultivate the easy art of friendship. Amongst his acquaintances, indeed, there were but few that even remotely approximated to his standards; and he had found none that his conscience had permitted him to select for the purposes of personal friendship.
In other words, the man is such a prig and snitch that nobody can stand to be around him. And as if this weren't enough, Carp Senior also treats his wife as a household drudge: "From the time of his marriage to the day of my birth, and as soon thereafter as the doctor had permitted her to rise, my father had been in the habit of enabling my mother to provide him with an early cup of tea. . . . Clean in her habits, quiet about the house, and invariably obedient to his slightest wish, he had very seldom indeed, as he often told me, seriously regretted his choice of a wife." That word "enabling" shows genius, though some readers may prefer the more subtle virtuosity of "seriously."