“The Stench of Honolulu: A Tropical Adventure” by Jack Handey (Grand Central Publishing, 240 pages, in stores)
In the 1980s and '90s, Jack Handey penned off-kilter, often childlike pseudo-aphorisms under his own name in the pages of National Lampoon and for “Saturday Night Live,” dubbed “Deep Thoughts with Jack Handey.” They were concise, purely funny and so well complemented by the simple silliness of his name that even today most assume Handey to be a fiction of the “SNL” writer's room and not an actual person, although a million or so copies of his “Deep Thoughts” books have sold to date.
Happily, he is real, and Jack Handey — the lazy, narcissistic, sociopathic character of questionable upbringing and ambiguous morality — is very much alive in “The Stench of Honolulu,” which is the real Handey's first novel, a misadventure in the tropics. “Stench” functions as an extension of the “Deep Thoughts” canon, even including his regular companion-slash-straight man Don and chapters so brief that some could work as their own deep thoughts.
The Honolulu of Handey's novel isn't the idyll of your honeymoon. Here it's a backwater of scalawags and misfits, full of twists on typical pop culture clichés (one of Handey's fortés) as the narrator and Don float the Paloonga River in search of the statue of the Golden Monkey, eventually climaxing as an action-adventure spoof complete with a cliff-top showdown with a not-so-evil eccentric, Dr. Ponzari.
Handey's grasp on humor here is a thing deserving of marvel. Like much of the rest of his work, “Stench” draws its power from simple ironies, pure absurdity and silly diction, as opposed to topical reference, obscenity or excessive sarcasm. “Stench” likely will read as funny in a decade as it does right now. (The same could be said for many of Handey's decades-old contributions to “The New Yorker.”)
Take, for instance, this snippet from late in the novel when the narrator becomes jealous of Don and resolves to kill him: “Some people might say I got this idea from Leilani hitting the turtle man with a frying pan. Listen, Leilani did not invent the idea of hitting someone with a frying pan. That idea has been around for a long time. Plus, mine was different — I would hit Don while he was asleep.”
Little internal rhymes like “turtle man” and “frying pan” shape the playful cadence that eventually takes root inside your head a few chapters into “Stench” and helps the punch lines land harder and the absurdities seem even bigger.
“Stench” is a quick and delightful read, but in terms of its structure, it's lean and mean. Handey appears to have written it following the philosophy that four lines without a joke is two too many and that only extreme circumstances ought to call for a sentence of more than thirty words. At a time when humor comes in viral videos, excessive sarcasm and self-awareness, Handey's writing is like a refreshing island, with perhaps just a tiny whiff of odd funk.