Jack Handey’s The Stench of Honolulu is the funniest novel published this year. Our reviewer thinks it’s actually the funniest novel published in years, and she’s probably right, but whatever Comedic Novel Hall of Fame Record Handey deserves, his book—his first novel—is, read quickly, a fever dream of absurdity. Read slowly, the novel can be parsed for its wit and sly observations.
Handey is best known for his stint as a writer on Saturday Night Live and his series of Deep Thoughts (if you’re unfamiliar with Deep Thoughts, they each read as bizarre and funny as this: “I bet what happened was, they invented the wheel and fire on the same day. Then, that night, they burned the wheel.”) The Stench of Honolulu is basically a novel full of Deep Thoughts, with some tropical adventure thrown in. Jack Handey, a bumbling doofus who may be the most un-self aware character in the history of writing, is the narrator (Jack Handey is the writer’s actual name, though hopefully not his actual personality).
Jack and his friend Don are heading off to Honolulu, which happens to be a paradise that smells like rotten trash and has a bunch of hoodlums in it. During a fight with Don, Jack stomps off to a store and eyes what he believes is a trinket—a small hula girl figurine swaying in the breeze made of a curious material called “stenchite”—that when placed in the wrong hands has the ability to wreak all kinds of havoc (buildings will crumble in its presence, people might die). Guess who buys the trinket?
Handey, the actual man, is revered by other comedians for the purity of his jokes. Writing a novel didn’t come naturally to him. “Plot is difficult for a lot of comedy writers, myself included,” he told me by email. Television comedy writing teams will often have a “plot guy” and a “joke guy”; Handey’s always been a joke guy, he says. The plot in The Stench of Honolulu is “very loose,” he acknowledges. “I generally let the jokes lead the way,” he says. “For me, it’s better to have a good joke than a clever plot turn.”
Handey’s fans will be glad to know that he’s back to writing new Deep Thoughts, after many years of not doing so. He is currently writing poems (“very stupid, jokey poems”) about his pet pack rat Squeaky. He’s pondering writing another novel. He might title it Don and the Gila Monster. Don is bitten by a Gila monster and Jack Handey has to get him to the hospital. There are lots of delays while Don is getting worse and worse. “But it will probably never come to fruition,” he says. “Novels are too hard.”
Claiborne Smith is the editor in chief of Kirkus Reviews.