Sunday, October 09, 2011

The Funny Man, reviewed

John Warner's debut novel begins with the title character (only ever known as the Funny Man) on trial for manslaughter. This is a celebrity trail, the trial of the year, maybe even the decade! Did this famous comedian who used to do that funny thing with his hand really shoot that guy dead in that alley? Why? And was he ever that funny, anyway?

Seamlessly moving back and forth between first person and third person narration, Warner does a good job of spoofing celebrity, and all its pitfalls, obsessiveness, loneliness, and general accepted eccentricities. We love 'em until we hate 'em. But how does the celebrity feel about it all? How does he rationalize his actions? Won't someone see his side of things? Is there a way out? Surely there is a way out.

People are disgusted by the funny man's actions—not just the manslaughter charge, but his slow public meltdown (sound familiar?). He knows he can't get a fair trial, since his lawyer's research has shown potential jurists see him as "untalented, successful, and a bad husband and father." Being successful is not a good thing (in the public's view) when coupled with "untalented." So his lawyer's initial defense is to put the funny man's life in context, elicit empathy from the jury (if not sympathy), put them in his shoes so they know why he did what he did. Tell them the whole story of his life, the how and why he got to this low point. Intimate that they would do the same thing under the same circumstances. And that's exactly what the author does—puts the reader into the funny man's shoes, cutting back and forth between the current trial and the past, showing how the comedian became so famous after struggling with his act in small clubs. His marriage, his fatherhood, his over-the-top lifestyle after fame and fortune were attained. Then the inevitable crash and burn. And manslaughter.

But the funny man may yet have an ace up his sleeve. Maybe there IS a way out, after all. Warner's writing is funny and sharp, and he keeps you turning the pages to see how it all turns out. The lead character is not always a sympathetic one, but you're along for the ride, through the good and bad, high points and low points until you reach the satisfying (for me) conclusion.

4 Stars

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