I love fiction that uses humor to leaven the dark loaf of melancholy or angst. I know that sounds like marble rye, but I’ve studied up on it, as they say down here in the holler.
From a craft perspective, I'm really fascinated with authors who manipulate the distance between reader and character through humor. We feel empathy, pity, and sometimes cool amusement when we watch hapless characters make mistakes, or become exasperated; characters who are both the subject and object of a cosmic joke.
I’m including here a list of a few writers whom I admire, who are masters at using humor in their fiction. Here’s my test. I have to draw stares when I’m reading on a park bench, the airport, a waiting room—laughing out loud—and not care. Bust a gut laughing, as they say.
These authors kill it:
Carl Hiasson. I'm reading Razor Girl now. Here's a chuckle:
Neil and Clippy weren't downhome island bubba but rather New Yorkers who'd hit a home run on Wall Street and then semi-retired to Key West...The restaurant they owned was only a few blocks from the Hemingway House. Lunch and dinner were offered, brunch on Sundays. The designated cuisine was "heart healthy," a menu gimmick designed to ward off the cruiseship crowd. Clippy could be a snob at times.
Richard Russo, especially Straight Man, Empire Falls, Nobody's Fool and Everybody’s Fool. There’s a scene in Nobody’s Fool that nails how humor can be used in setting—even in a gruesome graveyard:
Last spring, after several days of heavy rain, a plot had been backhoed only to discover that the ground beneath already contained an occupant. The casket had migrated several feet from where it was supposed to be located and was no longer precisely beneath the gravestone that marked it, though another casket was. It was feared that the entire regiment of caskets planted since the new cemetery opened ten years earlier, row upon row of them, was slowly marching toward the freeway at the rate on an inch to two a month…
More yuks: Elmore Leonard. Maximum Bob is us my favorite. Eudora Welty. Tim Gatruex’s short stories, especially “The Piano Tuner.”
Lorrie Moore. “Viss d’arte” in Like, Life. “There are vegetables in my tub,” a character who lives over a porn shop in an apartment with bad plumbing declares to his landlord. ‘Nuff said.
Norwood by Charles Portis. A classic. I read it every year.
Anything by Tom Perrotta.
Confederacy of Dunces. More classic comedy and hijinks.
Where’d You Go Bernadette? by Maria Semple. “Broad” comedy in the best meaning of the word.
Humor that leavens dark, dark, dark: that’s Flannery O’Connor and Annie Proulx.
Annie Proulx, in her Open Range stories, for example.
In “Bunchgrass,” as Ottaline wades through her troubles, the narrator’s comments provide comic touches, temper the gloominess, and deepen character development. Occasionally, the narrator sets up a joke, as in the following scene where obese and isolated, Ottaline sees herself as trapped on her family’s ranch, cut off from the world:
The raw loneliness then, the silences of the day, the longing flesh led her to press her mouth into the crook of her own hot elbow. She pinched and pummeled her fat flanks, rolled on the bed, twisted, went to the window a dozen times, heels striking the floor until old Red in his pantry below called out, “What is it? You got a sailor up there?”
The scene is glum, the language bordering on grotesque, with references to Ottaline’s “fat lanks” and her “longing flesh.” She is suffering with “raw loneliness” and, until the single line of dialogue, the passage is dark, even melodramatic. But a quip from Old Red, her grandfather, moves the scene from bleakness to levity in a snap. Old Red’s line (“You got a sailor up there?”)—funny but accurate—is one of many darts aimed at Ottaline; a dart that pierces through the glum language like a nail in a tire.