The Thurber Carnival is overall my favorite of the several collections of James Thurber writings I’ve read.
The selections from The Pet Department (or maybe they aren’t selections; maybe these fifteen or twenty pages are the whole thing) by themselves might be enough to secure it that top position. It’s a mock advice column with questions supposedly sent in by people having problems with their pets. The combination of the text and the perfectly fitting accompanying drawing for each question is just hysterical.
So that section is certainly a high point of this Thurber compilation, but there are plenty of other very good items.
The book consists of short fiction, probably considerably embellished autobiographical nonfiction from Thurber’s childhood and adulthood, cartoons, and such offbeat items as the aforementioned The Pet Department, illustrated poems, and illustrated fables.
The fables are his own rather cockeyed creations that tend to lead to the sort of moral you wouldn’t expect from a traditional fable. I’m really not into poems, but I will say having them playfully illustrated by Thurber draws me in more than just seeing text on a page. The cartoons are typically the subtle New Yorker sort of thing that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I “get” most of them to at least some extent and find that they fit my sense of humor quite well. Indeed, the humor holds up very well given that some of these are close to a century old now.
But as far as the writings, not only are some of them genuinely funny, but there are some that hit home in a more serious way as well.
One in particular of the latter type that stands out to me is One is a Wanderer. What a quietly sad, indeed haunting, picture it paints of loneliness and alcoholism in just seven pages. A masterpiece of short fiction.
The humorous pieces tend not just to have a memorably funny line or character, but to be clever, well-developed stories, where the humor comes from the whole and not just from the parts.
Many feature milquetoast, henpecked, nerdy little protagonists who work invisibly in offices all day–pitifully mediocre everyman types. The best known of these is no doubt Walter Mitty of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, but I was especially tickled by Mr. Martin of The Catbird Seat.
Among the pieces that I fear would get a very different, and more hostile, response today are two or three having to do with African American maids and handymen and such whose accents, dialects, colloquialisms, etc. made communication between them and Thurber rather difficult, and frankly hilarious. But nowadays people are so sensitive I’m sure this would be taken as racist ridicule in some—many—quarters.
The Curb in the Sky is a fun story about a woman who insists on correcting everyone’s English, finishing their stories for them, etc. Destructive Forces in Life is an account of a hysterical practical joke—presented as if a true story but who knows—but because the humor rests in part on a befuddled African American character I wonder how this one too would be received today.
The autobiographical pieces from Thurber’s childhood in Columbus, Ohio are consistently wonderful, generally having to do with a bizarre and hilarious string of events stemming from some unlikely misunderstanding or accident. Not uncommonly the police end up being summoned.
The Wood Duck is a story that won me over, though not as a humor piece, and not as an emotionally powerful serious piece like One is a Wanderer. It is a modest, four-page, autobiographical piece from Thurber’s adulthood, a slice-of-life story. In it he recounts an experience that on the surface seems very minor, surely too minor to publish as a story, yet is one of those things that when it happens to you it somehow sinks deeper into your consciousness than you’d think, and that you’d probably have trouble articulating to someone why it mattered to you so much. But it’s just another indication of Thurber’s range that he can articulate such a story in such a touching way.
What I’ve said just scratches the surface of this very enjoyable, funny, highly literate book. I’m not going to say that every story worked for me, but that’s more about me than about Thurber. We all bring our own tastes, experiences, values, etc. to the table as readers, and the pieces that connect best with me for their humor or for their more serious content could be very different from how another reader responds to this collection. But I certainly think The Thurber Carnival is a winner.