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The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure

Southern writing is mostly not funny. Thank goodness, then, for Jack Pendarvis of Bayou La Batre, now of Atlanta, who writes funny on purpose.

By Don Noble

Writing funny is hard. Drawing cartoons, doing impersonations, even telling jokes, spinning amusing anecdotes, are all relatively easy. But writing it down in prose in such a way that a reader, sitting alone with his magazine or newspaper, laughs or even smiles, that's an accomplishment.

Hats off to the Art Buchwalds, Dave Barrys, those who pull it off successfully week after week.

Southern writing is mostly not funny. There are patches of dark humor in Faulkner, Welty, Tennessee Williams, and especially Flannery O'Connor, but mostly Southern literature is about race prejudice, class snobbery, poverty, violence, and, in the more distant past, with writers like Erskine Caldwell, hare lips and pellagra.

Thank goodness, then, for Jack Pendarvis of Bayou La Batre, now of Atlanta, who writes funny on purpose. Pendarvis does not hit a home run every time in his story collection The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, but he does well enough.

This is in many ways a book about writing and publishing. In the front of Mysterious Secret are some mock blurbs about a non-existent book: "So Twines the Grapes combines heart-stopping suspense, jaw-dropping plot twists and bowel-emptying shocks with spleen-ripping style, skull-pulping characterizations and spine-crushing lyricism" and "One sentence made me vomit with excitement. Another made me scream with pity. My only advice is to read it and see what happens to you."

Perhaps the best story in the collection is "The Pipe," in which a radio DJ, as a publicity stunt, is buried in a box with only a pipe sticking up for air. Two men, a paramedic and a security guard, are assigned to guard the pipe. It has a Waiting for Godot feel. Is there anyone down there? There better not be, because the men sometimes forget the pipe, drop odd things down it, "fall in love" with the pipe, and after 45 days, leave without ever learning if it was a hoax.

In the piece titled "Our Spring Catalog," Pendarvis has created a truly rich collection of faux catalog copy. The same copy writer has to prepare eight jackets, and as she goes along, the poor girl loses her composure. The copy for As Goes the Zephyr by Lurleen Bivant begins "This luminous and engaging first novel . . .." The second, I Couldn't Eat Another Thing by Angela Bird begins, "In this luminous collection of sparkling stories . . . ." The seventh jacket is for The Enormous Swan, by M.A. McCorquedale. This is a historical novel, she writes, "one of those books where the author spent half his life in a library looking up facts about medieval culinary techniques and galley slaves and [expletive,] and now he thinks we're supposed to care." By the eighth dust jacket, Eat the Lotus, the copy reads, "Husband and wife reach a crossroads in their relationship against the colorful backdrop of blah blah blah."

The title story, really a novella, "The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure," runs about 89 pages. The protagonist reminded me of Ignatius Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole. Willie Dobbs is overweight, unattractive in appearance and grooming, lazy, unemployed, a useless husband, not really good at anything, so he decides to become a writer.

Dobbs begins by contemplating a history of the United States, which is soon reduced to his own Boyle County and then to the Town of South Preston. Along the way he gets some writing instruction, which he follows faithfully in constructing dialogue: "'Yes, Mr. Big Shot,'" my father-in-law chimed in derisively. 'I guess you know everything there is to know about America.' 'I know a thing or two,' I riposted assuredly. 'You don't know [expletive],' my father-in-law snarled animatedly. It was at this juncture that I stormed from the room understandably."

The often-satirical stories are filled with whimsy and playfulness and made a nice break for me from both Southern chick lit and the apocalyptic school of Cormac MacCarthy.

Don Noble's book reviews can be heard each Monday on Alabama Public Radio at 7:35 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Recently retired as English professor at The University of Alabama, Don's specialties are Southern and American literature. Don also hosts Bookmark on Alabama Public Television.

Don Noble , Ph. D. Chapel Hill, Prof of English, Emeritus, taught American literature at UA for 32 years. He has been the host of the APTV literary interview show "Bookmark" since 1988 and has broadcast a weekly book review for APR since November of 2001, so far about 850 reviews. Noble is the editor of four anthologies of Alabama fiction and the winner of the Alabama state prizes for literary scholarship, service to the humanities and the Governor's Arts Award.
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