Spiked

(Originally published July 1 2011)

Mike Sacks’ one-man war against the zeitgeist: The American humourist doesn’t bother with predictable targets like Palin or hicks. He prefers gerbils, the Holocaust, girls’ lockerrooms…

By Tim Black

Is it funny to mock sad-sack thirtysomething writers who desperately try to write like the kidz? Is it funny to imagine Anne Frank trying to get a film deal and being told that her diaries could be a PG-13 action movie if she just threw in a few shower scenes? And in a list of Worst Places to Die, is it really so humdingingly hilarious to write: ‘Crouched in the rafters above the high-school girls’ locker room, your janitorial uniform bunched around your ankles’? Come on, is that funny?

Well yes, I think it probably is. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that Your Wildest Dreams Within Reason, a collection of American humourist Mike Sacks’ assorted writings, is one of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time. And that includes Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War On Secrecy.

What is remarkable is the sheer range of the man. The pastiche, the parody, the absurd vignette, the comic list – Sacks can do it all. To praise it as the Perfect Toilet Book, as some reviewers have, is to do an injustice to Sack’s wordsmithery, his ability to subvert, invert and juxtapose at will and in a variety of forms. All of which serves his simple comedic objective – to have you guffawing.

This is one of the most refreshing aspects of Sacks’ pieces. His sole criteria, it seems, is what will make you laugh; what, with a sudden twist of phrase, a shocking reversal, will draw you up short, snorting approval. He’s not interested in saying the right things or flaying the right targets. He doesn’t massage his audience’s prejudices, as too many comics do today; he just ignores your prejudices. He doesn’t subscribe to the Approved List of Things It Is Right to Mock: Sarah Palin, the Tea Party, hicks, the working classes (white), Big Pharma, Big Oil, bankers, people who don’t recycle… He just mocks everything and anyone, whether it’s retired porn stars, possessed dogs or the guidelines for a very difficult man’s bachelor party: ‘You might not want to ask my brother about the bride, Mary. Even if he does answer, he offers very few details other than “she’s a good speller”, and “It’s hard to tell from a photo, but she seems to be about my height and girth”.’

Sacks’ take on old writers trying to write young – ‘A Short Story Geared to College Students, Written by a Thirtysomething Author’ – illustrates his talent for writing so well that he knows how to write badly. The tone is hilariously jarring, complete with a decidedly thirtysomething interest in Bose HiFi equipment erupting into desperately hip-hopped dialogue. Or while peppering his prose with try-hard slang and ‘motherfucking’ expletives, he splices it with wholly inappropriate phrases like ‘The Internet’ or ‘The World Wide Web’ – no 19-year-old outside of the Amish community uses phrases like that.

Take this paragraph: ‘Larry and Charles had been best buds for three years now. And Charles knew absolutely everything about Larry, including Larry’s intense hunger for “vagina”.’ Everything about those two sentences is almost spot-on. The wannabe with-it authorial voice is almost convincing right down to ‘best buds’. And then, that final word. It should probably be ‘pussy’ or something suitably porno-ese. But no, Sacks uses the one word which no one would use in that context apart from an achingly unhip oldster who, try as they might, sounds like nothing so much as a rather creepy gynaecologist.

Writers are often the object of Sacks’ disdain especially when recurring character Rhon Penny (silent h) writes one of his letters to a famous literary figure. So in the course of suggesting some ideas for a novel that could be written under the John Updike brand, Rhon Penny (silent h) makes a suggestion: ‘Has anyone written – I mean really written – about the Holocaust? Oh, sure, there have been books and movies and perhaps even a rap song, but has anyone penned a thought-provoking book about the subject? My answer: I’m not sure. Here’s my idea: a novel set in Nazi Germany, about an adorable, wisecracking gerbil who lives inside a Jewish person’s skull-cap (without that Jewish person’s knowledge or consent). The gerbil’s name will be Rosco.’

If anything is ripe (perhaps even overripe) for satire, it’s the unrelenting tide of novels and movies about the Holocaust. That Sacks satirises this trend through the deluded, pompous, and ironising voice of Rhon Penny (silent h), only adds to the gentle humiliation of a wreathed and laurelled literary genius like Martin Amis who decided with Time’s Arrow to use the Holocaust as a subject for a time-travelling romp.

Like a conceptual Turner Prize-winning artist who can ‘do hands’, Sacks can do jokes, too, as he showcases in ‘FW: Loved The Following Jokes And Thought You’d Love Them As Well!!! (Pass Them On)’. At first, his attempts do read like those interminable forwarded emails crammed full of timeless classics guaranteed to leave your sides unsplit. For example, a young boy spies his grandpa sitting out on the porch with no trousers on and asks him why. ‘Without missing a beat, the old man retorts: “Well last week I sat out here with no shirt on and I got a stiff neck. So, this is your grandma’s idea!”’

Ha. Boom. Tsch. Lol. Etc. But Sacks doesn’t leave it at the punchline. He continues: ‘The air is still, and in the distance, a car horn can be heard. The boy, not saying anything, just stares at his grandfather’s aged, sickeningly white penis. After a few moments, the boy takes a bite out of his peanut-butter sandwich, waves goodbye, and leaves for his friend Jeffrey’s house.’ There Sacks was, a perfect joke to be forwarded to all and sundry on his hands, and he has to go and turn it into something interesting with a solemn, mock-poignant epilogue.

There are no all-too-recognisable sallies against the same old targets here, no mocking of stupid Americans or Daily Mail readers or climate-change deniers to please the ears of right-thinking liberals. Instead, Sacks is happy to plough his own list-filled, satire-driven, parody-pulled furrow. And he does so with aplomb.

I can utter no higher praise that this: I have loved every one of the 786 minutes I have so far spent on the toilet reading it.