Thursday, March 03, 2011
What’s So Funny by Joseph Torra. ( Pressed Wafer Press. 9 Columbus Square. Boston, Mass. 02116) $12.
Review by Doug Holder
Joe Torra, a neighbor of mine in my neck of the woods in Somerviile,Mass. is a poet, and novelist who I have admired for years. A while ago I read his memoir “Call Me Waiter” that recounts his years as a struggling writer who worked as a waiter to support his art. It was a wonderful portrait of an artist as a working stiff. A straight-no-chaser account, it was funny, sad, and ultimately uplifting.
Like any good poet Joe Torra can express in words what we want to say but can’t quite spit out. In his new novel “ What’s So Funny” his protagonist is a down-at-the heels, 54 year old comedian, living in what he calls the New Jersey of Boston: Everett, Mass.
On the surface this novel is hilarious. Being the same age as Torra and his main character, I can identify with many of the gripes and perceptions of this sad sack of a comedian. And there is a rich trove of observations in this book. I must admit I finished the novel in a few hours on a Megabus heading to NYC, and like the comedian I was visiting my mother who was caught in the depressing confines of a nursing home. To do justice to this book I have to excerpt the various takes on the world of this Medford bred, Italian-American comedian. Take his view on funerals:
“ There’s nothing worse than attending a family wedding or funeral. All my cousins are fat and old like me…At the wakes my cousins ask things like-- do I remember the time we did that? As if something we did 45 years ago still has meaning. I have a cousin... who always asks do I remember the time he had to take a shit when we were hanging out behind the school yard...At a recent wedding he brought this up as we sat around the table eating prime rib.."
Or how about a New Age woman he used to date?
" Jill was one of those New Age women. She let her hair go gray at eleven. She didn't wear makeup... She burned incense and practiced a synthesis of paganism, Buddhism and consumerism. She had the most amazing hemp wardrobe imaginable, and a different meditation pillow for each day of the week."
And of course his take on his humble Medford, Mass. roots:
" I grew up in Medford, Massachusetts. People from Medford are known to pronounce it Meffa. But I went to college, and live one mile away, so I only say Meffa when I'm drunk, because when you are drunk you let your guard down and its back to basics."
In essence the comedian views his life as a joke--literally. The man is like a poet, the writer, the artist, who uses his whole life as fodder for his work. Even at this low point in his greatly diminished career he continues to plan his next sketch, practicing his next bit for hours in front of his bathroom mirror.
What I am thankful for is Torra doesn't fall into the trap of being maudlin-- or plays for cheap sentiment. The comedian, a single man, has a chance to date an attractive woman who has an interest in him. And no--the love of a good woman doesn't save our hero in this novel. In fact his short and superficial alliance gives him more material for his art. In this passage he takes a full account of his sorry self before going out on another date:
" She was smart and independent. But what could we do? How could I could I possibly undress in front of her with my sagging flesh, and the skin-growth in my upper thigh near my scrotum. What if I couldn't preform?"
This fine novel can be read on two levels. As an astute comedian's view on an absurd world, or a meditation on the all consuming passion of an artist. Take your choice--or choose both-- a must read.