Sunday, July 23, 2006

Three Men in a Boat

I have just returned from a brief trip through the highways that comprise the "Cascade Loop," a delightful drive through alp-like peaks in northern Washington state. This is the first real vacation that I've had in many years and its occasion caused me to return to this review of my all-time favorite travel book, which I consider the funniest book in the English Language:

Three Men in a Boat (to say nothing of the Dog), by Jerome Kappa Jerome, is a pure delight. Through repeated re-readings it never, never palls. Written as a travelogue serial for a magazine at the turn of the century (1898 must be specified as we have past the turning of another century), the book takes the framework of a road story and hangs upon it a series of misadventures, remembered anecdotes, and observations about life. I have been told that since it's first publication, it has never been out of print.

The three men are George, Harris, and J. (Jerome himself). All three work in The City (London) and feel that that it is time to leave the rat race behind and spend a fortnight on holiday. They decide to take a small boat up the Thames, bringing with them only essential supplies and the fourth member of the group, Montmorency the Fox Terrier.

I first heard of this book as a boy, reading Robert A. Heinlein's Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. In that book the protagonist (Kip) goes to his father to ask something of him. The father is reading Three Men in a Boat, which Kip remarks that his father has read so many times that he must have it memorized. The father, in answer to Kip's question, begins reading the story of the Pineapple Tin. Kip sneaks away. I wondered, what kind of book could stand such repeated re-readings? And what was the story of the Pineapple Tin?

I searched libraries and book stores for years without luck until I moved to Portland Oregon, home of Powell's, which has to be the biggest new-and-used book store in the world. There I found a copy of the book, printed in England in the 1960's.

I was surprised that the book seemed to hold up so well. Even though the story was written over 100 years ago, the jokes are funny, the travelogue engaging, and the life observations as true as ever. I enjoy other British writers but it seems to me that Jerome's book is a mother-lode from which has been mined much "British Humor." P.G. Wodehouse, The Goonies, and Monty Python owe much to this truly funny writer.

Everyone who read this book has a favorite part. A scene where thay must lay the book down and laugh out loud. I must admit to being helpless because of the cheese episode and Harris's adventures in the Maze. Read the book and you'll understand.


I have recently read Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. She dedicates the book to Robert Heinlein from whom she, too, first heard of this wonderful book.

A couple of years ago I read another book by Jerome, Three Men on the Bummel. It returns to our three heroes ten years later as they decide to escape the joys of wedded life (for all three are now married) to take a bicycle tour of Germany's Black Forest. Bummel wasn't nearly as funny as Boat (nothing could be), but it is another engaging travelogue with a large dose of humor. (The story about buying phrasebooks tops my list.)

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