Gulf Boulevard by Dennis Hart
Having read Gulf Boulevard by Dennis Hart (Permanent Press, 2014), I’m encouraged to ask a simple question, “What’s funny?” Here’s the thing. No matter where you go (with the possible exception of North Koreans who don’t take shit from no-one and shoot first) people laugh. Yet for all this seems to be a characteristic of the human race, the reaction to situations and words used is not perfectly understood. It just seems to be something that evolved as a part of our general pattern of social interaction. Sharing a joke confirms membership of the group and, in some contexts, helps to defuse tensions. So what makes us laugh? It’s often the unexpected appearance of an absurd element. Life is moving along as usual, then something happens but, no matter what it is, there’s a quick and relatively painless resolution of the problem. In a real world scenario, a man slips on a banana skin but, having travelled some distance along the pavement, arms windmilling desperately, he regains control of his balance without falling. Having held their breaths, spectators bust into spontaneous applause, laughing and congratulating the man, while the resulting video goes viral on YouTube. Had the man fallen and broken bones, it would have been viewed as a tragic accident. Any public laughter would have been considered inappropriate even though he had looked funny while trying to avoid the fall.
In other words, humour has boundaries. Where they fall differs from one community to another. What one group may find hilarious, another may find tasteless. The wider the cultural gap, the more difficult it is for humour to cross. And, let’s face it, you can’t get a wider gap than the Atlantic. The cultural norms are strikingly different “over there”. For all the American entertainment industry has been doing its best to universalise its content, there’s a serious problem when it comes to humour. The rest of the world can be impressed by CGI epics and thrilled by tense drama, but it doesn’t always find its funny bone tickled by the US worldview as expressed through its humour. Let’s face it, we can’t even agree how to spell the word.
So this is not intended as a laugh-out-loud book, but it’s clearly aiming for the niche we might tentatively label comedy thriller. Think of it as juxtaposing universal thriller components with culturally-specific punch lines and jokes. In spirit, I was reminded of The Gazebo by Alec Coppel who was Australian. This is about a man hounded by a blackmailer who decides murder is the only way out. Having buried the body in the foundations of the titular gazebo, we then spend the rest of the play waiting for it to pop up again (they made an American film of it as well). Well here are two men. One is a very efficient hitman who, through spontaneously turning his one shot into a two-for-the-price-of-one bargain, finds himself in deep trouble. Naturally, he relocates to a remote island off the coast of Florida. The other is a moderately obsessive accountant who hits the jackpot on the Powerball Lottery and is able to buy a house on a remote island. Unfortunately, it’s the same island and we spend the book waiting for the mob to arrive to extract their revenge. In the meantime, this plays out as a cross between Neil Simon’s Odd Couple and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. On one side, we’ve got a man who rakes his beach to keep it looking as perfect as he dreamed it would be — he’s the ultimate in voluntary hermits. On the other, there’s a man who enjoys sitting on the beach watching the sun go down — such is his girth, standing up again can be a challenge.
In the midst of all this, we have the accountant’s ex-wife who unilaterally decides their marriage never ended and she should be entitled to some of the lottery winnings, a parrot who has an extensive repertoire of phrases and sounds to keep all entertained, and one of the best people you could ever hope to find to represent the interests of the Indians. The resulting mixture is one of these delightful confections that seems lighter than air. Suspending disbelief like it never went out of fashion, we float across the Gulf to an island paradise that turns out to have one or two minor drawbacks. If we were following the exploits of Ignatius J Reilly, we would say Fortuna has not smiled on our heroic recluse. So this leaves him no option but to fend off these intrusions into the privacy of his idyl with a sharp tongue and the occasional resort to fresh tomatoes. Needless to say, both the words and the produce are considered provocative, and he finds himself hounded and beaten. Perhaps he should just piss in his own boat to save everyone else the trouble or just regift all his shit to North Korea and hope they don’t shoot back.
At my advanced age and given my curmudgeonly status, it’s remarkable I managed to avoid straining unused facial muscles while reading this book. Yes, I was tempted to smile several times which is high praise. There’s considerable wit on display and some of the jokes do prove universal. So with the threat of hit people invading my current island paradise, I have no choice but to recommend Gulf Boulevard. If it can almost make me smile, it must be outrageously amusing to everyone on the other side of the Atlantic.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.