I’ve read a fair number of memoirs, essay collections, and so on. Few of them, if any, are happy. Funny, yes. But mostly a darker shade of humor. The bad things that happen to our protagonist (the author) make it possible for the author to poke gentle fun at himself or herself. In general, I tend to avoid grim sources of entertainment, my theory being that enough bad things are happening in the real world without my having to seek out more. But in autobiographical humorous books, very few people seem to have led happy lives.
There are broad categories of this genre. First, the “women of a mature age” category, including Erma Bombeck, Nora Ephron, and Peg Bracken. They fought against societal stereotypes and gender biases of their own times, and carved out a niche for themselves. They are feminists, but not of the militant variety, and have lately been joined by younger comedy stars like Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling.
Then, there is the “men coming of age” category, including Justin Halpern, Davy Rothbart, Tim Kreider, and possibly David Sedaris. They tend to have complicated relationships with their fathers. They go through the agonies typical of a certain age — breaking up, doing drugs, having the wrong friends, not finding jobs. On the other side of these troubles, they laugh wryly at themselves and others.
A notable exception to the “dark humor” is Gerald Durrell. The books describing his colorful childhood are pure unadulterated joy.
For example, here is how he starts My Family And Other Animals: “This is the story of a five-year sojourn that I and my family made on the Greek island of Corfu. It was originally intended to be a mildly nostalgic account of the natural history of the island, but I made the grave mistake of introducing my family into the book in the first few pages. Having got themselves on paper, they then proceeded to establish themselves and invite various friends to share the chapters […] To explain some of their more curious ways, however, I feel that I should state that at the time we were in Corfu, the family were all quite young […] I was the youngest, being of the tender and impressionable age of ten. We have never been very certain of my mother’s age, for the simple reason that she can never remember her date of birth; all I can say is that she was old enough to have four children. My mother also insists that I explain that she is a widow for, as she so penetratingly observed, you never know what people might think.”
If the preface is so charming, how irresistible must the book be! And if you can’t get enough (as I’d expect), he follows this up with the twin wonders of Birds, Beasts and Relatives and The Garden of the Gods. I’m fond of every book I mention in this post, but Gerald Durrell’s childhood narratives steal my heart away.
But even Gerald Durrell, narrating his grown-up life in the many more books he wrote as an animal collector, reflects the justifiable concerns of a conservationist. We can guffaw at the antics of a child, but can we not hold on to that pure enjoyment once our protagonist grows up? Is happiness boring? Or does it ring true only in a child’s uncomplicated voice?