I think whenever I’m tempted to read a comic novel, I need someone to come alongside me and say, “Psst, Teresa, remember that you often don’t like these books much.” Such a warning might induce me to not bother or cause me to lower my expectations enough to take what pleasure there is to be had and not regret what isn’t there. At any rate, no one warned me not to bother with Floater, Calvin Trillin’s debut novel, and I didn’t enjoy it all that much.

In the newsmagazine business, a floater is a writer who moves from section to section, filling in for writers who are out or helping out in sections that need it. Fred Becker has been a floater at a weekly newsmagazine (much like Time, where Trillin once worked) for most of his career, and he enjoys it. It definitely beats having to commit to one subject—God forbid he should have to spend all his days following the events in Cyprus, where there seems to be trouble every time he gets sent to the foreign desk. And, speaking of God, he has no interest in staying long at the religion desk because the press agents there are relentless.

I find journalism fascinating, so much so that I’ve made my career in the small corner of the business that is association magazine publishing. So I was sure that I’d love a comedy about the workings of a big-time newsmagazine. Parts of it are indeed very funny. Take, for example, Fred’s attempt to get himself removed from the religion section:

he began putting “alleged” in front of any religious event whose historical authenticity was at all in question—writing about the “alleged discovery of Moses in the bullrushes” or “the alleged resurrection of Jesus Christ.” The senior editor for the section, Ed Winstead, simply crossed out “alleged” wherever he found it, without comment.

There are quite a number of amusing observations about what happens as articles get passed from one person to another, with each one putting in his or her two bits. At one point, Becker deliberately adds lines to an article that he knows the senior editor will cut because he wants to give him something obvious to cut, so he won’t come after the truly good stuff in the piece. The story conferences in which writers pitch ideas are particularly funny. Sometimes an idea pitched in desperation ends up on the story list, and then someone has to actually put the piece together. That’s what happened with the 2/3 stocking story that Fred pitched despite not knowing whether the stockings came 2/3 up the leg or 2/3 to the knee—or even whether it’s really a trend. Fred figures that once they send queries out to their local bureaus and stringers, all their contacts, who are eager to please (or paid by the word), will send enough little bits to make a story:

Then we’ll take all those reports and write a nice little fifty-liner out of them, and people will read it, and then people will start wearing two-thirds stockings. So everything will be just as we said it was.

I liked a lot of the magazine insider comedy, but sometimes the jokes were too obvious or too broad or too repetitive. For instance, the Medicine writer keeps coming down with whatever he’s been writing about. That’s a funny thing to mention a couple of times, but Trillin hammers it into the ground. Also, the novel was published in 1980, and some of the jokes haven’t aged well: A character is referred to as a “rug merchant” because he looks vaguely Lebanese, and the woman who heads the Women Employees Committee is ready to burst into tears at any moment and is prone to blushing whenever sex is mentioned.

The plot involves a hot story tip that Fred receives about the First Lady and a possible pregnancy—and abortion. There’s potential for both comedy and topicality (even 30 years later), but it doesn’t deliver. Mostly, Fred just fantasizes about a novel he might write about the whole business as he tries to decide what to do about the actual tip, given that it came from a not always reliable source.

Comedy writing is, in my opinion, the hardest kind of writing to do. People’s sense of what’s funny can be so idiosyncratic that it’s hard to hit everyone’s funny bone. Trillin hit the mark several times for me, but not enough to make me enjoy the whole book. If it had been longer, I doubt I would have finished it.

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12 Responses to Floater

  1. gaskella says:

    Have you read Tepper isn’t going out by Trillin Teresa. That was a comic novel that worked near perfectly for me, about a chap that likes to sit in his car reading the newspaper, but of course taking a parking space that others are desperate to find… I agree that comic novels are terribly difficult to pull off though.

  2. Deb says:

    I was also going to recommend TEPPER ISN’T GOING OUT which is very amusing–especially if you live in a place where parking spaces are at a premium (although some of the technology–everything in Tepper’s office is done on index cards–is extremely dated). However, Trillin’s real talent shines in his books about food (there are three which were reprinted as THE TUMMY TRILOGY). Also, a wonderful, very short book about his late wife, ABOUT ALICE, is worth reading.

  3. Lisa says:

    I also found Floater disappointing. I read it after reading a lot of his non-fiction, and it didn’t stand up well. I agree with Deb above about the food writing (he has a new book out about Texas bbq, from Texas A&M press of all places). But I think his best book is Family Man, about parenting, and Messages From My Father.

    • Teresa says:

      It’s good to hear that this may not be Trillin’s best. I wonder if comic nonfiction is easier to get right; I find that I’m more likely to enjoy it.

  4. Frances says:

    Comic writing is sooooo difficult! Appreciate that you bring that up here. Subtle humor that effortlessly inserts itself in text is one thing but I break out in hives when too much effort drips off the pages. Trying so hard to be funny. And dated humor too. Couldn’t they sense how what they were writing might play out later?

    • Teresa says:

      I think I generally prefer my humor subtle. This book had too many gags that felt like an elbow to the gut. Trying too hard is exactly right.

  5. Jenny says:

    Have there been comic novels that have worked well for you in the past? I often love and treasure academic satire, for obvious reasons.

    • Teresa says:

      Most of the ones I can think of are period comedies: Cold Comfort Farm, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, Three Men in a Boat, PG Wodehouse. There’ve been some others, but more often than not I’m disappointed. This seemed like a sure bet for the journalism angle, but no.

  6. Jenny says:

    I too mostly don’t like comic novels. I like books that make me laugh, but I like them better when they are (as Tom Stoppard said of Arcadia), tragedies with jokes. Funny things are funniest by contrast, in my opinion.

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