Can't ask Jeeves, Try Baxter: Each summer when I'm in Cape May, NJ, I read one of P.G. Wodehouse's works. Somehow, amidst the Victorian mansions and beautifully tended gardens of that beach town, it seems fitting to delve into the world of British Lords, their wayward family members and their all-knowing butlers.
Wodehouse seems out of favor these days. Hardly anyone I know reads him, and when I mention him to people, they often think he's probably a bit stale and irrelevant. Nothing could be further from the truth. His humor is no more stale than Shakespeare's, and his sense of irreverence towards the moneyed classes has become even more relevant as the income gap continues to grow in this country.
The reason that more people aren't reading Wodehouse is that he is writing in a genre that is largely forgotten -- the farce. On the surface, his tales of mistaken identities, goofy subterfuges, and misplaced love appear to be silly. Even if you get beneath the surface, his plots are still quite ridiculous. But his writing and his wordplay are remarkable. He sets up verbal conundrums and deftly works his way out of them with clever witticisms. No contemporary author, not even David Sedaris or Dave Barry, makes me laugh out loud as often. I am terribly annoying when I'm reading these books because I insist on interrupting my wife, regardless of what she is doing, to read her humorous passages. She always laughs, usually because she knows I won't stop until she does.
This year, I read a collection of stories, Lord Emsworth and Others. These stories don't include his most famous character, the brilliant butler Jeeves (whose name is only known to many people because of the Ask Jeeves website that has since been simplified to Ask.com). Most of the stories in this collection are set in Blandings Castle and feature Lord Emsworth, a complete dimwit, who believes he's an expert gardener (sounds a bit like the current Prince of Wales). The plots usually revolve around the Lord, his butler Baxter -- who actually runs the estate and drives Emsworth batty -- and his bossy, imperious sister Lady Constance.
The Overlook Press has done a magnificent job over the last several years in reissuing Wodehouse's books in small, attractive and very affordable hardbacks. The books are actually the perfect size, smaller but much more sturdy than trade paperbacks. They remind me of the old classic Modern Library titles or of the editions that Algonquin used to put out of Kaye Gibbons' and Julia Alvarez's novels. They just feel good in your hands.