For years I’ve been hearing about how Three Men in a Boat is the funniest of books, a book that will truly tickle your funny bone. Some have even claimed this might be the funniest English book ever written. Such claims cause ambivalence within me, because I LOVE me some British humor, but I also get worried because I fear that when I finally get on the boat (as it were), I’ll find the item in question only kind of funny rather than a rip-roaring side-splitter. I mean, for all their stiff upper lips, those Brits do dry humor better than pretty much anyone in my book (Blackadder, anyone?), and we all know I fell head over heels for P.G. Wodehouse last year, all to say that any declarations of being the apex of humor are going to come under some pretty harsh scrutiny when I’m the one doing the judging.
Happily, I can report that Three Men is a very funny book, one that made me giggle quite a lot. I was almost immediately reminded of the cadence and flippant tone that characterizes P.G. Wodehouse’s writing, and the narrator in question could certainly give Bertie Wooster a run for his money when it comes to charming cluelessness. With his easy air of laissez faire and a bon mot on hand, J and his pals get into plenty of scrapes but always have the perfect words to sum of the experience with a smile.
The plot, such that there is one, revolves J and his two pals, Harris and George, setting out on a river journey from Kingston to Oxford along with J’s dog Montmorency (the most rascally scamp to grace literature! I loved him!). The novel consists of the various misadventures the lads have as they embark down the river, whether it be trying to sleep out in the boat, cook an Irish stew, or the difficulties in predicting the weather while on holiday. J’s insights are sometimes piercing but always hilarious, and his musings frequently bounce from events on the river to those in the past of which he’s reminded (such as the huge affair his uncle makes of hanging a painting). Generally speaking, these diversions are quite enjoyable, for this is a surely a book that proves the point that any trip is about the journey, not the final destination. Not all of the digressions were to my taste however, as there were frequent dalliances and fantasies that revolved around English history that I found rather dry and dull; moreover, these portions were written in a style quite unlike the rest of the novel, and so I often found them quite jarring to read for that reason alone.
I’m not sure that I have much more to say about Three Men other than that I enjoyed it greatly and it was a wonderful afternoon read when I was in the mood for something lighthearted and cheery. It was perhaps not as cohesive as a Jeeves & Wooster novel, but was very much in keeping with that bandying spirit and was great fun. Perhaps not the very funniest book I have ever read (where were the J Chichester Clams and the Stilton Cheeseworths? Then again: Montmorency!), but still a very funny one indeed that is required reading for anyone in need of a belly laugh or a healthy dose of English humor! I have a copy of Jerome’s Three Men on the Bummel, and look forward to reading it in the future!
I leave you with one of my favourite lines from the novel, which kind of sums up the humor contained therein better than my own attempts can:
“But there, everything has its drawbacks, as the man said when his mother-in-law died, and they came down upon him for the funeral expenses.”
Rating: 4 out of 5