cover image Funny


Jennifer Michael Hecht, Author . Univ. of Wisconsin $26.95 (89p) ISBN 978-0-299-21404-3

Hecht's sophomore effort is one of the most entertaining, and most original, books of the year. Its conceit, barring a few introductory sonnets, is to riff on jokes-become-aphorisms, dismantling assumptions as quickly as she dishes punch lines. "What did the sadist do to the masochist?/ Nothing" generates a brisk, hyperintelligent lyric about the ideas of need and mastery, studded by frequent half-rhymes and internal rhymes. "How many gorillas does it take/ to screw in a lightbulb?" prompts three pages of subtle, wise meditation on human evolution and human error. "Are You Not Glad?" turns a knock-knock joke into smart couplets about regret and love: "Orange you glad? No, I'm not. I ate the berries./ I was hungry. I was young." Switching deftly between the caricatured protagonists of the jokes themselves and more nuanced memories from real lives, Hecht sees how many jokes depend on familiarity and surprise, and how many highlight the disappointments ordinary experience can provide: "One way or another we all become/ the other." The New York–based Hecht (The Next Ancient World ), who also writes books of popular philosophy (Doubt: A History ), appends a neat 11-page prose essay about the relations between jokes and poems: even without the essay, this book brings the two forms tantalizingly close. (Dec.)