Did you ever hear the kind of joke that could make you say, “Oh, that’s funny,” without actually getting you to laugh? “The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing” is a 274-page version of that. It’s too bad, because the book is so genuinely wry and so amiably earnest that it feels almost mean not to like it — something like picking on the clever neighbor who just baked you a big batch of oatmeal cookies. One understands, of course, that it’s not as if Melissa Bank has a literary obligation to be either falling-down funny or wildly exotic; it’s clear that her breezy drawing-room style is intentional. It’s also not Bank’s fault that she’s already being hyped as the next big thing in women’s wit — the community of successful female humor writers is so sadly minuscule that critics tend to glom onto anyone with a double-X chromosome and a reasonable sense of drollery like she’s the second coming of Jane Austen. (Exhibit A: the relentless over-yuk-yukking that greets every new work from Lorrie Moore.)
Excuses aside, however, the unfortunate fact remains that “Girls’ Guide” isn’t just not terribly funny, it’s also not terribly anything at all. The book takes the form of a strung-together series of short stories tracing the romantic evolution of Jane, a very nice, very sensible book editor. But Jane isn’t the main character; she’s pretty much the only character. All of Bank’s players speak in the same genteel-wordplay style, as if they were being fed their lines from a central pun fund. When Jane responds to a diagnosis of acute pancreatitis by quipping, “I thought it was just average looking,” it’s no different from another character’s referring to his former Choate classmates as “shtick figures.” The result, ironically, is that all this stylistic sameness melts the book’s characters into, well, shtick figures.
The final and title story is the best and most relevant of the lot. In it, the terminally single Jane chokes on her self-esteem and follows the advice of a “Rules”-style self-help book to land a cute boy. Of course, said guy is completely spooked by the new hard-to-get fembot who’s replaced the salt-of-the-earth gal he met at a mutual friend’s wedding. It’s the kind of sweet misunderstanding that at best could fuel a modern O. Henry story and at worst a Meg Ryan movie. At least it has a premise and a plot, with considerably less meandering per page than Jane’s cool observations of her brother’s college dalliances or her own ill-fated love of an older, alcoholic mentor figure here. Too often the book’s situations — even death and separation — are just excuses for characters to toss out one-liners that seem wedged into the dialogue rather than flowing smoothly out of it. Life and literature depend on highs and lows, on depth of feeling. If Jane and company are so very casual and unconcerned about one another, why should we readers react any differently?