In the early moments of his new memoir, “The Joker,” the poet Andrew Hudgins tells a story about his first summer teaching at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, alongside such mandarin eminences as Anthony Hecht and John Hollander, whose standoffishness Hudgins interpreted as “distaste for me and for my poems … the unrefined product of an unrefined mind. And by God, when people think I’m a vulgarian, I’ll do my damnedest to prove them right.”
So after Hollander and Hecht paused to sip water during their poetry readings — each remarking that the poet Randall Jarrell had once observed that “sipping water during a poetry reading was the single most pretentious thing a poet can do,” Hudgins decided to do them one better. When it was his turn to read, Hudgins held up a glass of water, repeated Jarrell’s admonishment, then “speculated that Jarrell might not have known there is a pretentious side of the glass and a non-pretentious side.”
He showed the crowd which side was which, and asked if they knew why the far side of the glass was the unpretentious side. Then he tipped that side to his mouth, and let the water pour “out the lower lip of the glass and down my shirt and pants.”
The audience laughed, but not the whole audience, and Hollander and Hecht were among those who didn’t think the joke was funny. Hudgins says that they “perceived my buffoonery as a barely concealed way of calling them pretentious … But as I put the glass to my mouth, when I was already committed to the act and couldn’t back down, I understood that I was as likely to annoy people as amuse them, though I only wanted to entertain, to jest.”
A high-stakes impulse, Hudgins admits, although he doesn’t risk quite so much as Henry VIII’s jester, Will Somers, who avoided a death sentence by the king’s bare hands — after implying that Henry’s wife was “promiscuous and his daughter a bastard” — by “eating and sleeping with the royal spaniels.”
The trouble is that the things that make us laugh sit adjacent to the things that undo us when we’re not laughing. “Religious bigotry, racism, sexual discomfort, and death,” Hudgins says, “provide the tension in jokes, the friction to wordplay’s lubrication.” Jokes sit at society’s fault lines. They can expose the contradictions that lie beneath the narrative the powerful might use to maintain their power, but they can also be used as a club, to beat down those who occupy a weaker position, or to reinforce ugly prejudices. Sometimes the position of the line separating one from the other might be unclear to two competing observers.
Sometimes it is likewise unclear to the teller. As Hudgins cycles through a history of teenage joke-telling that includes dead baby jokes, mutilation jokes, Helen Keller jokes, and jokes about elephants who use sheep as tampons, he writes about a simultaneous series of rationalizations. Was the disgusting joke an act of pure prurient pleasure, or was it a way of dissipating latent disgustingness within the teller?
“[By] disgusting ourselves,” Hudgins says, “we boys were assuring ourselves we’d never do something just because we could imagine it. Basic as it seems, the point was important to me because in church I sat through many sermons that, paraphrasing Jesus, assured me that to think something was the same as doing it. All that stood between thinking and doing was volition — as if volition was nothing! To be pure, I had to make myself an unblemished vessel, untainted in thought and deed. But my thoughts, I knew, moved in their own ways. Logic clumped along on its ordained path while imagination buzzed erratically from lilac to honeysuckle to rosebud, as well as violet, dandelion, red clover, morning glory, and all the other weeds I spent long afternoons prying out of the yard with a forked cultivator. I saw no harm in seeing where logic went — or imagination either, as long as I didn’t do anything dumb or immoral.”
At the same time, Hudgins was learning that a joke’s success or failure “depends totally on the listener’s willingness to go along with the joke, to play with absurdity instead of rejecting it, and then to laugh with you,” a consideration that demands much of the listener. “Even friends who know you well,” Hudgins writes, “might suddenly, instinctively, decide a joke about abusing and mutilating a child is revolting — and that you are a pervert for telling it. I did not want my mother to think I was a perv, but damn, I wanted to tell my joke.”
The context for all these childhood chapters is Alabama, the “Puritan near-theocracy” where Hudgins was raised in part, and where his coming of age intersected with the height of the civil rights struggle, and the Southern Baptist church, a denomination that began in a defense of slavery, which culminated, in 1845, in a schism from the abolitionist northern Baptists.
Some of the most interesting parts of “The Joker” involve Hudgins’ coming into “new knowledge,” such as a set piece from his freshman year at Huntingdon College, a United Methodist school in Montgomery, Ala., where a biblical studies professor demonstrated disharmonies among the four gospel accounts of the life of Jesus, showed how the two creation stories in the Book of Genesis are in contradiction, and wondered why the Christian and Hebrew scriptures assumed that the Earth, the center of the universe, is circled by the sun.
When Hudgins told a classmate how these revelations excited his intellect, the classmate “looked up sharply from her notes and said, her voice thin with obstinacy and loathing, ‘I’ll put down what he wants me to on the test, but I don’t have to believe it and I don’t have to think about it.”
Memoir is often better when it has a second layer, be it a public context, a journey, or a subject — Ishmael Beah among the child soldiers in Sierra Leone, Cheryl Strayed hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, Joan Didion on grief and death. There is a motion that the conversation between the personal life and the broader subject can open up. There is the possibility of essaying between the two poles.
This hybridity of form is the great strength of “The Joker.” Hudgins is equally at ease in dark laughter and sincere analysis, things that turn out to occupy side-by-side places in the person who worries about any serious thing.
On the adjacency of laughter to death, to give one example, Hudgins writes of a worry at the center of his marriage to the novelist Erin McGraw:
“As Erin and I grow old together, I hope Mikhail Bakhtin, the literary theorist, was right when he wrote, ‘Death is inseparable from laughter.’ He must be, judging from the jokes about aging, decrepitude, dementia, and death sent to me by friends my age. Of all the logical impasses, unknowings, paradoxes, and terrors that provoke laughter, death by its finality and unsolvable mystery is paramount. I am older than Erin by seven years, and we both know she is likely to outlive me. Her grief and the life she will live will be a blank to me.”
Earlier in the book, when Hudgins’ lover leaves him, he is put in mind of Ezra Pound, who, upon learning of the death of T.S. Eliot, said, “And who is left to understand my jokes?”
This is material well-suited to the audiobook form, but one small complaint: Hudgins writes in a deceptively plainspoken diction suffused with a Southern sensibility, and sometimes the peculiar humor and the wry intelligence are unintentionally muted by the delivery of narrator Jeff Cummings, whose over-enunciations aren’t attentive to the careful cadences of Hudgins’ sentences and often step on Hudgins’ punch lines. Cummings chooses a delivery style better suited to the New York stage monologue than to the Southern tradition of banter by the fire — or to the intimacy of the audiobook, a form more like a conversation between friends over tea than like high times at a noisy, crowded youth rally. In an audiobook, a well-inflected whisper can wield greater power than a shout, especially an 11-hour shout, and the listener wonders: Why didn’t the producers at Brilliance Audio simply let the author read his own work, in his own voice?
It is a voice capable of illuminating how laughter drawn from “the often irresolvable contradictions our lives are built on … expresses our sorrow at our inconsistency and soothes it. I love the sound of laughter; my voice joining almost musically with yours in a fearful celebration of how the frailties of others are also our own.”