In 1930, still dripping from the bath he took in the stock market crash, P. G. Wodehouse (evidently known to his friends as "Plum") decamped for Hollywood. There he'd spend just a little over a year lounging in the pool, collecting huge checks, hobnobbing with some Broadway and Brit folk he knew, and, basically enjoying himself. He caused something of a scandal when he told an interviewer that he made a fortune for just writing "titles" for movies. Nevertheless, possibly out of frustration, maybe out of boredom, he concocted the non-Jeevesian comic tour de force Hot Water, one of the most infernally complicated, trivial, lighter-than-air, insignificant, and completely delightful comic novels I've ever read. It's important to note that there is no Jeeves here.
There is no sensible person. Every single character is utterly mad. In true "what fools these mortals be" style, Wodehouse concocts a farce so complex he even has to pause from time to time to explain just what's happening with everyone. He just keeps piling up the antics: it almost seems like he's showing off, throwing off comic sparks like a farcical Roman candle, as if to not just say, "what fools these mortals be," but, "what fools these Hollywood scriptwriters be."
Its like Preston Sturges almost fifteen years before Sturges, except it moves even faster. Recently, I heard Jane Smiley explain why she preferred reading to movies and television. Her brilliant answer was, "because movies move so slowly." Sturges was the only filmmaker with the frantic pace to give Hot Water even half a chance to succeed on film, but I believe it would stump even him. Just to set the table for you, there are Americans galore in this thing, everybody from a hypocritical Senator (prohibitionist with a penchant for vintage champagne) to a couple of safecrackers worthy of Runyon to a female private eye to the de rigeur dowdy matron to a Yale football hero to a proto-Euro-trash count to a particularly delightful comic butt, a "well-regarded modern novelist" -- oh does P. G. do a number on him! -- and on and on. Everyone is interconnected and they keep bouncing off each like a Gottlieb pinball machine on hyper-drive.
Here's a particularly funny turn. After our hero gets thrown over from his engagement for reasons that would take about sixty pages to describe, the author changes gears thusly:
Statisticians, who have gone carefully into the figures -- the name of Schwertferger of Berlin is one that springs to mind -- inform us that young men who have just received a negative answer to a proposal of marriage (and with these must, of course, be grouped those whose engagements have been broken off) 6.08 per cent clench their hands and stare silently before them, 12.02 take the next train to the Rocky Mountains and shoot grizzlies, while 11.07 sit down at their desks and become modern novelists.
Wodehouse is, quite simply, having a riot here. We are lucky to be invited along for the ride. Thank goodness he didn't try to become a modern novelist.
'Til next time... Ken Krimstein
Mr. Krimstein is a writer, professor, cartoonist, father, and grump who lives in Chicago. So there.