I wish I could do whatever I liked behind the curtain of “madness”. Then: I’d arrange flowers, all day long, I’d paint: pain, love and tenderness, I would laugh as much as I feel like at the stupidity of others, and they would all say: “Poor thing, she’s crazy!” (Above all I would laugh at my own stupidity.) I would build my world which, while I lived, would be in agreement with all the worlds. The day, or the hour, or the minute that I lived would be mine and everyone else’s – my madness would not be an escape from “reality”.”
Margaret Atwood, the Canadian novelist, once asked a group of women at a university why they felt threatened by men. The women said they were afraid of being beaten, raped, or killed by men. She then asked a group of men why they felt threatened by women. They said they were afraid women would laugh at them.
―Molly Ivins, Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?
Lonely people have enthusiasms which cannot always be explained. When something strikes them as funny, the intensity and length of their laughter mirrors the depth of their loneliness, and they are capable of laughing like hyenas. When something touches their emotions, it runs through them like Paul Revere, awakening feelings that gather into great armies.
Have you ever wondered what novels Charles Dickens might have written if he possessed a sunnier disposition? Meet Wobbly Barstool.
Jane Lowy‘s Wobbly Barstool puts a clever spin on the Victorian novel. The plot shares common elements with Dicken’s classic Great Expectations, including hidden and mistaken identities, adults scheming over the lives of their children, thwarted lives and passion, rough changes of fortune and jaw dropping revelations. Wobbly, Lowy’s hero, lives in the same world as Pip, but, due to his happy rural upbringing, he interprets that world far differently.
He’s a solid, simple lad, far from stupid, but not at all brilliant, raised by two solid and dependable parents, Horace and Nelly, in the pleasant hamlet of Restinstump. Some of you townies might find it dull, but Restinstump provides a calm and relatively idyllic alternative to London, which remains as Dickens painted it. The most heartbreaking moments of the novel concern a trip to London in which Wobbly’s father, Horace, has to work hard not to let the rough conditions of city life, especially that of poor children, drag him into depression.
Seven Dials, by Gustave Dore, 1872, depicts a busy London street full of shoe shops and swarming with children.
The Barstool family is ebullient, taking on whatever life gives them with laughter and twinkle in the eye. When Wobbly makes friends with an unfortunate orphan, Tobias, who is residing in the woods with a band of dogs, they take in the newcomer (and dogs) with open arms, as we know they will. This happy friendship and familial closeness will shape the bulk of the novel even as it is tried and tested.
Life gets most interesting for Wobbly, and for us readers, when the attractive and intelligent Prunella Baddonschilde appears in Restinstump, along with her best friend, Marigold. Wobbly is smitten with Prunella from the beginning, and he doesn’t waste much time in telling her so. She’s been raised in London and her mother has groomed her to marry into the moneyed class. Pru, as she calls herself, is far from thrilled at that prospect, but she’s not ready to rush into anything with an awkward coutry boy a few years younger than herself either. Echoing the desire of Pip for Estella in Great Expectations, Wobbly vows he will make something of himself so that he may win Prunella’s hand. A great many twists and turns ensue. There is even a sea voyage that culminates in several folks plunging overboard. Between unexpected events and extremely lovable characters, Wobbly Barstool is quite a page turner. I guarantee that there is at least one revelation you won’t see coming. Not everything is as clean and tidy as it seems.
The charm of the novel lies in its humor. Wobbly’s employment woes are hilarious, especially when a lonely older woman comes on to him, encouraging him to practice kissing her so that he’ll be an expert by the time he kisses Prunella. Unfortunately, her husband comes home unexpectedly and Wobbly is forced to escape, aided by a disgruntled goat. Humor can be very difficult to put down on the page and often falls flat, but not Lowy’s. Her dialogue positively sparkles. It is the comic qualities of the protagonists that are most endearing, from Wobbly’s almost empty-headed good humor and naiveté to Prunella’s terrible attempts at writing poetry. Many of the character names are worth a chuckle, including the Irishman Fewan Farbetween and, my personal favorite, the loathsome Harry Backanall. This is a book you read with a smile on your face.
While humor is the hook that kept me reading, the strength of the book lies in its characters, particularly Prunella, Wobbly, Marigold and Tobias. They suffer disappointments and betrayals, but are able, ultimately, to hold on to their faith in one another and make decisions that keep them from disaster. They do something that Dickens was loathe to let his characters do–succeed through self determination. Their definition of success is different from what many people of their era, or ours, for that matter, might espouse, having little to do with the grasping for social status or cash that so often motivates Victorian characters and leads them to their ruin. Turning their back on London and the Industrial Revolution, our heroes choose the farm life of Restinstump, where they feel a connection to the community, a cast of wonderful supporting personalities, people who inspire faith in the human race. It is the hint that we can make the same choice that gives the novel its power.
The naiveté of the young residents of Restinstump, as they seek a balance between their dreams, many of which are quite modern, and their love for their traditional community and peaceful existence, makes their choice possible. How many dreams do we deny daily out of a sense of practicality, out of a jaded view of the world? Life is a combination of our projections meeting reality. Sometimes we short change ourselves by expecting too little. That being said, if anyone else had tied the knot during the course of the novel I think I would have been overcome by the immense rosiness of outlook. But what a sweet way to be overcome!
If hot were cold and cold were hot
And time ran backwards too-o-o
I’d give a shrug and say, “So wot?”
For I’m head over heels for you.
If cats should bark and dogs meow
And horses start to moo-o-o
I’d think it just their usual row
For I”m head over heels for you.
from Wobbly’s Song
Wobbly Barstool, a winner of the BRAG Medallion for outstanding self published books,is a splendid first novel, one that makes you ponder human nature without realizing it. Houstonians, Jane Lowy is a local talent. You can catch her and her husband reading around town and, of course, at Synkroniciti Open Mics. For the rest of you, Wobbly is available as e-book or in hardcover.
We looked at each other and just laughed; everything was hysterically funny, even the playground slide was smiling at us, and at some point, deep in the night, when we were swinging on the jungle gym and showers of sparks were flying out of our mouths, I had the epiphany that laughter was light, and light was laughter, and that this was the secret of the universe.
There is one kind of laugh that I always did recommend; it looks out of the eye first with a merry twinkle, then it creeps down on its hands and knees and plays around the mouth like a pretty moth around the blaze of a candle, then it steals over into the dimples of the cheeks and rides around in those whirlpools for a while, then it lights up the whole face like the mellow bloom on a damask rose, then it swims up on the air, with a peal as clear and as happy as a dinner-bell, then it goes back again on gold tiptoes like an angel out for an airing, and it lies down on its little bed of violets in the heart where it came from.
But when you’re in front of an audience and you make them laugh at a new idea, you’re guiding the whole being for the moment. No one is ever more him/herself than when they really laugh. Their defenses are down. It’s very Zen-like, that moment. They are completely open, completely themselves when that message hits the brain and the laugh begins. That’s when new ideas can be implanted. If a new idea slips in at that moment, it has a chance to grow.