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Comic novels, where are they?

Can we laugh yet?

With the covid-19 pandemic still grinding on, half the country unvaccinated, millions unemployed and hundreds of thousands of families grieving, is laughter even allowed?


“To every thing there is a season,” Ecclesiastes says, “a time to weep, and a time to laugh.”

If ever there were a summer to hang out in the house of mirth, it’s this one.

Honestly, it’s okay if you don’t want to read Jim Shepard’s “Phase Six,” his new novel about a pathogen that decimates humanity. There’s no need to apologize if you’d rather skip “Whereabouts,” Jhumpa Lahiri’s arid exploration of despair.

Read the room, people! A nation recovering from the worst health emergency in 100 years needs novels full of humor.

But if laughter is the best medicine, our fiction is in dangerously short supply. It’s an odd and persistent problem, compounded by the fact that most of the novels marketed as funny are, in fact, not very funny. Or they traffic in wit so dry their lips would crack if they smiled.

It’s not that we lack funny writers. Tina Fey, Jenny Lawson, David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell, Issa Rae and so many others publish hilarious memoirs and essay collections. But none of them has ventured into the foreboding realm of the comic novel.

The usual explanation is that humor is too subjective to encourage the production of comic novels, but we have no trouble producing funny movies and TV shows that draw millions of fans. By comparison, a comic novel could succeed with about as many readers as it takes to fill a clown car, and yet the shelf of funny fiction is not much longer than a knock-knock joke.

Where is our Lucille Ball in print? Who is the Richard Pryor of fiction?

Every other genre — thriller, romance, science fiction, western — supports a pantheon of masters and attracts new writers every year. But comic fiction remains a cabin on a treacherous mountain trail that somebody breaks into every few years and then abandons. If you’re looking for humor in the form of a novel, here are a few!

● “Big Trouble,” by Dave Barry. The funnyman’s first novel involves nuclear bombs, Russian gangsters, giant pythons — just ordinary life in Miami.

● “Black Buck,” by Mateo Askaripour. This irresistible comic novel pokes fun at corporate America and the tenacity of racism.

● “Dear Committee Members,” by Julie Schumacher. The academic satire gets a fresh overhaul in this novel composed of recommendation letters.

● “An Evening of Long Goodbyes,” by Paul Murray. A penniless young aristocrat determined to maintain the contemplative life of a country gentleman must, suddenly, get a job.

● “Heartburn,” by Nora Ephron. This debut novel, inspired by Ephron’s failed marriage to Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein, was later made into a movie starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson.

● “The Hills at Home,” by Nancy Clark. One summer, relatives come to visit a retired schoolteacher in her sprawling, run-down estate — and courteously refuse to leave.

● “Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal,” by Christopher Moore. So funny, it’s worth risking an eternity in hell.

● “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer. This Pulitzer Prize-winning story follows a writer around the world from one disastrous author event to another.

● “Lucky Jim,” by Kingsley Amis. The story of a young English professor is the best comic novel of all time.

● “The Sellout,” by Paul Beatty. The first American novel to win the U.K. Booker Prize is about a “social pyromaniac” who tries to save his California town by resegregating it.