THE PUBLICATION of Karl MacDermott's short story collection Juggling With Turnips – in which there is little juggling, other than the metaphorical sort, and not one single turnip – sees the comedy writer and occasional stand-up, widen his repertoire by adding ‘writer of short comic fiction’ to the list of things he successfully does.
MacDermott is no Stewart Lee, Frankie Boyle, or Jonathan Swift; he is an observer of, rather than an intervener in, things as they are. He is out to poke surrealist fun at us all, especially himself, rather than smash up statues of the great and the not so great. The writer he most evokes is American humorist David Sedaris, whose superbly witty Santaland Diaries is required reading, especially for wannabe writers currently between jobs.
A good number of the stories here are pseudo-autobiography, such as ‘The Karl MacDermott Archive Part Three’ – a series of diary entries in which he accurately enough observes: “A vast majority of people in the Arts, leading the creative life, survive on tiny triumphs, an article here, a run in a play there, a commission here, some TV work there. Nothing but tiny triumphs...Of course there are the exceptions. People with actual careers. Meryl Streep. Martin Amis. Red Hurley.”
‘The Lost Diary of Eva Braun’ raises the sort of issue most newly together couples face - how to deal with visitors who insist on stomping around the place in large leather boots best suited for unsuccessfully invading the Soviet Union'
There will of course be many Red Hurley fans who will take fist waving exception at seeing their idol compared to the mostly empty vessel that is the late Kingsley Amis’s vast disappointment of a son, but such unlikely juxtapositions are central to MacDermott’s comedy. Indeed ‘The Karl MacDermott Archive’ is presented with great self-deprecation. At the outset we are told it is, “A sample from the papers, correspondence and documents writer Karl MacDermott donated to the Glenamaddy Regional Technical and Business College in September 2017. The items were swiftly returned the following month.”
In ‘The Lost Diary of Eva Braun’ there is tension at the Berghoff between Ms Braun and her beau, the late Adolf Hitler, because she insists that leading Nazis, such as Goering and Von Ribbentrop, take off their jackboots before coming in for a visit. It is the sort of issue most newly together couples face - how to deal with visitors who insist on stomping around the place in large leather boots best suited for unsuccessfully invading the Soviet Union. This story underlines the cultural debt we owe the Nazis, and the inspiration they have provided such comedy greats as Charlie Chaplin, Mel Brooks, Ken Livingstone, and now MacDermott himself.
However there is more to MacDermott then jack boots. ‘Godfrey Give Me’ opens with one of those simple, but brilliant, paragraphs that drag the reader into the world of a boy who, at the age of eight, developed a “bizarre and unhealthy communion wafer dependency.” Comedic writing is undervalued in Ireland. What an odd thing that the country of Swift, Behan, and Wilde appears now, generally, to prefer the faux serious scribe who goes about the place evangelically spreading dullness rather than laughter. This book is a delicious antidote to all that.