Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Laughing Gas by PG Wodehouse

Wodehouse is usually thought of as a quinessentially British writer, but the fact is that he spent some time in the infamous writing-cages of Hollywood, emerging a harder and bitterer man. Also for the last few decades of his life he settled in Long Island, New York. It was this brief sojourn in Hollywood that inspired some of his most hilarious stories. After all, he had looked behind the cardboard facades of Hollywood and seen the truth.

Laughing Gas is one of my favourite Wodehouse books. I know I say it a lot, but I solemnly swear there are plenty of his books that aren't my favourites. Well, one or two. I never could enjoy Ukridge.

Laughing Gas tells the story of the Earl of Havershot, better known as Reggie to his friends. Reggie succeeded to the title unexpectedly, after distinguishing himself as an amateur boxer at Cambridge. He may not excel in other areas, but few peers could boast a right hook or a cabbage ear like his.

Reggie is a man on a mission. His family have rounded him up and sent him off to Hollywood after his Cousin Eggy, the family black sheep, who apparently intends to marry some awful Hollywood female. On his way, Reggie meets the famous movie star April June. Urged on by her melting good looks, Reggie finds himself entertaining her with stories of his past:

Blood flowing in quarts, and the air thick with teeth and ears and things. And then, just before the bell went, the champ brought one up from the floor...”

I broke off here, because she had fainted. I had thought at first, when she closed her eyes, that she had done so merely in order to listen better, but this was apparently not the case. She slid sideways along the seat and quietly passed out.

I was gravely concerned. In the enthusiasm of the moment I had forgotten the effect my narrative might have on this sensitive plant, and I was not quite certain what was the next move. The best way, of course, of bringing round a swooned subject is to bite the ear, but I couldn't very well bite this divine girl's ear. Apart from anything else, I felt I didn't know her well enough.

Until now Reggie has been pining after Ann Bannister, his long-lost love. But April June's attentions banish her from his mind. Even when he finds that the girl his cousin Eggy intends to marry is none other than the aforesaid Ann, he doesn't hesitate in giving his blessing.

With his mission discharged, Reggie looks forward to the task of persuading April June to yoke her pseudonym with his. Then disaster strikes in the form of a toothache. Reggie finds himself in the dentist's waiting room at the same time as the child star Joey Cooley is due for an extraction. He takes a mild interest in Joey Cooley as Ann Bannister is working as his governess. That is nothing, however, beside the interest he takes in the ringleted ten-year-old when he comes out from under the laughing-gas to find that somehow, while both of them were unconscious, Reggie Havershot (third Earl of Havershot) and Joey Cooley (child megastar) have switched bodies...

Chaos, naturally, follows. Young Joey boils with resentment for his agent and managers—and worst of all, his co-star April June. And now he has the physique of a Cambridge Blue, nothing will stand in the way of his avowed intention: to get to each of his tormentors and give them “a poke in the snoot”.

Will Reggie ever get his body back? How will he escape the draconian eyes of Joey's agent and manager long enough to warn April June of the impending snoot-poke? Will he realise the sterling worth of Miss Bannister before it's too late? Read on...

I suppose I don't have to proceed at any length about what a good time this book is. Perhaps the best thing about it is the satire on Hollywood, where everything is about fronts and facades. The palace of Haroun-al-Raschid is just a cardboard model three feet tall. April June may not be as sweet as she seems. And a ringleted child star may in fact be a twenty-seven year old British earl who only wants a stiff brandy and soda...

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