Read it and laugh

At the heart of every annoying situation is an element of humor, and I tend to find the humor fairly quickly; it’s difficult for me to stay annoyed or angry.

I think I learned this from my father and his brother, Bob. I recall them sitting in big comfortable chairs in Bob and Arv’s family room (a room notable for its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves overflowing with art books, collections of essays, and fiction), reading aloud to each other from the works of mid-century masters like James Thurber, E.B. White, and Robert Benchley.

I was slow to catch on to the Benchley, but Thurber delighted me right away. My favorite Thurber story was “The Night the Bed Fell,” an apparently simple tale about things going bump in the night at the Thurber residence in Columbus, Ohio.

Re-reading the story last week, I was struck by what a narrative gem it is. The setup in the opening paragraphs is deceptive swift and casual. Watch for the mention of the grandfather: We never meet him, but he’s essential to the story’s equally concise conclusion.

Some of the details (three generations living in one house; young Thurber sleeping on an army cot; an attic bedroom; and the use of liquid camphor as an inhaled stimulant) date the story. But the meddling mother, the eccentric grandfather, the moody father, the self-absorbed house guest, and the snarky attitude of young Thurber, still ring true.

Though the piece seems chatty and detailed, it’s really a masterpiece of understatement, alluding to darker themes. “My father had decided to sleep in the attic one night, to be away where he could think,” is all Thurber says of the action that triggers the tale. It’s a marvelous piece of foreshadowing. By the time you’ve finished the story, you have a much better idea of what Thurber senior was trying (in vain) to get away from.

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