Monday, January 12, 2009

The Ascent of Rum Doodle by W.E. Bowman

Once upon a time, in a faraway land -- 1956 in London, to be more specific -- a funny novel about mountaineering was published. It was moderately popular, and the author wrote a sequel soon after, but it was never widely successful, and it fell into an obscurity soon afterward.

For the next thirty years, it was passed along from mountaineer to mountaineer, with only occasional readers outside that strong-calfed fraternity. But then a copy fell into the hands of a then-obscure Times editor named Bill Bryson.

The stars then wheeled and danced in their places, and Bryson found himself, some years later still, rich and famous after a string of humorous books about travel, words, and less likely things. And so Bryson pushed to have one of his favorite books brought back into print in the UK as a Pimlico trade paperback, with his name even larger than the author's, in hopes that it would finally burst forth to a mass audience.

(At about the same time, Bryson, who had moved back to his native USA and become a judge for the ancient and august Book-of-the-Month Club, convinced that body to also reprint this mysterious novel, which was even more obscure to Americans.)

The novel is The Ascent of Rum Doodle. And it's still not famous, but it seems to be in print in the UK and available here, which is more than one can say for most fifty-year-old comic novels.

I worked at a publishing entity that included the BOMC for a number of years, but never managed to remember to get myself a copy of Rum Doodle. But, eventually, I discovered a local library had a copy, and I finally read it over the Christmas holidays.

And...well...I can't say that I found it as funny as Bryson did. Oh, it is funny, in spots, but it's also old-fashioned and somewhat British, and just...mild.

An expedition to the fabled peak of Rum Doodle -- 40,000 and a half feet tall -- is led by our first-person narrator, only known by his expedition nickname Binder. He's surrounded by the usual bunch of colorful characters -- a photographer who fails to get any pictures, a route-finder who consistently gets lost, a linguist/diplomat whose speeches always angers the natives, and so forth. The jokes would have been obvious even in 1956, but a number of them are pretty good jokes.

The party bumbles their way up the mountain, as, even in 1956, the cliche that the native bearers are smarter and vastly more capable than the doughty (or perhaps doughy) Englishmen of the expedition. Binder is an unreliable narrator of the humorous kind, forever reporting but not seeing what's going on right in front of him.

I can't say that Rum Doodle isn't funny -- it is funny, and at times quite funny -- but it doesn't really live up to the rhapsodic blurb from Bryson: "One of the funniest books you will ever read." If you can overlook that -- or if you're enough of a mountaineering buff that you'll find substantially more humor in it than the rest of us -- there's a very good chance that you'll enjoy The Ascent of Rum Doodle. Just don't wait for six years to read it, as I did, and let the anticipation build to unsustainable heights.

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