Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ukridge by P.G. Wodehouse

We all know That Guy: the one who always has a plan to get ahead, a scheme to get rich, a quick shortcut onto Easy Street, and a boundless optimism that he can do it all with just the tiniest bit of help. P.G. Wodehouse knew That Guy, too.

For the space of these ten stories, That Guy is Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, the laziest ball of energy in England, an endless font of complication and silly ideas in a yellow Macintosh coat. His schemes are all entirely of his time, as they must be, but his type is more modern than a lot of Wodehouse's characters. (Ukridge also may be more interesting to some Americans than effete aristos like Bertie Wooster; he's not American himself but his boundless enthusiasm and desire to get very rich easily and quickly resonates very strongly on my side of the Atlantic.)

Be happy you don't know Ukridge, or that you don't have a Ukridge in your own life. He's a wearying fellow, always imposing on a friendship to ask for a favor or a small loan or to borrow one's nice suit to go out to a party. In fiction, he's a wonderful character, but in life he would be horrible.

The contemporary US equivalent of Ukridge is Kramer from Seinfeld, if that helps you place him. Ukridge is British and well-educated, so not as vulgar or loud -- but easily as annoying and full of crazy ideas. Ukridge also features in a number of other Wodehouse stories across several collections, and the early novel Love Among the Chickens.

All of the Ukridge stories are narrated by his long-suffering friend Jimmy Corcoran, a hard-working writer who bears some resemblance to Wodehouse himself during the years he first created Ukridge (the first decade of the twentieth century). Each story has a certain shape, as it must: Ukridge arrives, with a new scheme, and enlists Jimmy's aid in it against his best judgement. And things go badly, humorously wrong, as they must.

Wodehouse was the greatest writer I know at taking a particular plot armature and ringing changes on it: he had no more than ten major plots but wrote a hundred books over the course of a long and very successful career. He's the epitome of a specialist writer: he got amazingly good at doing something very specific, and amazingly funny at getting new laughs from the same standard pieces of furniture. That might all sound like a small thing, but it's not: so few writers have ever written a really wonderful book once, and Wodehouse was able to write really wonderful books, in the same mode, for over six decades straight. Ukridge is a fine example of that, and one of the lesser-known creations of the great comic mind of the twentieth century.

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