If someone were to ask me who is the funniest writer I’ve ever read, there is little question what the answer would be. Of course, I’m not sure who would ask me that, but I’m ready when someone does.
For the sake of my setup, imagine you had actually asked me who I think is the funniest writer. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Wow! That’s a tough question. I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me that, but you know, I think I have a pretty good answer.
The funniest books in print are, with little question, by a man names Patrick McManus. Or, as his close friends call him—those of us who have read his stories—Pat.
Now that you’ve asked me about Pat, I have to tell you that he’s no longer writing, because he died recently at the age of 84. He’s gone into the twilight, endlessly grousing. The world is a bit poorer because he’s gone, too.
I discovered McManus in the back of the Field and Stream magazines that came to the house. Then I found out that many of those essays had been collected into books. That was sometime around the 6th grade.
Even as a kid, his humor could make me literally laugh out loud. He wrote with a wit and humor that was slightly self-deprecating, but mostly just funny.
His humor is generally G-rated, with the occasional innuendo that probably flew over my head as a youngster. Unlike so much of the humor in that’s out there now, he was not trying to shock his audiences, score political points, or tear someone down.
Instead McManus tells stories. He tells stories about himself—or the character that he pretends to be—through several phases of his life with a cast of familiar characters. McManus often plays the naïve straight man for the more comedic characters. He most often plays the man who knew too little, and it’s fun to watch him bumble through life.
Among the characters from his childhood are Rancid Crabtree, the old woodsman and sometimes mentor, and Crazy Eddie Muldoon, his childhood friend and negative influence. The amusingly foolish friend, Retch Sweeney, and worried neighbor, Al Finley, carry the storyline in Pat’s adult years. Meanwhile Pat’s mother, his sister the Troll, and his wife Bun, provide foils for the humor of Pat’s hijinks. As you pick up each of his stories, there are familiar people you come to know and become curious about what they might do next.
Even when McManus writes an expected storyline, he tells the story in an amusing fashion. Of course, things were better when he was a boy, but they were also harder. Except that the trails are much steeper and the air thinner now that he’s getting older. Even when you know what is going to happen because the plotline is predictable and McManus has strewn plenty of foreshadowing there is always a twist that makes the tale worth your time.
I’ve known marriage counselors who started sessions off by reading one of McManus’ short stories. If the couple doesn’t laugh, the counselor knows he is in for a rough time. If they laugh, then the ice is broken and the ground is a little softer for the plowing. The man is funny enough to make everyone laugh.
My wife (whose nickname is not Bun, else I be shot) knows when I’m reading something by Patrick McManus because the bed is shaking from my suppressed laughter. And my preteen taught can be heard guffawing when she devours his humor. McManus is a writer for all ages, which gives him a connection to his childhood dog, Strange.
McManus’ humor is where you go when you’ve had a long hard day, week, or month and need to find something to smile about. It never fails, even if it’s a story that you’ve read a hundred times before.
One of his stories, “Sequences,” has become a byword in my household. In fact, it’s an essay much like “A Message to Garcia,” that should be read by all future leaders. The message is simple: Everything is way to complicated, so you might as well just fishing. Or, more realistically, make sure you prioritize fun, because the work will never get done anyway. It has a point, but it is funny, not like this paragraph.
Even for those of us who don’t hunt, the stories that McManus wrote are funny. That’s one of the marks of a really good writer. With very few exceptions, everyone is in on the jokes because they are just good fun. I wish there were more people writing like Patrick McManus.
I’m sad that McManus is gone. He hasn’t written a whole lot lately, but mostly I’m sad that the world is just a little less funny without him. To celebrate his life, I may just do a modified stationary panic in his honor the next time I'm scared.
NOTE: If you are looking for a good place to start with McManus, The Night the Bear Ate Goombaw is one of my favorite collections.