“Rabelaisian. adjective. of, pertaining to, or suggesting Francois Rabelais or his broad, coarse humor” (Random House College Dictionary).
My third and last commentary on Daily News comic writers looks at the work of a weekly columnist whose style and content rely on exaggeration and the bizarre. As such, his work suggests Francois Rabelais, a sixteenth-century Frenchman whose stories are peopled by giants. The characters’ enormous appetites represent the body’s dominance in human life. We get the word “Gargantuan” from one of his characters.
“Life is Heald” doesn’t rely on giants, but extravagance figures in both content and style. Themes stick closely to conventional truths: being grateful for what we have, never judging a book by its cover, etc.
In a column about the previous New Year’s Eve, the writer tells us he had yet to work up his resolutions, and “attempted to think clearly and deeply at 11:59 p.m. Mind you, this is an activity I’ve been known to struggle with at high noon, drenched in both sunlight and sobriety, and even at my sharpest, my deepest thoughts permanently reside in the shallow end.”
A lot is going on here to deflate any notion the writer is capable of more than shallow thinking. Nevertheless, he gives it a go: “Allowing for the fact that Anheuser-Busch is responsible for a significant percentage of the annual sales of rose-colored glasses, I looked around the room, first at my three great kids (‘great,’ as it pertains to our children, being defined as no court proceedings or rehab, and keeping the annual parent-teacher conferences in the single digits).”
Mellowed by drink, the writer considers how lucky he is to have sons who aren’t in a holding cell, going through withdrawal. And look at the Gargantuan sentence—55 words, 58 if you forget the hyphens. Such a string of verbiage compels the reader to keep paying attention, to hold on for the closing period.
“Then, I looked at my wonderful wife (again, the minimum requirements to meet ‘wonderful’ being the presence of any notarized signature on the same marriage license as ‘Howell Kevin Heald’).”
While mocking the overworked notions of “great” kids and “wonderful” wives, the writer concludes he’s lucky. “If the big things in life are this good, why sweat the little things? OK, so maybe it’s not diving board deep, but it’s at least out to that blue and white rope.”
Another column describes an encounter in a Laundromat at two in the morning. The writer and his future wife “had been there about 20 minutes when a man, homeless in nature and reeking of Mother Nature, walked in. We avoided eye contact. Other senses were not given the option. He was scary. He had the facial hair of one whose family had gifted him neckties for the better part of three decades when just one beard trimmer could have really made a difference. I could not eliminate ‘miner’ as his chosen profession, given his wardrobe’s prominent display of soil samples dating back to the ‘60s.”
Reading this out of context, you don’t have to be a political correctness nut to think something is out of whack. Someone fallen on hard times is being made the butt of labored clichés about the Great Unwashed, and the effect is compounded when the man asks for help with his laundry. “For reasons which have never been fully explained,” the writer tells us, “I eventually offered, ‘We’d love to…, but my pressure washer is broken.”
Our hostility is further deepened when it turns out the man wants help with washing the only clothes he owns, those on his back. He will need to wait naked in the restroom while this is done. Chagrined, the writer agrees to do as asked, all the more ashamed when the man he assumes expects a handout gives him a twenty, and points to the bill changer.
The clothes are washed, and the writer apologizes. “With that, I handed him his clean clothes and his $20 bill back.”
Thus, coarse jokes made at the expense of someone down and out sets up the reader to more fully appreciate the story’s lesson: what you see is not always what you get. This approach won’t appeal to everyone, but no form of humor can. The writer is taking risks, and operating in a long tradition of outsized words and deeds.