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A State of Laughter: Comic Fiction from Alabama

By: Don Noble, ed.
Reviewed by: Norman McMillan
Livingston Press, 2008
$16.95, Paperback; $26, Hardcover

I first remember focusing on the therapeutic value of laughter when Norman Cousins, editor of the Saturday Review of Literature, was facing a life-threatening disease back in the sixties. He determined that if negative emotions could be detrimental to health, as many believed, then positive emotions could be good for you. He hired a nurse to read him funny stories and spent hours watching Marx Brothers movies, thereby enabling himself to live pain-free, without meds, for some time. You may find that reading A State of Laughter, edited by Don Noble, will improve your mental and physical health, but, if not, at least you will have a very enjoyable experience.

The twenty-one stories in the collection, all by post-World War II Alabama authors, run from the traditional to the experimental. Arranged according to birth order of the writers, the collection leads off with “The Byzantine Riddle,” the comic masterpiece of Eugene Walter, whom some have called the funniest man in Alabama. The greatest appeal of the story to me is Walter’s ability to reproduce with unfailing accuracy the speech of a group of Mobile women who well understand that language is not simply a utilitarian instrument, but, equally important, a means of entertaining one’s listeners.

I was happy to find included in the collection favorite stories of mine by not only Eugene Walter, but also by Truman Capote, William Cobb, Lee Smith, Marlin Barton, and Wendy Reed. Plus I was able to laugh my way through a lot of new material. The variety is so great that no matter how your comic tastes run you are bound to find something in that vein.

Since space does not allow me to discuss all the stories (Noble does that in his excellent introduction), I thought I’d single out a couple that I find particularly amusing. I simply cannot resist stories about poor schlimazels who are treated badly by the world but manage somehow to hang on and even command some sympathy from readers. Brad Watson’s “Are you Mr. Lonelee?” and Marlin Barton’s “Falling” both reduce me to sustained paroxysmal laughter.

In an editorial note, Noble invites readers to inform him of perceived omissions, so I’ll take this occasion to say that the biggest oversight I found was that of Helen Norris, who is to me one of the most consistently funny short story writers in Alabama. Two others come to mind: longtime fiction writer Carolynne Scott and newcomer to the Alabama scene Todd Dills.

In closing, I suggest that you get a copy of A State of Laughter, read it with delight, and then wait for amazing improvements in your health. Dec 2008

Norman McMillan is author of a memoir, Distant Son, and of two plays, Truman Capote: Against a Copper Sky and Ashes of Roses.

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