Fifteen authors are represented on this post, three of whom have made a career of writing funny novels (Christopher Buckley, Carl Hiaasen, and Donald E. Westlake). That forced me to make arbitrary choices in several instances. Not to mention all the other humorous novels I’ve read that I was forced to omit. It’s a tough job, but I’m up to the task.
Each of the fifteen first-choice titles highlighted below is boldfaced, and each is paired with a link to my review. Since I can’t possibly choose one of these fifteen books as the funniest, I’ve arranged them in the alphabetical order of the authors’ last names.
They Eat Puppies, Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley—Washington and Beijing get what they deserve in this satirical novel
Christopher Buckley writes satirical novels about politics that are often hysterically funny. They Eat Puppies is my favorite. But I’ve reviewed many others. Here are some of them (linked to my reviews): The Relic Master, The White House Mess, Florence of Arabia, and No Way To Treat a First Lady.
The Sister Brothers by Patrick DeWitt—Hired killers, the California Gold Rush, and lots of surprises
The Sisters brothers are no run-of-the-mill gunslingers. Nor do the other characters in this extremely funny novel about the Gold Rush era fit recognizable stereotypes. Here, for example, is the response to the brothers from one of their targets: “‘Yes, you demand that we should share our profits with you, and if we choose against this, well, you will be obligated to kill us. Do you see how your proposal might be lacking, from our point of view?’”
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain—A war hero and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders in a funny anti-war novel
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk fits very neatly into the category of anti-war novels that employ humor instead of unrelenting violence to drive home their message. It’s a funny book, beautifully written, and I suspect it conveys about as well as any humorless treatment a sense of the war in Iraq from the perspective of the Americans who fought it face-to-face with insurgents. It was no surprise to me when I learned after finishing the book that it had won the 2013 National Book Critics Circle Award and was a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award for Fiction. It’s that good.
Little Elvises (Junior Bender #2) by Timothy Hallinan—A crimebuster encounters the ghosts of Elvis Presley
Most of Timothy Hallinan’s novels are detective stories. One series is set in Bangkok, the other in Los Angeles. However, he is also writing a delightful series of comic novels featuring a career thief named Junior Bender, who serves as a private investigator of sorts—for other criminals, and usually against his will. I reviewed Crashed, the first novel in the Junior Bender series, here: A career criminal narrates this clever and funny mystery. You’ll find my review of the third book, The Fame Thief, here: A cockamamie story about Hollywood and the mob. The fourth, Herbie’s Game, is at A hitman, burglars, and hackers in the San Fernando Valley. And here is my review of the fifth, King Maybe: From Timothy Hallinan, a very funny crime novel set in Hollywood.
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
Remember how Joseph Heller describes the paradox he calls Catch-22? “’Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.’ The result, put simply, is that no one can get off the ride. It’s hard to describe briefly just how gloriously, envelopingly hilarious this logic becomes as the novel unfolds.” Thus writes Chris Cox in a review that appeared in The Guardian on the fiftieth anniversary of the novel’s publication. Catch-22 is widely regarded as one of the best anti-war novels of all time. Certainly, I think of it that way. It may just be the most effective illustration ever written about the insanity of war. (It’s been more than fifty years since I read the book, so I haven’t reviewed it myself.)
Razor Girl by Carl Hiaasen—Reality TV, African rodents, and the roach patrol
Carl Hiaasen, a columnist for The Miami Herald since 1985, has written dozens of books. Fifteen of those are novels about crime in Florida, usually with environmental implications. They’re almost all laugh-out-loud funny, as are his similar novels for younger readers. I’ve reviewed several of his books: Bad Monkey, Chomp, Star Island, and Skink: No Surrender.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby—From Nick Hornby, a very funny story that’s not all laughs
Here’s the bestselling British novelist Nick Hornby, writing about a gorgeous, buxom blonde who flees a beauty pageant in Blackpool without accepting the crown she’s won. She is also very, very clever. All she wants is to be the second coming on TV of her idol, Lucille Ball, and make people laugh. (Note to young readers: Ball starred in I Love Lucy, a long-running sitcom that was first broadcast somewhere in the dim recesses of history. Long before your time.) Her name is Barbara Parker, but, rechristened by a theatrical agent, she quickly becomes known to one and all in England as Sophie Straw. Her remarkable beauty attracts men’s attention, but her quick wit and abundant talent win the day as she stumbles into the starring role in a BBC sitcom named “Barbara (and Jim).”
Serious Men by Manu Joseph—A comic novel about India today, and Big Science, too
In his debut novel, Indian magazine editor Manu Joseph takes on the caste system, Big Science, love, marriage, and sex, corruption in government, the news media, office politics, loyalty and betrayal, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence, and the fate of the Universe—yet it all hangs together somehow. This is Black Comedy, Indian-style. And it’s very, very funny.
Blindspot by Jane Kamensky and Jill Lepore—A hilarious tale of Colonial America by two history professors
The “blindspot” of this delightful satirical novel of Colonial America was slavery—the ever-present reality underlying the colonists’ increasing distaste for domination by the British King. That blindspot figures in a prominent way in the unfolding of this humorous story. Couched in the language and style of the 18th Century, Blindspot is subtitled “By a Lady in Disguise & a Gentleman in Exile.” The book tells the unlikely tale of Stewart Jameson and Fanny Easton, who find themselves caught up in the chaotic politics of pre-Revolutionary America at its epicenter in Boston as they seek to solve a murder of one of the city’s most prominent men.
Head of State by Andrew Marr—Political satire where it hurts the most: 10 Downing Street
If I were pitching this book in Hollywood, I might describe it as a mashup of Wag the Dog and the British version of House of Cards. This expertly crafted novel by Scottish political commentator and TV presenter Andrew Marr is a blend of absurd political satire and self-centered politics at its nastiest. The result is glorious.
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride—American history, laughing all the way
As I wrote in my review of the novel, The Good Lord Bird is “a rollicking, tummy-tickling, topsy-turvy account of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry—the stupidly quixotic act that helped light the fuse of the Civil War. James McBride won a well-deserved National Book Award for this hilarious little novel.”
Deadline, by John Sandford—Funny crime fiction, and from John Sandford!
John Sandford typically writes deadly serious and violence-ridden detective novels, most of which feature Lucas Davenport of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and Virgil Flowers, who appears in many of the “Prey” novels centered on Davenport. But Flowers has his own series as well. Some of these are amusing. Deadline is downright funny.
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi—Diabolically clever, and very, very funny
Redshirts is the most diabolically clever science fiction novel I’ve read in a very long time. It’s also uproariously funny all the way up until . . . it’s not funny anymore, just brilliant. No wonder this book won the Hugo Award, the genre’s top prize. In his Acknowledgments, author John Scalzi goes out of his way to insist that Redshirtsis not based on Stargate: Universe, the short-lived TV sci-fi series for which he served as creative consultant. Funny: I didn’t detect any resemblance to any TV sci-fi series except the original Star Trek. That resemblance is unmistakable. Even if it was unintentional on the author’s part (which I seriously doubt). Scalzi himself is diabolically clever.
Missionary Stew by Ross Thomas—Cocaine, the CIA, and a Central American revolution
Start with a hapless French-American journalist imprisoned by the Emperor-President of a small African country. The Emperor is a cannibal, which is admittedly worrisome, but the journalist is rescued by Amnesty International and returned to the United States. He’s penniless but makes his way to Los Angeles. There, he stumbles into a convoluted series of events involving the 1984 Presidential election, cocaine, the CIA, and a revolution in Central America. This is Ross Thomas at his funniest.
Get Real by Donald E. Westlake—Dortmunder’s last caper, funny to the end
Dortmunder’s gang is approached by a reality-television producer—the company is called Get Real—and asked to carry out a robbery on film, with their faces obscured. This loopy proposition isn’t even the most over-the-top twist in the story—but I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say that the gang’s all here—all the familiar characters in Donald E. Westlake’s long-running, bestselling Dortmunder series. When this motley crew accepts the TV producer’s generous offer to make them the subjects of a new show, additional characters come onto the scene and confusion breaks out. In the end, of course, nothing turns out as planned.
If I’ve omitted some of your favorite funny novels, please let me know. I’m always looking for new books to read, and I’m sure there are a lot more than fifteen funny stories.
If you’re taste runs more toward serious fiction, you might enjoy my reviews of 75 readable and revealing historical novels.