“Like blurbs, an author’s choice of title is very important… Take Gravity’s Rainbow. That is a terrific title. Why? Because it tells you what the book is about.”
Those words, written by aspiring author Rhon Penny (silent h) in an audacious solicitation letter to novelist Thomas Pynchon, are obviously not true. But coming from Penny, a man who insinuates himself into the lives and careers of authors to whom he considers himself an equal, the statement is typical. Rhon is one of the many blithely delusional protagonists in Mike Sacks’ new humor collection, Your Wildest Dreams Within Reason, out today from Tin House Books. So much so that the fellow on the book’s cover could easily be Penny himself, and the title very much tells you what Penny and many of the other schlemiels of Sacks’ imagining are about. Like in the cover photograph, Sacks, author of And Here’s The Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top Humor Writers on Their Craft and co-author of Sex: Our Bodies, Our Junk, gets every detail right in his humorous shorts. The creases and puckers in the ill-fitting, off-the-rack Captain America costume tell the story of a man occupying a space where his wildest dreams collide with the real world. His body is almost too average, and though he may think himself super, he lives in a condo and will probably redeem the pizza coupon peaking out of his mailbox.
The introduction to Your Wildest Dreams, besides noting where the book’s pieces were originally published (The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, McSweeney’s, Esquire, Vice) and crediting the author’s collaborators (Todd Levin, Scott Jacobson, Jason Roeder, Ted Travelstead, Bob Powers, Scott Rothman, Will Tracey, and Teddy Wayne), warns readers that “the vast majority of these short humor pieces… have absolutely nothing to do with each other. There is no overarching theme, no recurring characters, nothing that links one piece to the next.” I’d argue to the contrary. Though the warning probably ameliorated some apprehension on the part of the book’s publishers, it serves little purpose to the reader who, after completing the book’s first few pieces, will no doubt sense an emerging theme. We all submit to private rebellions now and again, allowing ourselves to inhabit our own minds for a little too long, but Sacks’ characters surrender themselves shamelessly to flights of fancy.
In the book’s opener, “Whoops!”, an office temp accidentally sends an email to ALL STAFF detailing — and depicting in photographs — the imaginary kingdom he’s created for his coworkers. Cringeworthy, right? But feasible enough. The humor in the piece arises not from this odd, but forgivable enough mishap, but from the temp’s utter incomprehension of what he’s done wrong. If anything, he feels put upon by the ire of his peers (“Wow. Today just ain’t my day.”) and is so unperturbed by his own snafu he tries to continue business as usual (“By the way, anyone have the forms for the Milner project? I really need them by this afternoon. Thanks!”). Needless to say, his employment doesn’t extend to the afternoon. Because this is a one-sided epistolary tale, we can only piece together from a hilarious progression of email subject lines what his coworkers have to say.
In similar middle-brow comedies of manners, Mike Sacks creates characters who do terrible things with no consideration for the feelings of others, yet dare you not to love and laugh at them. Among the those garnering our chuckles and reluctant sympathy are a mélange of men in relationships who can only communicate with their partners via proxy: argument mediating clowns-for-hire in “Krazy Kris!”, outsourced Lotharios from India with wildly incongruous frames of reference in “Outsourcing My Love,” the obvious in “Geoff Sarkin is Using Twitter,” and sadly and sweetly intricate internet abbreviations which quickly progress from a way for a husband to eke out some intimacy with his wife to little less than guided sexual meditation in “Hey Babe.” These guys are the types who were probably interesting fifteen years ago, but have fallen into routines so insipid their shared wildest dream is literally just to take a step away from it all.
Sacks doesn’t forget to indict the latent absurdity in all of us, accomplishing what the best of Richard Yates’ writing (that’s “Dick Yates” to Rhon Penny) does so well. Your Wildest Dreams realizes that many of us are bound by roles we detest and exploits that fact for laughs. Whenever I realize I’m journaling in a self-conscious maybe-one-day-someone-will-find-and-publish-this-thing way, I immediately feel silly and ashamed. I was both relieved to find that I wasn’t alone in “Some Fabrications to Insert into a Personal Diary” and doubly embarrassed that my secret was enough of a phenomenon to document. And according to “Reasons You’re Still Single,” my habit of shouting out game show answers has rendered me undateable. In “Arse Poetica,” “Everyday Tantric Positions,” and the standout pieces “My Parents, Enid and Sal, Used To Be Porn Stars” and “Rules for My Cuddle Party,” unassuming folks react just as you probably would — awkwardly, hilariously — to being thrust into hypersexual situations. These characters aren’t so different from the rest of us, but luckily we can read about and laugh at their mishaps safely from the other side of the looking glass.
Though certain themes are pervasive, Mike Sacks is far from a one trick pony. There are lines in this book so inexplicably funny, I wouldn’t dare try to impose any logic upon their mechanics. From a Rhon Penny letter comes this gem: “I know that you, like me, are a very busy and serious man, so I don’t intend to waste our times.” Emphasis mine. Efficient and time-saving? Yes. Ridiculous? Even more so. I was equally tickled by celebrity gossip blogs’ references to Taylors Lautner and Swift. Something about weird pluralization just does it for me! And in a single book, Sacks manages to casually allude to numerous philosophers and “high-fallutin’” authors and credibly pull-off the occasional poop joke. (“Happiness isn’t… a tattoo of Yosemite Sam next to your anus screaming ‘Come on out of your hole, varmint!’”) The exception proves the rule in “Shaft in the Suburbs.” Instead of a small character in a big mess, the larger than life Shaft — complete with 70s jive dialect — finds himself trapped in the domesticity of suburban life and concerned with mundane things like dry cleaning, lawn care, and in-laws.
If only we were all as free as Mike Sacks’ characters to behave sovereign of social norms! Of course, many of those characters break from their insular circles of obligation only to be met with disastrous ends. So it’s probably better that we buy Sacks’ book instead of making fools of ourselves.
Is Becca O’Neal a Chicago-based freelance writer? Because her mom is kind of worried.