When it comes to literature, the word southern practically begs for the follow-up gothic. A certain set of tropes spring to mind when you mention the South: alligators and frosted julep cups, hypocritical preachers and Civil War widows, decaying mansions and petit fours. With all the antebellum remnants to contend with, you don't expect anyone to be very funny.
But what I found when I worked on my book South Toward Home was that, too often, people are missing the humor in southern literature, the comic asides in the tales of deep-fried grotesque. Just listen to Flannery O'Connor read "A Good Man Is Hard To Find," and you can hear the jokes—though they are, admittedly, embedded in the story of an escaped convict's homicidal spree. Southern fiction is actually full of odd, wry comedy. The flip side to all that haunted, gothic literature is the wealth of dark humor and slapstick to be found below the Mason-Dixon Line.
How does one end up living at the post office? Not entirely clear, but it seems to involve an uncle on prescription medication parading around in a kimono, a child who's a clone of Shirley Temple, and a lot of family infighting, over facial-hair maintenance, among other things. Told by the imperious, indignant Sister, Welty's story reads like that of a slightly unhinged small-town gossip recalling a social injustice over a glass of wine.
"Being Southern will just kill you sometimes," Barry Hannah once told Wells Tower in The Believer. "Sometimes it means, don't bother because it's gonna be [sings a lick from dueling banjos]. . . . There's a canned dream of the South that a lot of people get into, and I've resisted that stuff my entire so-called career." Much of Hannah's work undercuts all that banjo and porch stuff with a current of dark, often violent humor. In Geronimo Rex, one character's voice is "as thin as an ill-poached egg thrown against the treble strings of a harp"; another character bludgeons someone with a euphonium (picture a small tuba). It's not so much a stand-up routine as a fever dream, but one that's full of Hannah's explosive wit.
Novelist James Wilcox set many of his books in the small, fictional town of Tula Springs, Louisiana, and Modern Baptists, his debut, is perhaps the funniest. It's a record of the many indignities suffered by Bobby Pickens, a comb-over-sporting assistant manager at the Bonny Boy Bargain Store, whose ex-con brother moves in with him. Pickens is a kind of southern suburban Michael Scott, constantly teetering on the edge of social disaster. This is awkward humor at its finest, published decades before the rise of the sitcom mockumentary.
As a humor columnist for the Oxford American, Key once chronicled a ride from Jackson, Mississippi to West Yellowstone, Montana by Greyhound, or, as he put it, "the world's fastest portable toilet." That Plimptonian spirit of adventure is evident in his absorbing memoir, The World's Largest Man, an account of Key's childhood. The heart of the book is about his father, who taught Key "how to fight and work and cheat and pray to Jesus about it, how to kill things with guns and knives and, if necessary, with hammers," and who had "the emotional tenderness of a Soviet farm tractor."
"I am at the moment writing a lengthy indictment against our century," proclaims the indelibly buffoonish main character in A Confederacy of Dunces, Ignatius J. Reilly. "When my brain begins to reel from my literary labors, I make an occasional cheese dip." Toole's posthumously published novel is perhaps the best-known instance of southern comedy, a romp around New Orleans seen through the eyes of the overbearing, pompous Reilly, who grudgingly works a series of odd jobs at the behest of his put-upon mother, Irene. He provides a snarky running commentary on the denizens of the Crescent City ("a comfortable metropolis which has a certain apathy and stagnation which I find inoffensive"), eats a good deal of his own wares as a hotdog salesman, and attempts to foment rebellion at a pants factory.
Margaret Eby is the author of South Toward Home: Travels in Southern Literature, out now from Norton. You can read more of her work at margareteby.com.