Puns are bottomless. Comedian Steve Allen used to collect the so-called best and publish them in books, but he knew he could never have the definitive collection, because they just kept coming. At the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s, the best and the brightest vied to outdo each other, for about ten years. Given a word, they had to employ it in a sentence. From this came such deathless utterances as: We wish you a meretricious and a happy new year. Now, there is a small non-chain of pun events all over the USA, where people pay to be tortured by contestants who fly in from around the world. It’s the new millennium.
Away With Words follows the punning of a cadre of New Yorkers on this non-circuit. They work out locally, and make the road trip to Austin where the oldest US event is their World Series of punning. The book reads like a television reality show. It progresses chronologically, episode after episode, has the same setbacks and euphoric moments, the same angst and second-guessing, and culminates in Oz. It is mostly background, mostly detail, mostly description, with several bouts of thick action interspersed. You get to know the contestants, possibly more than you wanted to, just like reality tv, and you get to read endless puns.
Two things about the puns. Because these are performance contests, they are intense personal efforts, not simply tossed off, unexpected witticisms in conversation. Sometimes they are too intense. Be prepared to read a pun and not get it. (A lot of it has to do with delivery and timing, and books are not the best medium for that.) Sometimes the contestants actually have to explain the pun to the judges or the audience, which is a real buzz-kill. The other thing is what Joe Berkowitz correctly calls pun fatigue. Twenty puns in a row on the same topic can be, can I say – punishing.
Berkowitz learns the ins and outs, eventually moving up a notch in the hierarchy of winners. He has entered a tiny universe unknown to most mortals, and like its television equivalents, this show is an education in how this microuniverse works, warts and all. The bottom line appears to be that standup comics or people who use mental dexterity in what they do and how they live make for naturally performing punsters. They are more observant, and quicker with associations. They have honed attitudes and timing that can lift a bad pun into a shriek of laughter. So it’s not necessarily something just anyone can take up and succeed with. Fortunately.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.