’twas in my youth the works of Tom Sharpe were all the rage, the Wilt books in particular as I recall, but it is only now I have got around to reading them. Perhaps I should have read them when they were in vogue. I can’t help feeling the world of comedic writing has moved on somewhat.
Henry Wilt is our Everyman hero, a teacher at a college of barely higher education, husband to something of a harridan, and father to the quads, four identical female children who, as the book progresses, go from unborn to their teenage years becoming an increasing handful as they do so.
All Wilt wants is a quiet life. Perhaps not as quiet as his wife might like but still, quiet enough. The gift of the gab and a cynical view on society may have made him a pretty decent con man had his temperament been suited to such a career, but instead he finds himself exercising both these qualities in a series of run-ins with the police, innocent but accused of anything from the murder of his wife to terrorist offences.
While not a bad read, (though perhaps I overdid it reading all five back-to-back), I can’t help feeling that the world of comic writing has moved on to better lands since Sharpe started writing, leaving him behind somewhat. The stories rely largely upon farce. No bad thing in itself, but somehow that leads Sharpe to put all his effort into the comedy of the scenarios themselves rather than their delivery. Step back from the book and think about the situation Wilt finds himself in and yes, it’s amusing. However, watch the situation unfold and there’s little humour of worth in the dialogue or any immediate situation being described. You’re unlikely to find yourself embarrassed on the train by a laugh-out-loud moment, though people may detect a grin when you put the book down and think about it.
Worse, Sharpe himself shares Wilt’s cynicism about British society and the world in general, and is inclined to share that cynicism with the reader in passages which lack even the merit of satire. It’s not that he bangs on and on about it, it’s more a criticism on the basis of it being another opportunity lost for comedy.
All in all likeable enough works, then, but hard from this distance to see what my contemporaries found so wonderful about them when they first came out all those years ago. Had I read them then, with comic novels seemingly less developed then than they are today, perhaps I could look back on them with affection but, coming upon them for the first time now, sorry. Their time has been and, if not gone altogether, then at least left these works a little tarnished in their passing.