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Surviving Sting by Paul McDonald: A Book Review
The Man Himself
Mild mannered lecturer at the University of Wolverhampton by day and presumably equally mild mannered writer by night (or weekend, or whenever he has time), Dr Paul McDonald is an established comic author from the town of Walsall in the West Midlands.
He is well respected for his work on comedy and he is credited with having discovered the world’s oldest joke (a fart gag- some things never change), but don’t worry, the humour in Surviving Sting doesn’t carry 4,000 years of baggage with it.
In addition to Surviving Sting his published works include two other novels, Kiss Me Softly, Amy Turtle and Do I Love You?, three collections of poetry (both comedic and romantic), and The Philosophy of Humour, a look at the driving forces and themes common in humour throughout history. He is also the editor of two collections of short stories Loffing Matter, and The Tipping Point and numerous academic critiques of writers including Philip Roth and great novels including Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (incidentally both great books which I would put on the list of books to read before you die).
His eminence as an expert on comedy has seen him appear on several television shows discussing comedy, most recently the documentary Michael Grade & The World’s Oldest Joke discussing, as the sharpest among you have probably guessed, the world’s oldest joke (n.b for those of you interested the joke will be printed at the end of this review).
Paul is often remembered by his students for his wicked sense of humour but just as often his students remember him for his habit of making fart noises with his hands during lectures.
Set in Walsall in 1979 is the story of around a week in the life of Dave ‘Mac’ McVane, trainee saddle-maker (a traditional industry of Walsall) as he takes the prestigious step to piece-work in the Happy Stallion.
The novel starts in a disco as Dave finally manages to kop off with the girl of his pubescent dreams. Joolz lives on the nightmarish Jerome K. Jerome estate (named after the comic author of Three Men in a Boat and it is perhaps a gentle nudge to the authorities in Walsall to honour one of their own). The JKJ estate is like the literary equivalent of Shameless, full of a gentle blend of ne’er-do-wells, uncontrollable kids and the slightly insane family of Joolz, including her brother Billy-Bob and his pet scorpion Sting. Joolz is the woman of Dave’s dreams and in a way is representative of every teenage fantasy where the woman are beautiful, strong, promiscuous and ever so slightly scary.
From this bright starting point Dave ‘Mac’ McVane experiences a wild week of sex, mishaps, terror and tragedy as he enjoys a wild relationship with Joolz, complicated by her ex-boyfriends, a large cast including one of Dave’s best friends the pretentious Brainy Kev, and the psychopathic Tezza. Add to the mix a boy named Sue, a Ford Capri with a matt finish and a duffel-coat toggle that gets stuffed up a nose and you have all the ingredients for a frenetic, touching and at times farcical comedy set in the “ugliest town in the country” (I think that is an exaggeration- there is a lovely arboretum in Walsall).
Surviving Sting works on numerous levels as mysterious and seemingly random acts of vandalism and violence coalesce around Dave and his family. The comedy is often farcical and at times abrasive but it is effectively done and I found a small titter audibly escaping on several occasions as the first person narrative of Dave allows us to see his youthful outlook as it switches from cynical to hopelessly naïve. The dual nature of Dave - perfect for a young man – enables the reader to both laugh with him when he makes cynical observations or laugh at him when he is naïve or hopelessy out of his depth (as he frequently is in his dealings with Joolz). Dave is a generally likeable protagonist even when acting less than honourably- perhaps because we get to see his conscience at work.
How Joolz Might Look
While there is an interesting and varied cast throughout the only other character I want to spend time with during this review is Joolz.
As I mentioned earlier she is a teenage boy’s fantasy. She is beautiful and strong and promiscuous. She appears to be in control during all situations (particularly during the first half of the novel) and it is tempting to see her as a semi-feminist icon, but there is something broken about Joolz. She cannot be truly feminist because there is a part of her that is reliant on the men in her life (ergo the promiscuity) and while she has found ways to control almost all of the men this flaw makes Joolz infinitely more relatable and interesting than she would be if she was merely a two dimensional fantasy figure. She is perhaps how a Jane Austen heroine would appear if written in twenty first century Walsall.
The comedic feel and the fast pace of Surviving Sting hides a deeper and more rewarding side of the story. At its heart this is a coming of age novel- it tells the story of Dave ‘Mac’ McVane’s transition from a young adult into a young man as he takes responsibility for himself and his future beyond the childish notions of looking after next weekend. Given the similarities’ it is very difficult not to read Dave McVane as at least partly autobiographical. Like Dave, Paul McDonald was also bought up in Walsall and also worked as a saddle maker before he made the decision to improve his life and it is easy to see Dave as the author looking back with a subtle blend of nostalgia and criticism at his own younger life - although the scenes themselves may not come directly from the authors life (I suspect the amount of sex may be a little bit of wistful thinking).
This is my first book review so I should explain I do not believe that a grading system is the best way of rating a novel but if I was to employ a thumbs up system I would need to grow new hands to express my approval for Surviving Sting.
A thoroughly enjoyable read which is funny, touching and surprising. Highly recommended.
Paul McDonald Tells The Worlds Oldest Joke
The World’s Oldest Joke
I bet you thought I had forgotten my promise to bring to you the world’s oldest joke as discovered by Dr Paul McDonald, but first a little bit about the search (patience…good things come to those that wait 4,000 years).
The research was commissioned by UK cable television channel Dave and a Paul McDonald can be seen talking about the research here.
Dr McDonald and his research team found the joke by scouring the oldest texts they could find for any references that matched the agreed criteria for what constitutes a joke (I am afraid that is a discussion for another day, or perhaps you could read another of Dr McDonalds books The Philosophy of Humour). They managed to find a number of examples including the oldest Anglo-Saxon joke: "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Answer: A key." A fine example of the misleading one-liner that is still prevalent in today's stand up comedy.
But you didn’t read this far to be reading jokes barely passed their thousandth birthday, you want the world’s oldest joke. So without further ado, straight from ancient Sumeria (what is now southern Iraq) here is the world’s oldest joke.
"Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband's lap."