The Joyous Season by Patrick Dennis
originally published 1964
Green Mansion Press, 1st printing, 2002
Genre: Literary fiction, humor
Synopsis & Review: Daddy always said that Christmas is a joyous season when suicides and hold-ups and shoplifting and like that reach a new high and that the best place to spend the whole thing is a Moslem country.
Nearly-eleven-year-old Kerry (“which is short for Kerrington, for cripes sake, spelled with a K and an E and not with a C and an A”) and his little sister Missy have been shipped off from their Manhattan home to spend the summer with their Gran in East Haddock (“Boresville, USA”). The reason for their exile is their parents’ divorce, and event Kerry describes in great detail. It all begins on Christmas Day, when Kerry and Missy accidentally wake up their parents while trying out Missy’s new Martian Outer Space Gun. Only Daddy thinks there’s a burglar in the apartment, and bursts in on them with a loaded gun. Then their Uncle HA regifts an ancient chemistry set to Kerry, and while those stale chemicals cook, grandmothers Gran and Ga-ga show up with some of the worst presents ever, and Mom finds out that daddy never mailed the two hundred Christmas cards she addressed by hand. When the chemistry set explodes in Kerry’s bedroom, tempers do too, and HA is the recipient of a shiner from Daddy–and then Mom throws Daddy out.
Over the next six months, Kerry observes (and eavesdrops) as Mommy is wooed by her divorce lawyer, the staid Sam Reynolds, and daddy pursued by chic fashion editor Dorian Glen. Caught between their parents and their families, Kerry and Missy carry through the mess with aplomb.
I love Auntie Mame. Love it. Adore it. I grew up watching it and wanting to be just like Mame Dennis. I finally read Patrick Dennis’ novel Auntie Mame in intermediate school (not having realized that it was based on a novel for some time), and thought it hilarious. And I must say, it baffles me that I never noticed that Patrick Dennis had written not just a few, but several other novels (did you know that he’s the only writer to have three books on the New York Times bestseller list simultaneously?). How does such a travesty happen? I am mystified, and more than a little hurt.
Dennis’ The Joyous Season satirizes New York upper class manners (and those who ape them), mercilessly lampooning various characters through Kerry’s observation of the adults around him. Kerry is a fantastic child character, never inauthentic or a simple mouthpiece for the author’s views, but a bright, amusing personality in his own right. At times he reminded me of a much younger (and happier with himself) Holden Caulfield, perhaps due to the New York setting as much as with his style of speech (and as far as I know, the Catcher in the Rye does accurately reflect contemporary colloquial speech); he has a rapid-fire patter that keeps the novel moving at a lively pace, caused by his admitted propensity to word vomit all over the place: “you’ve got to excuse me if I keep running off at the mouth”. (I’m especially fond of Kerry’s malapropisms.) But Kerry is a very different bird, comfortable with himself and not yet plagued by adolescent insecurities, though he does get a kick out of tormenting the shrink his school insists on sending him to during the divorce proceedings. He’s a sensible child, polite, and cable of appreciating good manners from sham and ersatz gentility. Kerry is very fond of his little sister Missy, a six-year-old firecracker who Kerry protectively tries to steer through the rocky waters of the adult world. Their sometimes antagonistic, but more often affectionate relationship provides a consistent emotional stratum that overlays the familial bond between the parents and their children that is all too often almost hidden beneath the messiness of divorce.
Though the story of divorce and its effects on a pair of children could be terribly depressing, in Patrick Dennis’ hands it is anything but. The Joyous Season is a frothy, festive champagne punch of a novel, delightfully witty and effervescent, and occasionally bittersweet. His style is giddily satirical, but his observations are acute as he neatly skewers venal social climbers and self-important grandees alike. He also never fails to lampoon pop culture, from quack psychiatry to sex, television to fashion, which is itself an enjoyable exploration of late Fifties and early Sixties contemporary culture. Every bit as perceptive as Updike, but also as funny as Wodehouse or Wilde, Patrick Dennis is a treasure not to be missed.
Always funny, sometimes bittersweet, The Joyous Season gets my highest recommendation as both a holiday or anytime read.It’s light, dizzy entertainment, and sparkling, exhilarating silliness at its best. This was also one of my Holiday Reading Challenge reads!
Read also: Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis, Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Christmas on the Rocks by David Sedaris, Laughing Gas or The Man With Two Left Feet by P.G. Wodehouse
Cover: A large green Christmas ball ornament, cracked, on a background of varying reds. Very eye-catching.
Well, anyway, Dr. Epston’s consulting room is small and dim with a couch to lie on; two easy chairs; Kleenex, for crying into, I guess; a desk and a bookshelf with about a million copies of Tensions in the metropolitan Adolescent by I. Lorenz Epston. I guess it wasn’t exactly what they call a best seller, but he’s getting rid of the supply bit by bit by making each patient’s family buy a copy (at ten bucks a throw). there are also some pictures on the wall that look like Missy painted them and a framed photograph of Dr. Epston’s three daughters. One is int he upper school at Dalton, one goes to Rudolf Steiner and the littlest one is in the School for Nursery Years–if that gives you some idea of what kind of kids he’s got. They also look like Eskimos. In fact, Dr. Epston’s first question was always, “What are you thinking about right now?” And my answer was always “Eskimo.” But when he’d ask me why, I just couldn’t tell him, because even if he is kind of a boob, I didn’t want to hurt the poor guy’s feelings. So I’d hem and haw and talk about igloos and blubber and wasn’t it interesting that the French spelled Eskimos Esquimeaux and like that. So I always got kind of a demerit for being what Dr. Epston called “evasive” (when I was only trying to be polite) and at the end of the first week Mom sent off to Wakefield-Young Books for copies of Nanook of the North and Inyuk and some other suitable reading about the North Pole, when I didn’t care much one way or another.
26 November – 27 November