That afternoon I settled down on a quilt in the back yard, the sun warming my back, and began to read. By the time Jette called me in for supper, I was lost in another world.
The plot of The Code of the Woosters is so convoluted that any attempt at summary is doomed to failure. It is a story of policemen's helmets, antique cow-creamers and temperamental French chefs. There are splenetic magistrates, weak-chinned aristocrats, doe-eyed maidens, and a would-be fascist dictator who designs ladies' underwear. There is theft, burglary, and blackmail. All this is delivered in Bertie Wooster's trademark high narrative style. Rhetorical flourishes rained down on me like a shower of mud. The combined complexities of plot and language made for a confusing but compelling read. By the time Bertie had left London on a mission to help his friend Gussie Fink-Nottle out of a romantic predicament, I was ensnared by the peculiar foreignness of it all. The world I had jumped into was so unrecognizable to me that it might as well have been about the aliens I was so fond of.
By the following afternoon I had finished the book. I put it down, walked thoughtfully around the yard once or twice, and then picked it up again. I turned back to the beginning. Rosa had been right. It was hilarious. The trouble was, I wasn't sure why. A slight fog lingered over matters as I finished the last page, which led me to suspect that I had sailed past large parts of the story without really grasping what was going on. Subsequent readings clarified certain plot points, and I soon stopped worrying about precisely why people behaved in the way they did. Instead I just reveled in the jokes, all those deftly delivered one-liners that I didn't quite understand. Bertie describes Roderick Spode, his nemesis, as having an eye that could open an oyster at sixty paces. I knew that was funny, but I didn't have the faintest idea what it meant.
After three re-reads, I had more or less worked out what was going on. The Code of the Woosters finally dispensed with, I begged my aunt for more. Delighted, Rosa sent me home with my arms piled high with Wodehouse. These were the books that I escaped to during those long Friday evenings on the baseball bleachers. While my brothers were heroically engaged in the quintessential American pastime, I was half a world away, swept up in the misadventures of silly English aristocrats.
I enjoyed all of Wodehouse's creations, but I loved Bertie Wooster the most. I adored his loyalty to his feckless chums, his eloquent, if occasionally baffling, turns of phrase, and his manifest idiocy. Besides, I fancied we had much in common, he and I. In particular, we shared the same suspicion of women. (Bertie's aversion to romantic commitment has often made me wonder whether he, too, had sung in a barbershop quartet while he was up at Oxford.) The books teemed with females, legions of them, and Bertie's entirely sensible attitude was to stay as far away from them as possible. He left the mooning around to his imbecilic male friends, who were forever falling in love. I was grateful that the various romances that drove many of the stories forwards were devoid of the ghastly sentimentality that I had feared when I gazed down at that first cover. Hand-holding and the whispering of sweet nothings were largely conducted off-page. Instead amorous entanglements were more like business transactions. There was good reason for this, of course: in Wodehouse's world, falling in love was about far more than two people sighing sweetly at each other - that was the easy part. Every romance involved a series of knotty negotiations with an army of third parties, usually old and cantankerous family members, who seemed, for reasons that I could never readily fathom, to have the ability to kill the affair stone dead. It was years before it dawned on me that having two people simply fall in love just isn't very funny. I wasn't sure whether to be comforted or saddened by the news.
Excerpted from A Good American by Rose George. Copyright © 2012 by Rose George. Excerpted by permission of Amy Einhorn Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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