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My 10 Favorite Dark Comic Novels

June 03, 2014
My love of dark comedy started at a very young age – likely ignited by watching my two older brothers punch one another in the face. Funny stuff. As I grew up, I’d often find myself laughing in places and at things that typically disturb more well-adjusted people. Hospitals. Funerals. Public education.

After I learned to read… correction… after I learned to LIKE to read – which didn’t happen until after college – it’s hardly surprising that I found myself drawn to books brimming with black humor. I’d even laugh while reading books that were dark but not at all intended to be funny. For instance, I found Dostoyevsky’s Notes From Underground to be a riot. And Kafka’s The Trial made me almost pee my pants.

There’s a fine line between humor and horror, laughing and lamenting, funny and frightening.

Following are my 10 favorite dark comic novels, along with my two favorite lines from each: 

1) Fight Club (by Chuck Palahniuk)
A stunningly original tale of a young corporate insomniac whose life changes completely after befriending an enigmatic soap salesman who hosts underground fighting matches in bar basements. You’ve seen the movie – it’s good. Read the book (if you haven’t already) – it’s brilliant. Just don’t talk about it – that’s the first rule… and the second rule. I just broke both.

Favorite lines
“At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.”

“On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.”

2) Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov)
As haunting and perverse as it is hilarious and tender, this was the first book that had me fully rooting for a character who, if I ever met in person, I would punch in the face before reporting him to the authorities.   

Favorite lines
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.”

“I knew I had fallen in love with Lolita forever; but I also knew she would not be forever Lolita.”  

3) White Noise (by Don DeLillo)
White Noise is (mostly) about an “airborne toxic event” that forces a college professor and his family – along with the rest of his idyllic town – to evacuate and cope with the chaotic aftermath. Myself having experienced first hand the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1978 (my elementary school class was on a field trip in Harrisburg, Pa., that day), this grim yet funny book really hit home. Yes, I’m allowed to write run-on sentences about books that moved me.

Favorite lines
“I've got death inside me. It's just a question of whether or not I can outlive it.”

“California deserves whatever it gets. Californians invented the concept of life-style. This alone warrants their doom.”

4) Survivor (by Chuck Palahniuk)
A book featuring a death cult, an imminent plane crash, and lots of steroids and collagen – how could it NOT be funny? It’s a brazen piss-take of fame, organized religion and just modern life in general. The chapters and pages are numbered backwards – beginning with Chapter 47 on page 289 and ending with page 1 of Chapter 1. Mr. Palahniuk is a madman. I want his autograph.  
Favorite lines
“It's only in drugs or death we'll see anything new, and death is just too controlling.”

“People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.”

5) Slaughterhouse-Five (by Kurt Vonnegut)

Any one of Vonnegut’s novels are deserving of a spot here, but I went with Slaughterhouse-Five because Wikipedia told me it is his most influential and popular work, and I don’t question Wikipedia. The book is a combination World War II satire and absurdist sci-fi time-travel tale that leaves you laughing and crying simultaneously, assuming you are alive when reading it. It’s also Vonnegut’s most personal book: It centers on an actual historic event that he himself lived through as a soldier – the infamous firebombing of Dresden.

Favorite lines
“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.”

“How nice -- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.”

6) American Psycho (by Bret Easton Ellis)
Readers should be arrested and locked away for enjoying this sick, twisted and unflinchingly violent novel. But that will never happen, as there simply isn’t enough space in the world’s prisons to accommodate everyone. Whatever you do, DON’T read it. But do.

Favorite lines
“I'm into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends.”

“Disintegration – I'm taking it in stride.”

7) Catch-22 (by Joseph Heller)
Hands down the funniest novel about war ever written – and one of the funniest novels period. At the heart of the book is an American bombardier named John Yossarian, who, along with his fellow airmen, are forced to continue flying an ever-increasing number of perilous missions assigned by their callous colonel. That such comedy can come from such terror and chaos is fascinating. And confusing. I need to go lie down now.  

Favorite lines
“Be glad you're even alive. Be furious you're going to die.”

“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.”

8) Rant (by Chuck Palahniuk)
No, Chuck Palahniuk’s publicist is not paying me anything. I realize that featuring in my list three books from a single author is a bit much, but Mr. Palahniuk is a modern master of dark comic fiction, and if you disagree, I’ll fight you in a bar basement. Rant tells the story of Rant Casey – a small-town high school rebel with a thing for getting bitten by rabid and poisonous creatures, destroying things during urban demolition derbies, and killing lots and lots of people. I believe it’s ranked dead last on the list of “Quaintest Books Ever Written.” You’ll laugh and have nightmares – often simultaneously.

Favorite lines
“In a world where billions believe their deity conceived a mortal child with a virgin human, it's stunning how little imagination most people display.”

“What if reality is nothing but some disease?”

9) Hope: A Tragedy (by Shalom Auslander)
You’ve probably never heard of this novel (or this author), but any book that features Anne Frank as one of its main characters AND makes you laugh out loud on every page is certainly deserving of a spot on this list. (By the way, in this tale, Ms. Frank survived the Holocaust and is living in the attic of a modern-day family’s farmhouse in rural New York.) Hope constantly shifts gears between uproarious and touching, irreverent and heroic. I actually applauded when I finished reading the last page. And then I apologized to my copy of The Diary of Anne Frank. 

Favorite lines
“It’s a lot easier to stay alive in this world if everyone thinks you’re dead.”

“Hiding from genocide inside a Jew's attic… is like hiding from a lion inside a gazelle.”

10) The Exit Man (by Greg Levin)
I know, I’m just as surprised as you are to find my own upcoming book listed among some of the greatest dark comic novels ever written. My parents must be very proud. In case you didn’t already know it, The Exit Man tells the story of a party supply storeowner who leads a secret double life as a euthanasia specialist. Think Dexter meets Dr. Kevorkian.

Favorite lines
“Suicide should come with a warning label: ‘Don’t try this alone.’”

“After a year or so of helping people die, I was really starting to reach my full potential as a person.”  

[UPDATE: Those of you who are itching to buy The Exit Man (Mom, Dad), I’m afraid you’ll have to wait just a little longer than expected. While the book is 100% written and edited, there have been some slight delays in the production process. So, instead of a late spring release, we’re looking at an early summer one. Sorry to keep you hanging, but I promise it will be worth the wait!]  


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