FICTION: A young woman from Minnesota dreams of becoming a stand-up comic in Hollywood.
A good comic needs to be acquainted with the anatomy of human emotions, and this means not just knowing how to find and tickle the funny bone but how to locate and pull the heartstrings. In her novel about a Minnesota woman in pursuit of a career as a stand-up comic in Hollywood, Lorna Landvik proves that she can do both. Drawing on her own experience as a comic and sometime-resident of the same quirky Hollywood building in which she places her protagonist, Landvik delivers an account that feels so real it reads like a memoir.
The “star” of “Best to Laugh,” Candy Pekkala, is told that she will become one by the clairvoyant Miss Pepper, a fortune teller long favored by celebrities. This psychic is just one of the book’s eccentrics; others include a female bodybuilder, a lovelorn younger man and a punk star and his buttoned-up father.
Candy owes her existence to an accident. As a young soldier in Korea, her father knocked a young woman off her feet in a bicycle accident, and the woman picked herself up and made him laugh by miming him. This led to love, marriage and a child who was to become very much her mother’s daughter, able to turn most of life’s downs into ups through laughter.
But it takes time for Candy to master this, and that is what gives this book its poignancy and punch. As Candy puts it, “No one steps up to life’s banquet, holds out her tray, and orders, ‘Grief, please!’ but as a child I was served a heaping helping of it.” That’s because her mother dies of a burst appendix when Candy is just 5 years old. But not before she delivers the words that Candy will live by: “Best to laugh.”
Left with a dad so bereft at his wife’s loss that he becomes an “emotional Scrooge,” facing teasing about being of mixed race and feeling only partly buoyed by a spunky grandmother, Candy reaches a real low point before she leaves the Heartland to throw her heart into the Hollywood experience. There, she sublets a flat in an apartment complex called Peyton Hall, which once was pied-à-terre to the likes of Clark Gable. The place has seen better days, but probably not better characters than those who reside there along with Candy. They all support one another’s dreams, so that Candy’s story of rising in the comedy world becomes the chief, but not the only, story that readers will rejoice in.
Overall, the book reads like a romp, but along the way, Landvik demonstrates the keen timing of a comic in delivering not just funny one-liners but moments so poignant they draw tears. As do the best of comics, Landvik knows how to use telling detail to the best advantage, whether spotlighting a face in a locket, the tailoring of a suit, the taste of one of Candy’s cakes or the turn of an accented phrase. And therein lies the sense that “Best to Laugh” recounts real — poignant and laugh-out-loud funny — experience.
Rosemary Herbert is a longtime literary critic and the author of “Front Page Teaser: A Liz Higgins Mystery.”