Reading: Mike and Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse

Picture me in 1981, a geeky 13, sitting in front of my dad’s big boom-box stereo, stack of cassette tapes nearby, along with my self-constructed lightsaber and my Kenner X-Wing, all ready to listen to the very first episode of the Star Wars radio series on NPR. I’m a little less than 30 minutes early, because, back in the good old days, we didn’t have the Internet where we could just download things to steal them, we had to actually do the work of recording the analog signal to steal them.

So I’m sitting there, thirty minutes early, and a remarkable thing happens. My local NPR station is playing another radio drama before Star Wars. Something about aliens and poetry and towels that’s filled with a politely ironic kind of humor with no sense of scale that I will later discover is unique to the British mind. This is how I discovered Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy , and also how I discovered that there was something about British humour that interacted quite positively with my brainwave patterns, and would later lead to a life of ignoring the 275 million other channels on my cable for BBC America.

Now, I know a LOT of people out there love the Hitchhikers series. Even depsite the miserable movie. (Can someone please invent a time machine, take the movie back in time, and show it to Douglas Adams so he will sit down and actually write and produce a proper movie before he dies?) I know quite a few million people also like Terry Pratchett, whose wonderful Discworld books do for fantasy and sword and sorcery what Adams’ books did for science fiction. But how many of you out there realize that their senses of humour were actually formed by yet another wonderful British writer, P.G. Wodehouse?

I’ve read interview with both Adams and Pratchett where they mentioned being influenced by Wodehouse, but I never really checked out his work. I mean, I already had the chocolate lava cake and the frozen yogurt…why would I need to seek out the sugar cookies, too. (Hmmmm…perhaps that should be sugar ‘biscuits’, since we’re being British.) I mean, Wodehouse isn’t even a fantasy or sci fi author either?

And then, there I was, in the mildewy, Dave Barry infested, humor section of my local used bookstore, when my eyes locked with a tall stack of slim volumes by none other than P.G. Wodehouse. I flipped through the stack looking at the titles, confronted by alien and yet somehow familiar words and phrases like “What Ho”, “Barmy”, and “Crumpets”. The words worked their peculiar magic on my alpha waves, and I purchased the stack, and I have been ecstatically reading them whenever I needed a good, pick-me-up of a book ever since.

Lots of people are probably familiar with the Jeeves and Wooster stories, about a foppish young member of the elite and his brilliant but humble servant. Especially since the pair were ably played in the BBC TV series by Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry. Lesser known is a series of stories about a character named Psmith. I just finished reading the first of these, Mike and Psmith.

Mike and Psmith is essentially the pre-cursor of ever school drama ever written. You know what I’m talking about — things like Real Genius or Better Off Dead, humorous tales about outcasts forced to find a way to live in a school they don’t feel at home in. In this case, the outcast in Mike, who only really wants to play cricket. His grades have suffered and his father packs him off to a school where cricket isn’t that important, so he can focus on academics. There, he meets Psmith. Whose real name is Smith, but that seemed too common, so he added a ‘P’, which is, in fact, silent, just like in ‘pshrimps’. Like Ford Prefect of the Hitchhiker’s books, Psmith is the slightly out of touch character who has an amazing talent of verbal persuasion, confusing people into getting him what he wants while he lounges in deck chairs. While the central focus of Mike and Psmith is on Mike learning to fit in and be himself, Psmith is that great character that you’re really reading the book for. Wodehouse seems to have figured that out, as, from what I’ve read, other books in this series focus much more on Psmith.

Mike and Psmith is a great read, and contains one of my favorite quotes in a Wodehouse novel:

“…he had confused the unusual with the impossible, and the result was that he was taken by surprise.”

You can download Mike and Psmith free from Project Gutenberg.

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