April Fool’s Jokes, All in the Family

Fool -

photo: Andrea Mann, creative commons license

Whew! Survived April Fool’s Day without making an idiot of myself. Here are a few of my family’s notable pranks that make me a teensy bit nervous as April first approaches.

Dream Job: Restaurant Reviewer

Our local newspaper once had a truly awful restaurant reviewer. Her reviews would go something like this: “My associate taster and I decided to try C— U——- for lunch. We started with two delicious Black Russians. The garlic mashed potatoes that arrived with our main course were spectacular, . . . etc.” I guess after a couple of lunchtime Black Russians, garlic mashed potatoes were a food she could confidently identify.

This reviewer needed a new associate taster. I’m a pretty good cook with a lot of interest in food, and my family told me they put my name in. When I received a handwritten letter saying she’d selected me, I was thrilled!! Before I called to thank her, they had the wit to remind me it was April 1.

“We need the money now!”

When our daughter Alix was about twelve, we were staying in a Naples, Florida, beachfront hotel, along with her grandparents. She was sleeping in, and all the adults were out, presumably at the beach or breakfast. Pounding on the hotel door awakened her. Two burly guys from hotel security announced that our credit card hadn’t worked and they needed an alternative form of payment immediately.

This sleepy little voice said “My dad . . .” “We don’t care about your dad; we need the money now!” “But I don’t have any money . . .” She glanced around the empty room and missed seeing her parents and grandparents peeking through the adjoining room’s door. “You have to pay us!” “But . . .” The police were mentioned.

Finally, the guys couldn’t stand it any longer and started laughing. As did we. She didn’t speak to any of us the rest of the day. The security team, though, received a nice tip.

A Mom Wises Up

Then Alix grew up, married, and lives several states away. About seven months after the wedding, my husband came into my home office and said, “Did you see Alix’s email? She’s pregnant!” “Forget about it,” I said, inured to their tricks. “It’s April Fool’s Day.” “Oh, right. I’ll send a reply saying how excited we are.”

The next day we received a FedEx package with the sonogram. An April Fool’s double-cross if there ever was one!

Charles Baxter’s Careful Touch


(photo: Paško Tomić, Creative Commons license)

Tin House’s blog, The Open Bar, recently published a wide-ranging interview with Charles Baxter, touching on such writers’ dilemmas as including humor, narrative voice, and creating resonance. Baxter has written five novels and five short story collections and teaches at the University of Minnesota. He also created one of my most treasured “writing bibles”—The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot.

The Tin House interviewer, Susan Tacent, starts by talking to him about humor in literary fiction and how difficult it is to achieve. “It has to look easy,” Baxter says, “light as a feather, effortless. . . . Trying to be funny is the death of comedy.” The subtlety he goes for (in an era of the cheap one-liner) relies on characters’ being unintentionally funny, especially those who usually are “terribly serious: monomaniacs are hilarious.” The Producers has been playing in our CD mix, and I can’t help but think of Dick Shawn as Hitler, never noticing how ridiculous he is. Such incongruities between characters’ and readers’ perceptions can be arranged by the author, he says, but must use “invisible wires.”

Similarly, he tells Tacent, narrative voice “should arrive naturally and not be forced” and writers develop their own unique voices, whether they are striving to or not. Some writers’ voices are overbearingly strong, while others recede. Baxter’s preference is the “pale neutrality of Checkhov’s prose.” How different are these three contemporary literary voices, which seem apparent in even a sentence or two, picked at random:

  • Everyone laughs except Bix, who’s at his computer, and you feel like a funny guy for maybe half a second, until it occurs to you that they probably only laughed because they could see you were trying to be funny, and they’re afraid you’ll jump out the window onto East Seventh Street if you fail, even at something so small. – Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Good Squad
  • He paused at some trash in a corner where a warfarined rat writhed. Small beast so occupied with the bad news in his belly. It must have been something you ate. – Cormac McCarthy, Suttree
  • There have been worse accounts of his situation. He wants to say, she is not a mistress, not anymore, but the secret—though it must soon be an open secret—is not his to tell. – Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Tacent also asks him about creating a “lush” style in fiction, which Baxter believes is achieved by following a character over a long time period (David Copperfield) or engaging several time-frames at once to create depth and resonance. His new book of short stories, There’s Something I Want You To Do, includes five stories whose titles are virtues and five that are vices. Baxter achieves that lush interconnectedness among people by showing aspects of “the same scenarios again and again, with one story’s protagonist reappearing as a minor actor in someone else’s tale,” as Boston Globe reviewer Buzzy Jackson describes it.

Baxter says the stories “seem to be suggesting that there’s another world right next to ours,” or perhaps there are competing and simultaneous realities. Such a construct veers away from what he considers the overworked idea of “the singular ego”—“both in fiction and outside of it.” Epitomized, perhaps, by the “selfie.” Or, Dick Shawn’s unforgettable “Heil, myself!”