Like his eccentric earls, dotty dukes, and batty butlers, P. G. Wodehouse's Laughing Gas (1936) is a bit of a queer duck. It's one of his non-series romances, so there's plenty of coincidences, mix-ups, squabbles and mistaken identities. It's set in Hollywood and pokes a good deal of fun at the silver screen. The hero is cheerful and straightforward and the heroine is pretty, smart, and resourceful. Sounds like a good number of Wodehouse's books? What if I tell you it's narrated in the first person...par for the course for a Jeeves or Ukridge novel, but unusual for a non-series Wodehouse romance? Oh, you say, big whoop...a mild stylistic difference. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mixed it up with Sherlock Holmes stories occasionally narrated not by Doctor Watson but by a third person or, on occasion, even Holmes himself. But what if I tell you that Laughing Gas is the closest Wodehouse came to writing fantasy? "Huh?" you say? "Certainly you're joking!" I'm not joking! (And don't call me Certainly.) Let's take a wee bit of a test, shall we? Get out your number two pencils and answer me the following: what do the following have in common?:
And no...the answer is not "they all co-star sizzling hot Jamie Lee Curtis." (Although, that's never a bad answer to anything.) No, the true answer is that these are all body-swap comedies. Yes, long before Freaky Friday or Dream a Little Dream or Switch (Jimmy Smits!), there was Laughing Gas, and I'm ashamed of Wikipedia that the novel isn't even listed on its supposedly exhaustive Body Swaps in Fiction page. It's not the first body swap novelThomas Anstey Guthrie's Victorian novel Vice Versa seems to be one of the first, if not the first. I wouldn't be surprised to find the theme in much earlier literaturebut it certainly is the most Wodehousey. And in the end, isn't that what's important?
Yes, long before Dr. Janice Lester stepped into the manly body of James T. Kirk, Reggie Havershot, British Earl with a heart of gold and the mug of a defeated prizefighter, travels to Hollywood to retrieve his cheerfully alcoholic cousin Egremount (the aptly nicknamed "Eggy"). Simple enough task if he hadn't run into the lovely starlet April June on the Union Pacific cross-country train. (Wodehouse, so fond of simple and plain names for his heroines like "Sally" and "Jill," often gives his Hollywood starlet characters wonderfully outrageous monikers like "April June" and, in The Luck of the Bodkins, "Lotus Blossom.") It's love at first sight for poor Reggie, and the course of pure love seems like it should probably run pretty smoothly. You'd think that, wouldn't you? Wodehouse throws in his usual coincidences to keep the plot rolling along: Eggy's engaged to Reggie's ex-fianceé Ann Bannister; Ann's pushing Eggy into a job as elocution teacher to bratty child screen star Joey Cooley; Joey Cooley's made motion pictures with April June. The coincidences fade to merely shadows beside the main turning point of the plot when Reggie gets his mind swapped with Joey Cooley's while under the influence of nitrous oxide at the dentist.; Such a fantastic plot point isn't the usual Wodehouse style, but the casual swift explanation of it from Reggie certainly is:
'Hell!' I cried.That's about as technical an explanation as we're going to get, because the why doesn't matter as much as the what happens next. And what happens next? Why, hilarity, of course...did you think anything else could? Reggie-in-Joey's-body is trapped under the stern guardianship of Miss Brinkmeyer (sister of Hollywood mogul T.P. Brinkmeyer), a classic Wodehouse wicked witch in the vein of Lord Emsworth's sister Connie and Mrs. Huddington from last week's The Small Bachelor. Forced to exist on a diet of prunes and roped into embarrassing public appearances, Joey's struck back in the past by planting strategic horned toads and frogs in Miss Brinkmeyer's bed, a plan of attack that seems perfectly apt to Reggie in the same Buster Browns. Meanwhile, now in the beefy brawny body of Reggie, Joey's out and about Hollywood punching in the snoot everyone on his extensive "enemy's list"...from gossip columnists to movie critics to his hated co-star April June. Will Reggie-as-Joey break out of Brinkmeyer Manor in time to prevent Joey-as-Reggie from giving Miss April June a fistful of fives? How will he get enough spending money to bribe Chaffinch the butler to bring his sausages instead of prunes for his breakfast? And what will happen when the Hollywood press photographs young Joey, darling of millions, puffing on a cigar and downing a whisky?
Well, I mean to say, who wouldn't have? I saw right away what had happened. Someone, as the poet says, had blundered. Joey Cooley and I must have gone under gas at exactly the same moment and, owing presumably to some bad staffwork during the period when we were simultaneously sauntering about in the fourth dimension, or whatever they call it, there had been an unfortunate switch. The impetuous young cuckoo had gone and barged into my body, and I, having nowhere else to go, had toddled along and got into his.
His fault, of course, the silly ass. I had told him to stop shoving.
Though the general structure (boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets another girl) is familiar enough to those of us who've sauntered through a dozen or so Wodehouse novels over the past three months by now, the body swap fantasy element makes it unique, and Reggie's first person narration is essential and spot-on for the tone of the adventure. Wodehouse generally reserved first-person for the Jeeves and Bertie adventures, but this is a rare occasion where breaking his usual rules pays off: we're seeing this strange new world from Reggie's point of view (four feet from the floor). He's a bit sharper and more savvy than Bertie, who he probably knows: Reggie is also a member of the Drones Club, placing this novel firmly in the Jeevesiverse. (One might wonder what Jeeves would have said if this had happened to Bertiehe'd quote Hamlet about more things dreamt of in heaven and earth, most likely.) There's more than a touch of Bertie about Reggie, howeveryou can almost hear Hugh Laurie or Richard Briers protesting being put in his bath when he's in the body of the kid Joey:
'I don't want to,' I said.There's a lot of good-natured and gentle but pointed humor at the expense of the tropes of Hollywood in here as well, from poking fun at film star fan clubs and personal appearances to the rage over collecting memorabilia of the stars. Well before eBay and certificates of authenticity, the Brinkmeyer's butler suggests he can sell Joey's extracted tooth to a movie magazine for a couple thousand dollars:
'Want to?' The Brinkmeyer came through with one of her well-known snorts. 'It isn't a question of what you want, it's a question'
'Of modesty,' I thundered, cutting her short. 'The whole matter is one of principle. One has one's code. To a bath, qud bath,' I said, borrowing some of old Horace Plimsoll's stuff, 'I have no objection whatever. In fact, I should enjoy one. But when I am asked to countenance turning the thing into a sort of Babylonian orgy'
The Brinkmeyer looked at Ann.
'What is he talking about?'
'I don't know. He's funny to-night.'
'He doesn't amuse me.'
'Think, sir, think! Reflect what a position you hold in the public esteem, sir. You are the Idol of American Motherhood. And the fans are inordinately desirous of obtaining souvenirs of their favourites, I can assure you. I have known large sums to change hands for one of Mr Fred Astaire's trouser buttons, very large sums indeed. And the human appeal of a trouser button cannot be compared with that of a tooth.'The butler, of course, not only swindles Reggie but turns out to be one of an increasingly ubiquitous series of peripheral characters working for the Brinkmeyers who is a would-be actor: the butler, gardener, footman and chauffeur are all biding their time hoping to be discovered by their movie mogul boss. Well, beats waiting tables, don't it? Even the kidnappers who chloroform and hijack Reggie-as-Joey for a publicity stunt, are wannabe-actors with Hollywood stardust in their eyes:
'But lady, that Roscoe he's got is loaded.'Happy endings all 'round, of course, for Reggie and Joey (put back in their own bodies by circumstances as off-the-cuff and ultimately unimportant as the laughing gas that swapped them in the first place). April June's true colors are revealed (she's a dandy role for Angelina Jolie, now that I think about it) and Reggie finds true love in the arms of helpful and never-wavering Ann, and everyone gets a hot steaming plate of sausages. Happy endings all round, that is, except for the pig. Which ain't a bad average in Hollywood.
'What on Earth did you want with a loaded gun?'
'That's Fred," said Eddie, directing another reproachful glance at him. 'He's so thorough.'
'He likes doing things right,' said George.
'I'm an artist," said Fred defiantly. 'I saw that gun as loaded. That's how I felt itfelt it here,' he said, slapping his chest.
'The fact of the whole matter is,' said George, 'Fred's never been the same man since he was an extra in Lepers of Broadway.'
Its uniqueness in fantastic plot device makes Laughing Gas either an ideal book to introduce a non-fan to (it's fast, funny, has a great high concept twist, and doesn't rely on knowledge of any other Wodehouse for enjoyment), or one that you'd want to read much later in your perusal of the Master (none of his other books are quite like it, and you don't want to go in thinking that every novel will feature some paranormal event). Whether it's your first or twelfth Wodehouse, I still recommend it as great fun. You can pick it up, as usual, by clicking on the Amazon.com box to the right: the Penguin edition shown is out of print in the US (get on the ball, Mister Penguin!) but there are plenty of third-party used copies available, or, for those of you flush with your earnings from selling celebrity teeth, you may wish to splash out on the elegant and gorgeous Overlook Press hardcover edition.Me? I've got a trio of different editions of Laughing Gas. I re-read it this past week in a mass market Ballantine Books paperback reprint from 1977 (the golden age of several publishers picking up as many Wodehouse reprints as they could, so that his canon was spread out among dozens of American paperback publishers). It features this cover illustration...
...which I think captures chubby-cheeked, Fauntleroy-curled Joey to a T (check out the lovely art deco ice cream and lollipop wallpaper behind him) but which misses the mark totally by making Reggie appear dashing and elegantly handsome. Read the book, Mister Illustrator!:
You see, I have kept it from you till now, but there are certain defects in my personal appearance which prevent me being everybody's money where the opposite sex is concerned. Externally, I take after the pater, and you had ever seen the pater you would realize what that means. He was a gallant solider and played a hot game of polo, but he had a face like a gorillamuch more so, indeed, than most gorillas haveand was, so I am informed, affectionately known to his little circle of cronies as Consul, the Almost Human. And I am his living image.I also own the Everyman Library hardcover reissue, and a battered and ex-library but vintage American hardcover edition from Sun Dial Press that's missing its dust jacket but which therefore reveals some lovely wraparound cover art:
These things weigh with girls. They shrink from linking their lot with a fellow whose appearance gives the impression that at any moment he may shin up trees and start throwing coconuts.
I got excited for a moment when I saw first printings of this Sun Dial Press edition were going for.A quick glance at a Wodehouse collector's magazine I keep on my shelf alerted me that my poor ex-library edition isn't a first printing, however (it's identical to one but doesn't say first printing; ergo, 'tis not). Just as well. It's a rare and glorious thing to have a lovely edition of a fun and fanciful Wodehouse book, and I'd rather have that than a sackful of filthy lucre, all the tea in China, or even swapping bodies with Mister George Clooney. Well, maybe for just an afternoon. If he's co-starring with Keira Knightley.