Three Men

Three Men In a Boat 

By Jerome K. Jerome 

Reviewed by Kenny Brechner

 

       At one point during Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat the protagonists find themselves confronted with a much anticipated tin of pineapple and no tin-opener. "Harris tried to open the tin with a pocket-knife and cut himself badly; and George tried a pair of scissors, and the scissors flew up, and nearly put his eye out...after that I took the tin off by myself and hammered at it with the mast till I was worn out and sick at heart...We beat it out flat; we beat it back square; we battered it into every know form of geometry - but we could not make a hole in it."

    This is just the sort of experience one has when trying to wrestle out the genius of Jerome K. Jerome. How does he do it? Why is his book so perpetually and freshly hilarious?

    First published in 1889, Three Men in a Boat was immediately popular and remained so for many years. If one asks a person of sufficient age and background whether they have read Jerome there is a pause, followed by the sudden exclamation which a forgotten, but pleasant recollection always occasions.

    One might fairly ask if there is something dated about Jerome, something which has caused his book to be nudged away from the current of contemporary attention, leaving it to rattle listlessly in the reeds. And one would find that the answer is no.

    Not only is Three Men in a Boat as funny today as it was in 1889, but its antiquated backdrop brings to vivid life a whole, charming world of late nineteenth century middle class leisure. From the "heathenish instincts of tow-lines" to the "objections to paraffin oil as an atmosphere," Jerome's anecdotes and disquisitions are notably embellished by their period elements.

    At its core Jerome's writing is marked by his masterly control over tone. Note the subtle elevation of the degree of absurdity in the following passage. "It seemed, from his account, that he was very good at doing scrambled eggs. He often did them at picnics and when out on yachts. He was quite famous for them. People who had once tasted his scrambled eggs, so we gathered from his conversation, never cared for any other food afterwards, but pined away and died when they could not get them."

    Two other elements stand out as keys to the peculiarly diverting character which Jerome maintains throughout his book. First, his topical digressions on points of history and culture which, with their elusive blend of the satirical and the genuine, provide a counterpoint to the slapstick antics of the protagonists. Second, the priceless chapter headings, which wonderfully integrate the book's various elements, while at the same time teasing the reader with their seeming impossibility.

    If Jerome's genius is elusive and beyond reach, a copy of his masterpiece is decidedly not. A fact of which anyone for whom laughter and enjoyment do not constitute health hazards should take note.