Impressions of Jack Handey’s Stench of Honolulu

(I read an advanced copy of this book so it may be much better. Maybe)

At some point over the summer this book found its way onto the book Wishlist I kept on Amazon before my affair with Goodreads became public knowledge. I figured I’d read it at some point many years down the line when I’d see it at a friend’s house and flip through the first few pages before asking to borrow it- one of the top 5 reasons for having friends in the first place. However, the gods saw fit that I should get to labor through this novella much earlier than that when an hour’s week at local Corvallis bookstore Grassroots Music and Books scored me this among a couple other books, including the most recent Amy Tan and a Margaret Atwood essay collection.


My plan was to read Handey’s novella over the past week since it was short and a bunch of deadlines were coming toward me with lightning speed. Then I’d wrap it up and gift it to a friend who I know really enjoys Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts writings and SNL segments. Now I don’t think that’s going to happen. In fact, for the first time ever, I get what motivates people into book burning.

So I know not every book has to have some deep literary quality to it in order to be a good book (I’d actually hate it if every thing I read felt like it had to carry the same breadth of nuance as something written by Jean Rhys or George Saunders). However, I think you can judge a book based off whether it succeeds at its intended goal. In the case of Stench of Honolulu (Stench, for short), Hardey seems intent on achieving little more than a rollicking absurdist narrative, featuring an intensely unreliable narrator and plenty of humorous wordplay. And at this, the book fails more often than not. In fact, once I had determined that this was Handey’s intent, I pledged to make note of every instance in the book that made me laugh and made it to the last page with only a single passage marked. This is not to say that Handey’s work is absent of clever puns or strange imagery, it’s that his narrator’s voice is so one-dimensional that after a couple chapters, his inaccurate descriptions of flora and fauna, and Honolulu’s residents become gratingly predictable.

The failure of humor in Stench makes it difficult to forgive some of its most troubling aspects such as its narrator’s constant belittling and mockery of the native Honolulu(ians?ieze? Marc Maron would know this). Yes, I understand that it’s meant to be a satire about the way some narrow-minded Americans view the people of these Pacific Islands, but satire really needs to be functioning in an intelligent way for it to not simply read as the same sort of racism that it is meant to poke fun of. Therefore scenes such as the narrator’s encounter with a tribe of cannibalistic men is oft-putting more than it’s revelatory about assumptions of native islanders.

I’ll end this earlier than I normally would because I don’t think the world needs another mean review, but before I do I need to question one more choice. Throughout the novella, some chapters end with illustrations of certain items discussed in the narrative. At first I thought that they’d all turn out to be clues that would unfurl some larger scheme in the book, but that turned out to be giving Handey and his editor way too much credit. Instead they seemed to be just a way to take up space in a book that already had relatively large font and paragraph spacing.

Read this book if you need something else to be outraged about today. Don’t read this book if you love yourself. Give book to sworn nemesis, mayhaps?


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