Many people have recommended P.G. Wodehouse to me many times, and now I have finally read one of his books. I had no particular reason for choosing Cocktail Time as my first Wodehouse experience. I went to a used bookstore for the first time here in my new town, and at the back of the shop was a small bookcase full of very new-looking Wodehouse books. With no idea where to begin, I looked to the proprietor for some advice. He was the very idea of a used bookstore proprietor: older, with a somewhat detached air that made it seem like he was always slightly surprised I was still around—and, of course, he only accepted cash. My plea fell on deaf ears, though. He rebuked me, “I never give recommendations,” and proceeded to give a semi-helpful lecture on the different strands of Wodehouse’s oeuvre.
So I shrugged and took Cocktail Time and Carry On, Jeeves. At least in the case of the former, this decision proved fruitful. Wodehouse might not have jumped to the top of my list of favourite humorous authors, but I can definitely appreciate his sharp satire and keen enthusiasm for creating zany characters and silly situations.
Fred, Lord Ickenham, has a youth that belies his older appearance. He’s the kind of person who looks at a situation and then asks, “How can I possibly make this more interesting?” Never content to leave things simply to develop on their own, Lord Ickenham always has to stir the pot a little more. The plot gets going when Ickenham’s influence causes his brother-in-law, Raymond “Beefy” Bastable, to write a novel—also called Cocktail Time. Beefy has a beef with today’s youth, because one of them knocked off his top hat with a catapulted Brazil nut. The real culprit, of course, is Ickenham, who at the time had no idea it would turn Beefy into the secret author of a bestseller.
Events continue to spiral out of control as more of Ickenham’s social circle becomes involved—and that’s just how he likes it. The action culminates in Dovetail Hammer with a tense auction for a fake walnut cabinet, an incriminating letter, and Ickenham’s hand in matchmaking several couples. It’s all masterfully executed in such a way that I never felt like I need to look behind the curtain and spoil my disbelief. The happy ending is almost assured by the novel’s light tone, but I enjoyed watching Wodehouse pull all the threads neatly into place.
And the characters themselves are wonderfully uncomplicated—there are villains and rogues and schemers and senile old men. They’re all types, allowing Wodehouse to explore the variations within British society (and particularly within the wealthy and well-to-do). But as circumstances shift, the characters have to change too—Cosimo goes from wanting to reveal the real author to wanting to keep the charade of his authorship alive after Cocktail Time lands a multi-hundred-thousand-dollar movie deal. Several times, Ickenham’s own schemes go awry, and he is forced to improvise swiftly and skilfully.
Wodehouse’s style is twofold. First, he is a master of what I would call whimisical description. He always knows the perfect thing to say—often a simile or, if no such simple beast is available, he springs for a metaphor—to elevate any description from mundane to amusing. And then there are paragraphs like this, which opens Chapter 12:
OLd Howard Saxby was seated at his desk in his room at the Edgar Saxby literary agency when Cosmo arrived there. He was knitting a sock. He knitted a good deal, he would tell you if you asked him, to keep himself from smoking, adding that he also smoked a good deal to keep himself from knitting.
The paragraph goes on to invoke comparisons to Stilton cheese and ghostly ectoplasm. Wodehouse’s vocabulary and diction are both dazzling, aided by the relative simplicity of the plot, which allows one to sink into the story and just enjoy the writing.
Wodehouse’s second element of style is the snappy dialogue he writes for his characters. It reads like a comedy sketch, with short sentences and plenty of interruption as one character plays off another’s words. The omniscient narrator reveals what everyone is thinking, contributing even further to the sense of irony that practically saturates this thin volume.
I don’t have much else to say about Wodehouse or Cocktail Time. It was a nice novel to spend a couple of days reading, and now I have a firmer idea of what Wodehouse has to offer. I’ll read the next one sometime in the next few months, and we’ll see how the relationship goes from there—I don’t like to take things too fast, after all. Beefy certainly waited a long time, and it worked out all right for him.