Book Review : Wordplay Is Overworked by Four Dozen Authors

<i> Seidenbaum is Opinion editor of The Times. </i>

Bred Any Good Rooks Lately by James Charlton, illustrations by Mary Kornblum (Doubleday: $4.95, paperback)

Wordplay works better off tongue than on paper: the pun or Spoonerism or deliberate malapropism is more fun when ad libbed than when put to print.

So James Charlton may have been hit by a blighter’s rock after he threw a challenge at nearly four dozen authors of respectable reputation and asked them to create short stories ending in one of the tortured forms of wordplay. Even he admits, “Many of these stories depend on being read aloud.”

The trouble is the trouble taken and the refrain is plain, humor falling mainly in the strain. None of the entries quite matches the glory of Ogden Nash commenting in double doggerel on being meticulous about treating birds and apes--leaving no tern unstoned, no stern untoned. No one reaches the rabbi who reviewed “Portnoy’s Complaint” and wondered, “What Hath Roth Got?” Nor is there the equal of the chauvinistic Texas sports reporter who announced from ringside that “the wrestlers are native tonight.”


Source of the Title

Charlton’s title comes from Stephen King’s contribution, having to do with a science fiction on how air pollution was ruining the bird life of London. Some of the best contributors use Spoonerisms--contrivances transposing the initial sounds of words in a phrase--for punch lines. One of them, Hannah Green, even offers a spoon itself to a fox eating dessert; the animal is trying to figure out why there’s a stone in his French ice cream: “What is a nice pearl like you doing in a glace like this?” Charlton’s own bit of transposition forces poet Percy Bysshe to seek shelter at a religious retreat after the Mother Superior has retired for the night. When Percy protests the delay in registration, the novitiate explains, “You have to wait until the nun signs, Shelley.”

Ingested one per evening, these punch lines of language might spike a pleasant pause between toweling dry and dreaming. But swallowed in one sitting they tend to leave the reader riddled and insisting that publishers practice a more effective means of pun control.