Harold: A Novel

  • By Steven Wright
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 256 pp.
  • Reviewed by Drew Gallagher
  • June 19, 2023

A preternaturally savvy little kid assesses his world.

Harold: A Novel

In 2017, Steven Wright was selected by Rolling Stone magazine as the 15th-greatest standup comedian of all time. Such lists are, by their very nature, fallible and self-serving, and they run the risk of being cited years later by a book reviewer covering the comedian’s debut novel. Regardless of any faults one might have with the list (Louis C.K. at number four is now a nonstarter), the fact remains that Wright is regarded as one of the world’s best comics, and his deadpan humor has influenced many who’ve followed.

So, the fact that he wrote a funny, quirky novel isn’t a surprise. That he did it in the style of Beat icon Jack Kerouac, however, is. (Note to Gen-X lit professors: As much as you’d like it to be otherwise, your students don’t know Kerouac or Wright unless either was mentioned on TikTok.)

Kerouac typically wrote his stream-of-consciousness works on a typewriter while high on Benzedrine; Wright seemingly wrote his one word at a time on Twitter (and probably without the need for uppers). On the Road was penned in 20 days. Just the first paragraph of Harold — a book said to have been penned in one word a day — would’ve taken more than three weeks. While its creation myth is surely apocryphal, the resulting tale is as freewheeling and disjointed as Wright’s comedic style. It’s not uncommon to be 10 pages or so into a narrative thread only to suddenly wonder if you’re still in the same book.

The titular Harold is a precocious 7-year-old, and the novel captures a day in his life as he sits in Ms. Yuka’s third-grade class. (You can safely assume she’s looking forward to time away from him over Christmas break just as much as he’s looking forward to a reprieve from school.)

It’s tempting to dismiss Harold’s musings as too mature for a third-grader, but if his brain is modeled in any way on the author’s own young mind, you can buy into the notion, for example, that a bored little boy might daydream about meeting Carl Sagan on the dark side of the moon on a spaceship that’s transporting carousel horses to God because the great astronomer worries the Almighty never gets to play with any toys these days.

Harold’s thoughts are often interrupted by birds flying through a small, imagined rectangle in his head; each one sends him on a new tangent, but not before revealing his encyclopedic knowledge of the world’s avians, gleaned from magazines read in waiting rooms. Sometimes, the birds cause Harold to think out loud. Understandably, this can be disruptive in the classroom. Ms. Yuka, displaying the patience of Job, soldiers on like a pro but (in Harold’s opinion) is too prone to moments of inattention, such as during show-and-tell, when he brings a photograph of a mirror to share with the class:

“Ms. Yuka had a small smile. Nobody knew that she wasn’t really focused because she was so incredibly horny. That’s just what happens when women are in their late 20s and early 30s.”

Again, I’m not sure your average child would be capable of many of Harold’s thoughts (some of which are quite carnal for a prepubescent), but there is a beloved grandfather in his life; maybe his presence accounts for the boy’s maturity — and profanity. Harold’s mother suffers from mental illness, which makes our self-aware protagonist worry that the birds flitting through his mind presage a similar fate for him. (The birds also allow Wright to riff and to sprinkle amusing insights throughout the story; “Jesus loves you, but only because he hasn’t met you.”)

The infinite-monkey theorem holds that an unlimited number of primates typing for an unlimited amount of time would eventually produce a particular text. I assure you that while those monkeys and their limitless clock might produce Hamlet, there’s no way they’d come up with Harold. It is uniquely Steven Wright and, like the man himself, defies expectation and explanation.

Drew Gallagher is a freelance writer residing in Fredericksburg, Virginia. He is the second-most-prolific book reviewer and first video book reviewer in the 136-year history of the Free Lance-Star Newspaper. You can find some of his video book reviews at Fredericksburg.com.     

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