A humorist with an ear for social commentary uses the language of prayer to highlight the absurdity of the modern world.
Veteran humorist and stylistic prankster Whitten (Do-It-Yourself Constitutional Amendment Kit, 2008, etc.) returns with a volume that is as much an experiment in style as a play for laughs. Having already set his sights on self-help culture and modern American politics, Whitten turns his perceptive eye to religion, particularly evangelism. Each page offers a humorous observation framed in the style and language of prayer. While not openly mocking, the book is far from reverent. Whitten’s stylistic choices are more for comic effect than commentary, but his subjects aren’t far from those of actual prayers—prayers of thanks, confusion, repentance and mourning, among others, all done up in his own comic language. Rather than getting the language of the devout, readers get a “Prayer for Paul McCartney to Retire Already” or, in one of the book’s funnier examples, a mealtime prayer that expresses thanks for the food while asking for protection from the growth hormones, pesticides and preservatives that were used to help create it. At their best, these jokey conversations with God are laugh-out-loud funny; at their worst, they approach the level of an awkward stand-up routine. What lingers about the book, however, isn’t the comedy. Through the course of the prayers, a character begins to develop that turns out to be much more than just witty. Despite the lighthearted tone he takes, readers can see in this supplicant a man who is baffled by his surroundings and trying quite desperately to find answers to life’s big questions. As they try to make sense of a senseless world, these mock prayers often don’t differ much from the genuine thing, which elevates Whitten’s latest entry above being simply a joke book. By smashing together the language of prayer and observational humor, Whitten is able to reveal the cracks and contradictions in modern life that tickle us as much as they trouble us. To his credit, the book spends as much time scanning the zeitgeist as delivering punch lines.
These jokey prayers are likely to resonate beyond the smiles they produce.
Nathaniel Whitten. Vitally Important Books, $8.95 paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-9774807-5-3
Whitten adapts the ancient practice of prayer to the everyday, anxiety-provoking hassles of the modern age in his humorous collection. Through his prayers, we see a narrator grappling with contemporary problems, from job interviews and finicky Wi-Fi to dieting and losing faith. What emerges is a portrait of our times that is both irreverent and tender. The narrator prays for simple things (getting his lost wallet returned and the wonders of an “automatic outdoor light sensor”) and extravagant desires (“for my screenplay to be optioned by Warner Brothers” and “to run into Scarlett Johansson and have her fall for me big time”) in his brutally honest and unmistakably human voice. Whitten blends his astute observations of modern woes with a search for meaning in the mundane to create a funny, earnest, and poignant collection of appeals.