B.J. Novak's 'One More Thing': Book Review
The actor-screenwriter makes his debut as an author with a delightfully deadpan collection of short stories.
A version of this story first appeared in the Feb. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The first book from actor B.J. Novak (The Office, Saving Mr. Banks) comes with high expectations courtesy of a seven-figure advance, a 150,000-copy prerelease print run and the success of other comedic books by Hollywood stars (notably Tina Fey, Chelsea Handler and pal Mindy Kaling, who gets a very funny thank you in the acknowledgements).
Novak meets -- no, exceeds -- expectations in this collection, firmly establishing him as one of the best humor writers around. The book is divided into 60 short stories that range in length from a ditty ("If You Love Something: If you love something, let it go./If you don't love something, definitely let it go./Basically, just drop everything, who cares.") to a fully realized 18-page tale.
Not all stories will appeal to all readers, but one of the virtues of the short-story collection is the ease of flipping around. This is a great book to read in spurts -- on the subway or in a waiting room. The varied length of the stories adds to the pleasure; it's like sampling a multicourse meal instead of gorging just on pizza.
Novak's writing mirrors his acting in that both rely on dry wit and deadpan delivery. His influences run from celebrated New Yorker humorist James Thurber to Steve Martin to the Harvard Lampoon style of comedy (no wonder, as Novak was a member of the publication in college) to stand-up comedian Steven Wright. But he synthesizes those influences and has delivered something wholly original.
The best moments include such memorable concoctions as a Comedy Central Roast for Nelson Mandela and To Catch a Predator host Chris Hansen attending a Justin Bieber concert ("Everybody's looking at me. You know why? They're … trying to figure out who I'm looking at. Do you know who's not looking at me? Pedophiles.").
An awkward blind date shared by a spoiled, naive girl and an international warlord ends with a hilarious parody of book-group reading guides: "Discussion question: Do you think Julie should f--- the warlord? Why or why not?"
Novak has a great knack for spinning pop culture tropes in unexpected directions -- wondering who listens to Dan Fogelberg in heaven or poking fun at the unreliability of the Internet by updating Encyclopedia Brown as Wikipedia Brown to disastrous results (help for a stolen bike is only facts about bike chains and famous riders). The longer stories avoid easy laugh-out-loud punchlines in favor of quirky, offbeat twists that showcase his skill as a storyteller. The stories manage the tricky feat of being biting without being mean. Mostly, his targets are society and his characters are universal archetypes -- a child, an old man with regrets, a young hipster -- rather than individuals.
Novak has found success as an actor, screenwriter and producer, but it turns out that the "one more thing" he added to his résumé -- author -- might be where his greatest talent lies.