By Stephen Fry
Soho Press, 2014
309 pages, $16.00
Reviewed by Charlotte Hamilton
The eponymous Hippopotamus of Stephen Fry’s comic novel, The Hippopotamus, is Ted Wallace, a washed-up poet with a love of women and booze. Soon after being fired from his job as a theater critic for a London newspaper, Ted runs into his goddaughter, who offers him a curious job of a different sort. She asks him to investigate a series of “phenomenon” that have recently occurred at the country home of Ted’s longtime friend, Michael Logan. A large enough check persuades Ted to accept the challenge, and he heads off to Swafford, the Logan family mansion, for the summer.
Fry tells this tale from multiple perspectives, including first-person narration by Ted, letters written by various characters, and third person narration. Most of the action is seen through Ted’s eyes—and what eyes they are. He is a hard-drinking, sex-obsessed, foul-mouthed oaf of a man. He routinely goes off on hilarious and often scathing tangents about topics ranging from the career trajectory of a poet to the female sex drive. His opinionated narration is entertaining and evocative, often with an existential bent, such as when he describes his goddaughter’s living room as “Barbarically hideous and as loudly wailing a testament to a wholly futile and empty life as can be imagined.”
Most of the action takes place at the Logan country home, Swafford, where Ted encounters a very British cast of characters who have come for vacation and, perhaps, to experience a miracle or two. The eclectic group includes David Logan, a somewhat ethereal teenager who, much to Ted’s dismay, is an aspiring poet; the sexy yet heartbroken Patricia Hardy, who, per Ted, “smells of cucumber juice and is the cause of much pinkness and stiffness in the undersigned”; and the flamboyantly gay Oliver Mills, who has a penchant for alliteration (he calls Ted the “Happy Hippo” and himself “Mother Mills”). Adding to the drama is the presence of Ted’s ex-girlfriend, Rebecca, or, as he calls her, “the She-Beast of Phillimore Gardens.”
The Hippopotamus was originally published in 1994 by Soho Press. It is the second of four novels written by Stephen Fry, a British jack of all creative trades–comedian, actor, director, producer, and writer of nonfiction as well as fiction. From 1990 to 1993, Stephen Fry starred as the wise butler Jeeves in Jeeves and Wooster, the television series based on P.G. Wodehouse’s comedic novels, which were often set in expensive country homes. Jeeves was forever helping his intellect-less employer Wooster get out of innocent tangles of his own making. The Hippopotamus takes this genre of novel to the next level. There is a mystery to be solved here, a mess to be untangled, but what is at stake is the belief in a higher power, in miracles and acts of God.
Fry demonstrates his range, frequently changing the point of view and tone. Just as he settles in to one mode of storytelling, he surprises the reader with another narrator, a historical flashback, or unpredictable plot twist. There are several points at which he ventures into unexpected and borderline tasteless terrain. Yet he manages to pull them off, and in retrospect, even the scenes that seemed to come from left field have a purpose and contribute to the overall story.
Fry’s comedic prowess is on full display here, and he packs in the jokes at lightning speed. Even when setting up a scene, he does not let go of the opportunity for clever one-liners. “The gentle, spiteful art of croquet…is more suited to my low centre of gravity and high sense of malice. We played, as is best, with two balls each, I with my fascistic favourites black and red,” says Ted. And to think, “we played croquet” might have satisfied a less proficient writer.
Poets may or may not appreciate Ted’s rants about his abandoned profession as a poet, about which he has strong opinions. At the start of the novel, his belief is that the most useless profession one can take up is that of a poet. He says that after achieving a level of success, a poet’s “work is almost exclusively confined…to those who speak the same language: if he wants another job his only choices involve other people’s poetry. He reviews. My God, how he reviews,” or he teaches, publishes, or makes appearances to talk about other people’s poetry.
Whether Ted will be changed by the possibly miraculous events he sets out to witness is at the heart of the story. Will he regain his love of poetry, and maybe even some of his humanity? These questions and more make this a compelling and enjoyable novel. The Hippopotamus is a pleasurable, light-hearted vacation in the countryside, during which you might just figure out the meaning of life.