English comedy is something I grew up with. While other kids in my neighborhood were having a good catch with their All-American Dads, my father (a transplant from Germany since the late 1950s)brought me up on a steady diet of Benny Hill and Monty Python.
So although it may not come as a huge surprise that I would know and appreciate Stephen Fry's work in television comedy, it was a surprise (to me, anyway) at how affecting he can be when it comes to fiction. You would think that someone whose comedic fame stems from his erudition would of course work well on the page, but all too often what you end up reading feels like a too long stand-up routine. And The Hippopotamus, his second novel after The Liar, published in 1993, does feel a little like that, at least in the beginning. Notorious drunk/womanizer/poet Ted Wallace is called upon by his god-daughter Jane to look into Lord Logan Swafford and family, where something miraculous may be happening. Jane won't tell Ted what, but she does tell him that until very recently she was in the late stages of leukemia, and that something having to do with the Swaffords may be the cause of her remission. Something, specifically, with Ted's other god-child, young David Swafford.
The beginning of The Hippopotamus reads like the inside of Fry's head - long vignettes that are witty but leave little to push things along. Once he settles into a groove, though, the self conscious "Fry" voice goes away and in its place is something that works much better - a compassionate voice that cares more about telling a great story as opposed to showing off. It's wonderful work, and as Ted slowly becomes tied into events at the Swafford house, you really to see the care Fry puts into his characters. You also get to see a big old heart laid open, as sex jokes and uncomfortable passages (yes, there may be sex with animals here, but I'm judging) give way to some genuine insights into how we create our own miracles, often at the expense or detriment of others.
A fantastic book that's gotten me up and hunting around for more of Fry's written work. Until then, my trusty DVD of Jeeves and Wooster will have to do.