I first ran into the work of Eudora Welty when I was in college, and I read the short story "Why I Live at the Post Office," and laughed so hard my stomach hurt. It's hard to say why her stories are funny; they're not at all slapstick, and it's far from what I'd call a situation comedy. But her characters are brilliant and eccentric and absolutely hilarious -- and even more so because I've known people like the ones she describes so well.
A few weeks ago I picked up a copy of her short novel The Ponder Heart at a used book sale, and had the same reaction to it as I did to her short story so many years ago. It's a quick and delightful read, centering around the misadventures of Uncle Daniel Ponder as seen through the eyes of his niece, Edna Earle Ponder. Uncle Daniel is a strange man, an eternally cheerful hale-fellow-well-met around his home in Clay County, Mississippi, who if he runs into you might well give you his hat or his coat -- or his car.
Uncle Daniel is beloved by all and sundry -- some because they genuinely like him, and some because of his aforementioned propensity for giving stuff away -- but is singularly unlucky in love. His first wife, whose name is (I'm not making this up) Teacake Magee, only stays with him for two months before deciding that she's fed up with his oddities. Then he proposes to young, beautiful, vapid Bonnie Dee Peacock, and all seems to be well -- until Bonnie Dee dies under mysterious circumstances, and Uncle Daniel is arrested for murder.
The trial, and its outcome, are some of the best humor writing I've ever read. Welty has an absolute mastery of making oddball characters seem completely real. It occurs to me, however, that part of her charm in my eyes is that I was born and raised in the Deep South, so Deep that (as my dad put it) any Deeper and we'd be floating. I have to wonder how Welty's stories would play to a Yankee, if perhaps someone who had never experienced that part of the United States might simply find her cast of characters too strange to be believable.
But all I can say is, I've known people like almost every single person in The Ponder Heart, from the steadfast, pragmatic Edna Earle to the supercilious lawyer for the prosecution, Dorris Gladney. It's a fun read, and a tragicomic lens into the Deep South of the 1950s. As far as what happens to Uncle Daniel in the end -- you'll just have to read it to find out.