Her gallows humor leads to serenity

While you live and learn, you might as well laugh little.

Published June 10, 2007

In the Driver's Seat

By Helen Simpson

Knopf, 177 pages, $22


This wicked little book dares you to laugh at dirty, serious things. If jokes about cancer, sex and the bitter end ruin your morning, you might want to steer clear. But if the humor of George Carlin or Woody Allen keeps a smile on your face, then Helen Simpson's In the Driver's Seat is a must-read.

Here is the literary counterpart to these comics, roaring out of the short story form with a black cackle and an ironic wink. In Every Third Thought, a middle-aged woman develops a pathological fear of mortality after several friends succumb to breast cancer. At last, she is run over by a car and loses her leg.

"Some sort of cloud lifted and I was out of the woods, " she says. "No more doom and gloom! I mean, of course there were times when I felt sorry for myself, very sorry for myself, hobbling around in rehab being one of them, but I was always able to snap out of it. It could have been worse."

If I Make It tells of a self-involved war correspondent diagnosed with lung cancer after a lifetime romancing his cigarettes. At once he changes and begs for a chance to start anew. Simpson grants him the reprieve, only to have him fall back on his old ways.

Simpson's characters don't always play well with others, and in the speediest of her stories we watch as tense situations unravel toward chaos. The title piece is a mean little story about a woman and her boyfriend pelting down the motorway at near triple digit speeds in a car not meant to travel that fast.

"The way a man drives gives a surprisingly accurate idea of what he's like in other areas. Does he crash his way through the gears? Does he speed, or stall? Does he get nasty at the lights?"

Many of Simpson's stories leapfrog over the traditional fluffery of literary narration to speak to us directly about truths they flatter us into thinking we had noticed all on our own. After making us guffaw, and making us smirk, Simpson shows us what's going to help us get through not being in the driver's seat: acceptance.

John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.