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2 Smart New Novels Find Humor In Fantasies Of Escape

A year-long getaway to a Greek island; a week by the sea at an arts colony. Fantasies of escape are the common premise of two new comic novels, both smart and sprightly in style, and both informed by a sad wisdom that echoes John Milton's lines in Paradise Lost: that we carry "troubl'd thoughts" and "hell within [us]`" wherever we go.

In Lynn Freed's sly novel The Last Laugh, three wealthy women — who proudly describe themselves as "mad old bags" — decide to share a house together on a sun-drenched island in the Aegean. Here's our narrator, Ruth, on the first page of the novel, describing the motivation for their plan:

We'd put passion behind us, we said. ... [T]he blinders were gone, the sport, the spring and sway of the dance, the careless unreasoning madness of it all. Anyway, we said, passion had accomplished its chief work, at least from a biological point of view — children and grandchildren. What we wanted now was peace. Ourselves to ourselves. No service, no duty, no motherly or grandmotherly obligations.

Of course, this plan is doomed from the get-go. Even before the three women have a chance to knock back a glass of ouzo, the front door swings open and in march resentful adult children, sponging old lovers and even a psychotic former client of the psychotherapist in the group. Soon, the women's retreat is seeing as much foot traffic as the boardwalk at Coney Island.

"Geezer Lit" has become a booming publishing niche as we readers wrinkle, but The Last Laugh is so much more than a print version of The Golden Girls. Freed's one-liners on subjects like sleep apnea machines are hilarious; so are the excerpts from Ruth's columns, which she writes for a senior publication called So Long Magazine.

But Freed also gives more somber subjects their due, such as loneliness and the fear of looming dependence. The Last Laugh is a Campari spritzer of a novel: bubbly and colorful, but with a underlying note of bitterness to add satisfying complexity.

In contrast to Freed's drowsy day dreams of lounging by the sea, Matthew Klam's superb debut novel, Who Is Rich?, is all about the anxious networking, conversational one-upmanship and drunken hook-ups that constitute those exclusive summer events known as "arts conferences."

Our 40-something anti-hero, Rich Fischer, is a cartoonist who made a name for himself with his first book, now out of print. These days, Rich erratically supports his family by freelance illustrating for a political magazine on the verge of folding and teaching every summer at an arts conference held at a crumbling college on the New England coast. Here's how Rich introduces us to this world:

On the faculty were many friends I'd come to know over the years as intellects, historians, wordsmiths ... addicts, drunkards, perverts, world-famous womanizers, sufferers of gout, maniacs, liars. ... This past winter the conference director had asked me to name another cartoonist I could vouch for to teach a second comics workshop, but I didn't answer him. I worried, because of the way my career had gone, that I'd be hiring my replacement. ...

I opened the info packet and read the bios of the other teachers and guest speakers. ... There were different levels of us, unknown nobodies and one-hit has-beens, midlist somebodies and legitimate stars.

Like all great humorists, Klam is a sharp observer and he skewers his targets here with specificity and brio. Who Is Rich? is also cynically smart about the class politics crackling in the air at these kinds of gatherings: namely the smooth generosity of the uber-rich arts patrons colliding with the financial desperation of so many of the indentured "talent" who perform and teach.

There's a scene midway through this novel where Rich — guilty about an affair and itching to break free of his paycheck-to-paycheck existence — impulsively blows his entire honorarium on an expensive bracelet for his wife at home. I swear to you the economic terror Klam conjures up in that scene is every bit as vivid as the physical terror of the opening scene of that quintessential New England beach movie, Jaws.

There may be no running away from the realities of life, but these two terrific comic novels will have you laughing — in sorry recognition — at the many ways we all try.

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