The Wholly Viable, by Phil Kay | Book review by Steve Bennett

The Wholly Viable, by Phil Kay

Book review by Steve Bennett

Freewheeling comedian Phil Kay’s book needs to be experienced with the same carefree attitude as his devil-may-care gigs. He believes the joy of any idea is in the moment, and the notion of honing anything to a polished finished article, whether a stand-up routine or a chapter of writing, is anathema.

Approach The Wholly Viable – as I first did – expecting a book of well-constructed sentences following grammatical and narrative rules, and you’ll find it frustrating at best, impenetrable at worst. Sentences lack structure, stories repeat, and clarity often comes second to spirit.

Let the words flow over you, however, and enjoy the gist of what he’s saying without stumbling to much over the delicacies of structure or trying too hard to unpick the meaning, and his writing conveys the essence of the man – an inveterate hippy who is either delightfully free-spirited or dangerously reckless depending on your position on behaviour like driving without insurance.

‘An autoblography’ is an apt subtitle, for Kay does nothing conventionally, and these are not memoirs in the usual sense of the word, but the non-linear outpourings of his brain, with more in common with blog entry concerned with what’s happened today than major life events.

Strolling nonchalantly across the 11-lane vortex of traffic swirling around Paris’s Arc De Triomphe – a typically rash act – gets more space than his own wedding; while tales of odd occurrences at gigs, which could form the backbone of many a comic’s memoir, are dispatched quickly – perhaps because they are so legion.

His comedy ethos is that he should talk with honesty, passion and playfulness about whatever he’s just done, trying to create a moment in the room. Or as he puts it: ‘It’s about the transfer of an idea in a fun creative way that involves someone getting/receiving a flying sentinel mystery’.

It’s an attitude that got him noticed at the 1989 Edinburgh Fringe, where he won So You Think You’re Funny, and he has returned to the festival every year since. A traditional career biography would also mention that he was named best stand-up at the British Comedy Awards in 1994, and had his own Channel 4 series in 1997, which didn’t quite do his spontaneity justice.

But these do not reflect his day-to-day life, which seems to involve countless encounters with Her Majesty’s constabularies thanks to his mischievous rule-flouting and disrespectful backchat as he flits around the country in beaten-up cars, ‘borrowed’ bikes and hitch-hiked lifts, seemingly a false move away from vagrancy at any point, but happy to live as a gadabout minstrel, loving the road, his family and his freedom.

On stage, he believes any night has the potential to be the best gig ever – but only if he seizes the moment. ‘My great gigs are way, way as good as the best gigs I’ve ever seen,’ he says excitedly, though he admits to many calamitous failures, too, such as the time that the woman who booked him tried to drag him off stage, or the heckler physically restrained as he tried to attack Kay with a chair; or warming up the audience for the glitzy Scottish Baftas, a woefully ill-judged booking.

However, before any performance he tries to get in the right state of mind, through a combination of booze, dope and high-spirited mucking about in the town before the show, all giving fodder for his storytelling on stage – and in this book.

On the subject of his work, another of his observations about how the hapess open spots he sometimes shares the bill with form part of a comedy continuum from the greats demonstrates the opacity of his writing: ‘The thinking is so closely linked as a cause and as to cause and is being a result and is a result of at the same time that then causes a cause.’ As I say, don’t try to think too hard about it...

Kay loves words more than meanings, and the book is full of half-formed puns and phrases shoved there solely because their sonorous consonants or folded logic please him – from the title itself to the very last page. Indeed the last chapter entirely comprises rhythmic snippets and wordplay in need of a home.

The Wholly Viable is a book that is very much of its author. Like his gigs it’s sometimes fascinating, sometimes funny, sometimes baffling, testing the patience in the belief that his nonconformist charm will see him through. Surprisingly, it usually does.

• The Wholly Viable by Phil Kay is published by Heroes Books / Desert Hearts Books, priced £20 in hardback, £10 in paperback, and £2.56 on Kindle. Click here to order.

Published: 8 Oct 2013

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