Ian McMillan: Why a little toilet humour goes a long way

There was a book, a slim volume with a drawing (or was it a woodcut?) on the front, that would make my dad laugh until he cried. He'd sit on the settee with his shoulders shaking and tears sauntering down his cheeks, pointing at the book as though it contained The Secret of Comedy and beckoning at me to come and just read a couple of lines to make my life complete; he'd have liked to read them out loud himself but he was scared that if he did he'd become an exploding mirth-bomb that would vapourise the street. I'd glance at the book and force out a dry chuckle that sounded like a faulty wardrobe door closing in a distant room. I was a sensitive arty teenager and I didn't find the book funny at all; my dad would wave me away and collapse in a howling heap.

Ian McMillan

The book in question was The Specialist by Charles Sale, a 29-page essay about a man called Lem Putt who, as he says in his first-person narration, is ‘the champion privy builder of Sagamon County’ and the story, such as it is, concerns Lem’s building of outdoor toilets including, as he calls them, two-holers, and in one case an eight-holer. I must admit I’d forgotten all about the book until I was reminded of it by a Mrs Copley of Sheffield, who sent me her precious copy, it arrived the other day. I read it and, across the years, I started to understand why my dad loved it so much.

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Charles Partlow ‘Chic’ Sale was an actor and vaudeville turn from South Dakota who wrote a play about an outdoor toilet builder that later became The Specialist, published in 1929; as an actor Sale was known for rural, hick and hillbilly parts and the naïve folk-wisdom of the language is what gives the book its enduring appeal; yes, I admit it, even to me. The writing is light and lyrical, and affectionate towards the people the book is about. They’re not being written off as yokels, they’re being described with love and an appreciation of the beauty of simple lives led in an atmosphere of hard, unrelenting work. Here’s a passage where Lem Putt is admiring one of the toilets he’s just built:

“When we gets to the top of the hill overlooking his place, we stops. I slips the gear in mutual, and we jest sit there lookin’ at that beautiful sight. There sits the privy on that knoll near the woodpile, painted red and white, mornin’ glories growing up over her and Mr Sun bathin her in a burst of yeller color as he drops back of them hills. You can hear the dog barkin’ in the distance, bringing the cows up fer milkin’, and the slow squeak of Elmer’s windmill pumpin’ away day after day, the same as me.”

I still don’t find it as hilarious as my dad did, but The Specialist is certainly a miniature masterpiece of American writing, in an unbroken line from Mark Twain via James Thurber to today’s The New Yorker; hunt it out if you can.