Books you would like if you only knew about them, Part 1: The Time Machine Did It by John Swartzwelder

Posted on March 7, 2011


I tend to like stories that get right to the point. This is one of my new favorite examples:

“Frank Burly is my name. Okay, it’s not my name. I lied about that. My name is Eward R. Torgenson Jr. I changed it for the business. You’ve got to have a tough sounding name if you want people to hire as a private detective out of a phone book…

As my exciting story opens, I am being punched in the stomach. But I guess a lot of stories start that way. Most of mine do anyway. The guy who was punching me was a lot burlier than I was, so it hurt plenty. But I tried to pretend that it didn’t bother me at all, that I actually liked it. It was hard to do this convincingly, because he had knocked the wind out of me there, so all I could do was smile and wink and give him the thumbs up while I waited to be able to breath again. He thought I was making fun of him and he started punching me in the stomach harder. Meanwhile, I’m not any closer to getting my breath back. Some days are like that.”

Self-deprecating, absurd, and each sentence driving towards an even more unpredictable sentence is the formula for John Swartzwelder‘s humor/mystery novel The Time Machine Did It.

Swartzwelder is the writer of 59 episodes of The Simpsons (I know this because he makes it a point to say so on the cover of each book in his Frank Burly series). He’s a bit of a recluse from what I gather. On the Simpsons DVD commentaries, the writers mention him living in a house at the top of a hill with an enormous collection of firearms somewhere in California. Prior to that he was known for chain-smoking in the writers room and spouting libertarian/vaguely right-wing political views before being allowed to submit his jokes by phone and drafts by mail.  He wrote some of my personal favorites such as the Westworld parody “Itchy & Scratchy Land,” and he’s credited for some of the series’ more surreal jokes, such as when Homer crashed his car into a tree and didn’t fly out of the windshield until 2-3 seconds later.

The Time Machine Did It is the first of his books available from what I believe is his own publishing company, Kennydale Books. And I can’t get my hands on another one quick enough. Time Machine reads like a cartoon, with characters being beat up and falling off cliffs with the sort of nonchalance that only the most consciously zany fiction can sustain. The plot itself is pretty ludicrous with Burly, the private investigator, traveling back and forth in time in order to retrieve an object for a client who may not even be able to cover the invoice. Each step he takes towards his goal creates a new obstacle, his every move altering the past in some way that could destroy all of civilization as we know it. But Swartzwelder does such a dazzling job with setting up an already insane premise, that each sentence reads like punch line after punch line–even when he takes the time to explain the logistics of the story. You only need to know that the time machine was invented by a Professor Groggins to understand this paragraph:

“I won’t bore you with the technical aspects of the machine, because, like me, you’re probably too stupid to understand most of it. You’re good looking though. Damn good looking. Don’t forget that. But basically the way it worked was this: the time mechanism itself was contained in an ordinary briefcase. All you had to do was open the briefcase, turn the machine on, fast forward past the welcoming messages and the advertisements for other of Groggins’ inventions, set the dials for the year you wanted to travel to, then wait to be blasted into the void.”

Irreverent in the truest sense of the word, and only 138 pages long, The Time Machine Did It is the same sort of quick sprint of hilarity was previously only available on Sunday nights on Fox at 8:00 pm.

Posted in: Books, Television, Writing