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It's a Good Time to Enjoy Snarky Characters

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Summer will soon end, your vacation trip is over (if you could afford one), and many of us are heading back to work or school. Sort of puts one in a snappish mood, doesn't it?

So, especially at this time of year, novel readers can viscerally relate to fictional characters who are snappish, snarky, snippy, and smart-alecky, to quote a recently accessed thesaurus.

One great thing about seeing cantankerous characters in a novel is that they can be quite entertaining, yet they're make-believe. That means you don't have to encounter them in real life. Heck, they may even temporarily distract you from thinking about real-life snarky people -- whether they're acquaintances, coworkers, or some Fox News bozo.

I thought about all this as I've been reading Straight Man, a 1997 novel by Richard Russo of Empire Falls fame. The often-funny Straight Man stars Hank Devereaux, a professor who can't help pummeling his colleagues with sarcastic putdowns. He's even ornery enough to make food-throwing motions at ducks and geese without tossing them any food. Teasing waterfowl? How low can you get!

Hank may have a good heart underneath the attitude -- some peevish protagonists do -- but he's still a pain in the you know what. And, like the majority of snarky literary characters, he's a guy.

Kind of fitting the above profile is Frank Softly, the rogue in Wilkie Collins' A Rogue's Life (1856). This cocky chap with an attitude doesn't take life very seriously -- until he has to. Also nicer than he initially seems is Eugene Wrayburn in Charles Dickens' Our Mutual Friend (1865). (Dickens and Collins, by the way, were... mutual friends.)

Not so nice is Yunior de las Casas in Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007). He's got some positive qualities, but overall he's rather snippy -- and a womanizer to boot. One function of a disagreeable person in any novel is to serve as a contrast to a sweeter character; in the case of Diaz's book, that sweeter character is the unhappy but likable Oscar.

And there are fictional protagonists who have an abrasive side for totally understandable reasons. For instance, Henry DeTamble of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife has a sarcastic streak, but who wouldn't when getting unexpectedly wrenched into the past all the time? Things are even more excruciating for the cynical but fundamentally decent Ravic in Erich Maria Remarque's Arch of Triumph (1945); he's a refugee from the Nazis with many reasons to be angry. Yes, good people can be snarky!

More smart-alecky characters we either like or dislike? Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye (1951), Lieutenant Colonel Korn in Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), and Colin Campbell in Robert Heinlein's The Cat Who Walks Through Walls (1985), to name a few.

Speaking of sci-fi, Bedford in H.G. Wells' The First Men in the Moon (1901) is a rather testy sort who gets on one's nerves for reasons such as his desire for commercial exploitation of the moon -- even as his fellow traveler Cavor takes a purer, scientific view of things.

I had a harder time thinking of smart-alecky women in literature. Three who came to mind are the title character in Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge (2008), Frieda Haxby Palmer in Margaret Drabble's The Witch of Exmoor (1996), and the star of Colette's Claudine at School (1900).

Obviously, there are many snarky fictional characters I haven't named (omissions that could make them even snarkier if they read this post). Who are some of your favorites?

Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly referred to Robert Heinlein as Richard. This has been corrected.

Dave Astor's memoir Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press) has been published. Signed copies are now available; if you'd like to buy one, contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net. There's also an Amazon listing here. (Several things in the listing need to be corrected; for instance, the book came out in July 2012, not "May 22, 2008." Given that Dave didn't start writing the book until 2009, finishing it in 2008 would have been quite an accomplishment!)