It’s the end of the 19th century, that stereotypically prudish era marked by Queen Victoria’s reign. The sun hasn’t yet set on the empire, but social discontent bubbles, about to boil over. Rudyard Kipling publishes the kind-of-sort-of-most-definitely racist Jungle Book, and Jack the Ripper starts terrorizing London.
Meanwhile, three men and a troublesome dog take a disastrous trip down the Thames. That is the deceptively simple plot of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), a comedic travel narrative by Jerome K. Jerome.
The narrator, J., finds himself in need of a vacation in the wake of a 19th century version of delusional WebMD self-diagnosis. Feeling ill, he goes to the British Museum to learn more about his symptoms, and he concludes that he has everything from cholera to zymosis—well, almost everything. He somehow escapes the dreaded housemaid’s knee.
He commiserates with his two friends, George and Harris. They determine that they are all overworked, though George’s work consists of sleeping, Harris’s of eating and I’m not totally convinced J. works at all.
Obviously, the only way to cure their ailments is to go on a trip with their ferociously misbehaved dog, Montmorency. Sound logic.
Sometimes you just need a little fresh air, a little time to recalibrate. It’s the millennial way. Wait, what century are we in again?
J., George and Harris determine that a river trip from Kingston to Oxford is best, as the country will be boring and the sea will be turbulent.
Together, they decide on accommodations, food and drink, and even how many towels to bring. It could read like a travel guide—how to take a river trip—if J. weren’t such an easily distracted narrator.
The book almost reads like the thought patterns of someone with severe ADD. When George outlines the lunch menu, he says that they are not to bring cheese as it will flavor everything else. That’s fair. I love me some Stilton, but I will concede that it might be a bit, ah, overpowering.
Moving on. Except we don’t move on. Instead, J. recounts a pages-long story of the time he helped a friend deliver a cheese so smelly it almost ruined the unnamed man’s life before he gets back to the problem at hand.
Jerome’s humor is laugh-out-loud funny—for the most part. It is side-eyed, digressive and charming—to a point. Reading Three Men is kind of like babysitting your friend who took way too many shrooms. He’s entertaining to listen to for a while, sure, but he’s frustrating to deal with at times.
You try to ask simple questions—How much did you take? Do you know what year it is? Would you like to drink some water? Instead of getting simple answers—too much, no idea, yes please—you get a grown man sitting on the ground talking about how it’s all connected, man, it’s just all connected. You want to snap your fingers in his face and tell him to come back to Earth.
There are moments of sincerity that break up the onslaught of observational quips and humorous stories. J. recounts the history of the little villages upon the Thames, and in these moments, Three Men almost resembles a genuine travel guide.
He gives the reader tips on how to enjoy the small things in life, the in-between moments, all the while winking at your frustration when he starts to digress into a memory about towing a boat full of women.
At times his sincerity even borders on downright saccharine. J. waxes poetic about the importance of enjoying “the windy shadows skimming lightly o’er the shallows…the glittering sunbeams flitting in and out among the ripples.” The writing is quite lovely at times, if distracted from the point.
It takes almost 30 pages for the men to even start the trip, and when we finally get to the Thames the trip is largely a disaster. It’s not so much three men in a boat as it is one man having trouble paying attention to his surroundings.
But in the end, it’s the in-between moments that make the book work. It’s the cheese and Uncle Podger and the tin of pineapple that make Jerome’s account worth reading.
Were it just a straightforward tale of a trip full of petty fights, closed locks and accidental trespassing, it would become tedious in its misery. Jerome has this uncanny ability to make his readers laugh in the most uncomfortable moments.
Three Men is an anomaly, much like the time in which it was published. It’s part travelogue and part comedy, with a dash of purple prose thrown in for good measure. It’s beautiful, it’s weird and it makes me never, ever want to step foot on a river boat.