"There are several kinds of stories, but only one difficult kind -- the humorous." The observation, attributed to Mark Twain, describes the present situation in these never-ending days of national trauma and compensatory belligerence. Whatever may be the case with people's actual desires, it seems that publishers have decided to deliver such a dose of soul medicine as would float the heaviest mind onto an eternal sea of boredom. This is all wrong, and, keeping in mind that nothing is so bleak as a book that fails to be funny chortling away in one's ear, it is time to find something to laugh about. A really funny book, read with restraint and delicacy, is as great and consoling a thing as exists -- or, put more trenchantly by W. H. Auden, "Comedy is the noblest form of stoicism."

One of a Kind

The qualities of restraint and delicacy don't invariably spring to mind when one thinks of P. G. Wodehouse, yet they are at the heart of his comedy, and, with the addition of resourcefulness and command, are the essence of his greatest creation, Jeeves. Frederick Davidson reads The Inimitable Jeeves in as unruffled and decorous a manner as the admirable factotum could require (Blackstone: www. blackstoneaudio.com or 1-800- 729-2665, 7.5 hours, 5 cassettes: purchase, $39.95; rental, $10.95; 6 CDs: purchase, $48; rental, $13.95). His demeanor is judicious, and he never applies his elbow to your ribs in the jocular manner of some readers. Published in 1923, the book is the first volume in which Jeeves appears and "exerts the old cerebellum." It consists of a number of linked stories, many touching on the amatory doings of Bertie Wooster's chum Bingo Little and the unrelated problem of Bertie's penchant for unfortunate articles of apparel. But incident aside, it is the rhythm and pace of the language, the solemn tread of silliness couched in heroic idiom, that ascends to the highest level of comedy on being spoken aloud.

Murder in the Oval Office

Christopher Buckley's No Way to Treat a First Lady is the story of First Lady Beth McMann, charged with killing "America's most prominent symbol of virility," that is, her husband, an indefatigable philanderer of the sort we elect to the highest office from time to time. The resulting "Trial of the Millennium" becomes the arena for a gruesome satire on gladiatorial law and politics that cuts, to continue in this sanguinary manner, very close to the bone. The book is available in two versions; and the question of which to choose "raises a multiplicity of modalities," as one of Buckley's gas-bag timeservers pronounces in obfuscating another issue. Actor Tim Matheson gives a fast-paced, suitably pugnacious six-hour rendering of Random House's abridged version (5 CDs, $29.95 or download from www.audible.com, $17.95). Abridgement has not distorted the novel, which, after all, is not exactly a Chinese puzzle or, for that matter, a Bildungsroman; so Grover Gardner's 13-and-a-half hour narration of the unabridged work for Books on Tape (www.booksontape.com or1-800-626-3333, 9 cassettes, $72) might seem to represent more time and money than the book merits.

Except that Gardner's performance is splendid. He has a fine, patrician American voice, one that has become inextricably associated with national politics, in my mind at least, by his earlier work. Gardner, who lives around Washington, has dispatched Gore Vidal's "The American Chronicles" series of novels, Theodore White's The Making of the President, biographies of FDR and the Kennedys, as well as Robert Caro's ever-continuing life of LBJ, including the latest, Master of the Senate. (All for Books on Tape.) His delivery, veteran as he is of so much American history, has a certain startled civic purpose and federalist tang that make the political and legal grotesqueries he describes here all the funnier.

Mirth of a Nation

"It's an odd job," reflected Molie{grv}re, "making decent people laugh," but that, of course, is exactly what the New Yorker has been up to for over three-quarters of a century. Fierce Pajamas: An Anthology of Humor Writing from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder, was published last autumn, the worst possible timing for a book that just wants to have fun. Fifty-three of the pieces that appeared in the original volume (now available in paperback in its entirety) have been transformed into an audio book, read by six performers (Random House, 6 hours, 5 CDs, $29.95; or download from www.audible.com, $17.95). The three prongs of American humor -- literal-mindedness, rube's wisdom and preposterous affectation -- are gloriously in evidence. Among the works are spoofs, such as "Dusk in Fierce Pajamas" from 1934. The eponymous nightclothes drape the person of E. B. White as he recounts -- or rather, as a yearning, infatuated Byron Jennings narrates -- fevered, malarial dreams of the gracious life as absorbed from a bedside supply of Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. In another, Chris Gannon reads Bruce McCall's "In the New Canada, Living is a Way of Life," his voice wondering and concerned ("The man behind the meat counter is nothing more than a butcher"), beautifully conveying the baloney that is the prime ingredient of journalistic travel writing. Jennings and Gannon together take on "Eine Kleine Mothmusic," S.J. Perelman's 1960 epistolary imbroglio between a dry cleaner and a demanding customer (called S.J. Perelman), which is one of the great classics of American humor:

"I was not accusing you of duplicity, and I refuse to share the opinion, widespread among persons who deal with them frequently, that most dry cleaners are crooks. . . . It would be plainly superfluous, at this crucial stage in our association, to hark back to such petty and characteristic vandalism as your penchant for jabbing pins into my rainwear, pressing buttons halfway through lapels, and the like."

Another, more recent classic is "Glengarry Glen Plaid," Frank Cammuso and Hart Seeley's 1994 projection of a mail-order catalog written by David Mamet. Patrick Frederic reads this with pitch-perfect resentment, a sensibility he also brings to Andy Borowitz's "Emily Dickinson, Jerk of Amherst." The collection includes a few works that don't pan out when read aloud -- or perhaps read as they are. Louis Menand's brilliant "Listening to Bourbon" is one. But the great majority are very good and will make you happy -- or at least laugh. *

Katherine A. Powers regularly reviews audio books for Book World.