Q. Name a very exclusive private school for affluent adolescents with reading problems.
A. Phillips Dyslexeter Academy.
Q. What is the national organization for people who want to break the habit of philandering?
A. Adulterers Anonymous.
Q. What are the most notable churches in the nation's capital?
A. There are many. They include the Church of Our Lady of the Legislature, where the Virgin Mary once appeared wagging her finger at a congressional secretary who was on the brink of losing her virtue; the Shrine of St. Accountus of the Loophole, near the Teasury Department and of course the Cathedral of St. Hilda of the Canape, who spreads her blessings on Washington hostesses.
If you are unaware of these useful and venerable institutions, it is because you have not been reading The American Spectator, where John Nollson, who "lives on the fringes of Washington, D.C.," writes about them and related topics each month. And you have nobody but yourself to blame.
Or maybe the blame is partly Nollson's, for he also lives on the fringes of humor, dreaming up, month after month, some ideas that work and some that almost work.
The trouble with comic material is that it has to be perfect. You can forgive a pianist for missing a note or two in the "Hammerklavier" sonata, because it aspires toward eternal values, and when you are storming heaven you don't have the leisure or the petty-mindedness to worry about the odd minim or semiquaver. But let a singer drop a syllable in one of those terribly fast, delightfully trivial patter songs by Gilbert and Sullivan, and the effect is calamitous. Thus, one experiences a small shock, in John Nollson's little essay called "Literary Persuasion," on discovering that he has misspelled the name of Dietrich Buxtehude -- and, furthermore, that he seems to think it can rhyme with "solitude."
This is one of Nollson's misses, but there are also hits -- for example, the episode in which Captain Ahab is summoned before the Federal Whaling Commission. "Tell us," a commissioner asks him, "what exactly does the White Whale symbolize for you? It is a symbol of nature? Are you a Christ figure? What's it all about? We tend to think you are a repressed homosexual, and maybe it's time you came out of the cabin, as it were. God knows, there are hints galore that your ship is rife with pederasty. There's probably something going on with Ishmael and that tattooed cannibal of a harpooner of yours. Let's talk about it."
Ahab's answer is hardly one to soothe a bureaucrat: "It is the will of God that we sail the seven seas, hunting whales, bringing home their oil so that the homes of the world can be illuminated. Aye, it's a hard and dangerous course, but we shall steer by it!"
Nollson is also above par, usually, in recounting the problems and adventures of the prime beneficiary of the seniority system in Congress, Sen. Larethan Wimbol, who has been around since well before the Civil War. He sometimes shares with us an acute perception about what it is really like in the nation's capital -- for example: "One crucial distinction between Washington, D.C. and New York City is that, in Washington, one almost never encounters anyone named Irving." But one must wade through a fair number of near-misses to find such treasure.
Nollson's ideas are frequently more interesting than the pieces of writing in which they are embodied -- possibly because they are usually ideas that require lavish space for their full elaboration, and he is limited to the relatively small confines of a magazine column. His style also tends a bit toward the academic, rather than the easy colloquialism of most American comic writing. But he can be recommended for those who like to laugh at absurd ideas: to worry about America's growing dependence on imported mineral water; to take comfort in the thought that intergalactic communication will be about as fast as the U.S. Postal Service, since messages traveling at the speed of light can be exchanged once in 18 years; to wonder at the Republic of Pate whose chief natural resource is its gregarious ambassador and his spectacular parties, or to frantasize about the replay of speak-easy days that we can expect when the Constitution is finally amended to outlaw smoking