This year I’m blogging once a month about finishing reading everything Roald Dahl wrote. Full disclosure: I’m not a Dahl scholar, just a humble fan of his work. This is a lay endeavor, perhaps not even all that fascinating to others. We’ll see. By the end, I hope to be able to say “I’ve read everything written by Roald Dahl!” or at least “I’ve read everything Roald Dahl wrote save for that one play I can’t seem to find a script for.” Something like that.
Dirty Beasts is a companion to Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes. My father bought me Revolting Rhymes when I was young, and I remember thinking was absolutely hilarious. I have no idea if it would induce side-eye and skeptical eyebrow now, as did many of the pieces in Dirty Beasts. Though, to be fair, I liked this book better than Rhyme Stew which I’ll get to in a moment here.
So… Dirty Beasts. It contains nine poems, all about animals such as the pig, the scorpion, and the anteater. (Wikipedia thoughtfully lets us know, however, that “The Tummy Beast” is made up—who says it’s not a reliable source?) Many of them are enjoyable if you’re into the schadenfreude and misanthropy of Dahl (and if you’re not, I’m not sure why you’re reading this). The pig from “The Pig,” for example, doesn’t need a spider and a whimsical plan to save himself from being butchered—instead, he just up and murders the farmer… and eats him. Nice!
In fact, animals devouring humans is a major—dare I?—motif in Dirty Beasts. “The Ant-Eater,” in another justice-for-exploited-animals story, eats an aunt. The lion is super into devouring kiddies. Crocky-Wock, the Crocodile, also enjoys a spot of child. My personal favorite was not one of these, however—it was “The Porcupine” which isn’t so much about porcupines as how terrifying dentists are.
So why the side-eye and skeptical eyebrow? Well, Dirty Beasts manages to be even more sophomoric than usual, for Dahl, and in sloppy ways, boring ways. “The Scorpion,” while amusing in that it contains a child being stung by a scorpion creeping under his sheets, is really all about how the scorpion loves to sting butts. The conclusion of “The Cow” involves a winged cow shitting upon a “horrible” Afghani onlooker, who is (bonus!) described as “a silly foreign freak.” And worst, perhaps, was “The Frog” which despite being only 8 pages of large print, illustrated verse, is maybe 50% about how French people are completely and utterly hilariously grotesque for eating frogs and snails. (“Imagine that! My stomach turns!/One might as well eat slugs and worms.”) Yawn.
But at least it was better—and funnier—than Rhyme Stew.
So yeah, Dirty Beasts is for kids, sure. I understand, as an adult, I’m less amused by poop-and-butts humor. Rhyme Stew, however, declares it is “unsuitable for small readers” right there on the cover, and yet… well, butts are victimized thrice in the first poem (a retelling of “Dick Whittington and his Cat”) and show up pretty frequently in the rest of the verses.
But butt humor isn’t the problem with Rhyme Stew. The problem is that the poems are largely… kind of bad? By which I mean unfunny (“The Tortoise and the Hare”) overly long (“Hansel and Gretel”; “The Emperor’s New Clothes”) or deeply inappropriate (most of the rest of them).
If eating people could be called the major thematic element of Dirty Beasts, one could say the weird amount of… let’s call it “lighthearted sexual assault humor” is the central motif of Rhyme Stew. For example, “A Hand in the Bird” (!) is about a virginal older lady who is surprised to find her vicar running his hands up her thighs. “Physical Training” is about a teacher taking a shine to one of her students and keeping him after gym class to “teach [him] things.” What sort of things? Uh… wrestling. And then there’s “Hot and Cold” which… well, it begins with the line “A woman who my mother knows/came in and took off all her clothes.” Given that Dahl’s protagonist lets us know he wasn’t “very old” when this occurs… I don’t even know. I laughed, true, but it was a rather staccato, skeptical bark of a laugh.
Before I discuss the worst of the poems, however, I shall take a moment to say that there is one worthwhile longer verse in Rhyme Stew. “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” is a delight. After learning “Open Sesame” works on all doors, Ali Baba decides to use his new trick in London, at the Ritz, where he spies on “saucy women wearing jewels/and baronets and other fools” who are, well… using their rooms at the Ritz for matters clandestine, let’s say. It’s funny. Whatever. Don’t judge me.
But then we come to the final poem, “Aladdin and the Magic Lamp,” which… where to start? Maybe with the fact that the role of Jaffar is played by “Jock MacFaddin,” a half-Scots, half-Chinese man. What kind of man is he? Well, the first line tells us he’s a “wicked old Chinese.” Well, you immediately know what you’re in for, I suppose.
I’m not sure if what I wrote about Dahl’s Going Solo is an apologia for the man or not, but while I found the depictions of race relations intriguing in that book, I’ve never enjoyed Dahl’s penchant for racial humor. At least, as an adult—not sure if I even noticed that kind of stuff as a kid. I mean… re-reading The BFG a few years back, for example, I found myself rolling my eyes nigh-constantly over the endless “this ethnicity tastes like this” jokes that come in around the middle. Is the stuff about capturing dreams still great? Sure! But much of the book surrounding that sequence is pretty tiresome.
“Aladdin and the Magic Lamp” has zero redeeming qualities, however. Not only is it overly long and 100% unfunny, the weird “Chinese Jock” jokes are wearying, as are the Mikado-style fake “Oriental” names for others, like Kung Egg Nog (OH ROALD DAHL NO), Emperor O No Go, and Mister How U Pong (“who always beat him at mah-jong” please, seriously, make it stop, omg seriously).
Aladdin turns out also to be Chinese (maybe?) and is convinced to go into the cave of wonders after Jock MacFaddin tells him bare-bottomed girls are in there, waiting to be seduced. Or something. I dunno.
Oh, and worse even than the poem are the illustrations by Quentin Blake, which feature a bespectacled, queue-wearing Chinese man in a kilt and Tam o’ Shanter. Aladdin, for his part, sports a paddy-hat. Oh my f’in god.
I… woof. Next month will be better! I’m sure. It’ll be The Gremlins, maybe, or Sometime Never… which might be the same story, but in novel form, for grownups? We’ll just have to see!