Incorrect attitude is starting to pay off


CHICAGO -- There is a feel of '50s sitcom bliss to dinner time at James Finn Garner's house, one of dozens of narrow houses on a quiet street on Chicago's North Side. Mozart plays softly on the kitchen radio. Six-month-old Liam snoozes in a baby seat next to the dinner table. And Mr. Garner and his wife, Lies, eat shish kebabs and discuss what went wrong with their garden.

To complete this scene of mealtime domesticity, peaches and shortcake, Lies (pronounced lease) Garner's specialty, appear for dessert. But when she pops open the aerosol can of whipped cream and "schluroops" a dollop on her husband's slice, the two erupt in laughter.

"We're still as tight as the paper on the wall," Mr. Garner said, with a clipped chuckle. There is not actually any wallpaper, just paint. Nor is there new furniture, a housekeeper or a nanny. The pair have not gone to Europe or given each other big presents.

But there is much to celebrate in the Garner house these days.

Two years ago, Mr. Garner was still writing bank training manuals by day, doing a comedy act by night and hoping his wife wouldn't notice that he had splurged by spending $1.25 on yet another magazine for the bus ride home.

By this summer Mr. Garner, 35, saw his second humor book, "Once Upon a More Enlightened Time," join his 1994 hit, "Politically Correct Bedtime Stories," on the New York Times best-seller list for hardcover fiction, a feat few writers ever accomplish. The books, both parodies of the arch language of political correctness, trailed along in the wake of the anti-PC wave. But they still made an impact because of their ability to use humor to cut through the brambles of self-righteousness. They have sold more than 3 million copies in 18 languages.

Predictably, Macmillan is mining that mother lode. In August, it released a new book, "Politically Correct Holiday Stories," in which Mr. Garner retells Christmas favorites, giving them titles like " 'Twas the Night Before Solstice," "Frosty the Persun of Snow" and "Rudolph the Nasally Empowered Reindeer." A CD-ROM of Mr. Garner's bedtime stories will be out for Christmas.

While such commercial success might move some families to buy a new car or house, or even a new sofa, the Garners' neighbors have yet to see any major upgrading going on at their tan and brown wood frame house. Except for a new plant stand, the birth of their first child and an uptick in the Garners' anxiety level, nothing much has changed.

Mr. Garner is now free to buy extra magazines and comic books, which are stacked on the floor of his upstairs office.

Behind Mr. Garner's desk are photographs of his comedy club routine. He and another actor are dressed as German art casualties, reading from "Kafka for Kinder." Another photograph shows him wearing what he called "a nose flute."

While performing in a comedy cabaret, "The Theater of the Bizarre," at the Elbo Room in Chicago, he first came up with the revised bedtime stories, which he read between acts to keep audiences entertained.

Among them was his revision of "Little Red Riding Hood" whose "mother asked her to take a basket of fresh fruit and mineral water to her grandmother's house -- not because this was womyn's work, mind you, but because the deed was generous and helped engender a feeling of community."

"Furthermore," the story goes on, "her grandmother was not sick, but rather was in full physical and mental health and was fully BTC capable of taking care of herself as a mature adult."

The ideas for the stories had come, Mr. Garner said, from an article about an elementary school that had banned Halloween costumes like hobo outfits because they were considered offensive. He had also read about self-appointed critics who called Mother Goose oppressive. "As if Mother Goose is the source of all the domestic violence in this world," he mused.

"I just got tired of all of the ranting and humorlessness," he said. "I decided I'd like to try to take some pressure off that debate. And it's just ripe for parody."

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