- - Thursday, November 29, 2012

By Stephan Pastis
Andrews McMeel, $16.99, 264 pages

Some days life is one hilarious, gunpowder-packed cliche. A friend told me he once had a conversation with a daughter’s potential suitor while oiling his rifle on the porch. I asked why he wanted to scare the kid like that.

It turns out the threat was unintentional — what painter Bob Ross might call “a happy accident.” My friend just happened to be oiling his gun on the porch that day.

“Pearls Before Swine” cartoonist Stephan Pastis has his own version of the dad-with-a-gun story, which he tells in the introduction to the latest extra-large collection of comic strips. He describes himself as a social shut-in during the formative K-12 years, with one disastrous exception: “a dance in my senior year of high school.

The young Mr. Pastis invited a girl named Julie. Surprisingly, she said yes. He went to pick her up at her parents’ place in his mother’s Pontiac Phoenix. The address his date had given him turned out to be a mansion “fronted by a football-sized yard and a tall, ornate gate.” In the massive foyer, he found not just Julie but the whole family, including her younger brother.

During their awkward conversation in the adjacent living room, the father mentioned he had just bought a gun and wanted to show it off. “He was so soft-spoken and corporate that I didn’t take this as an act of an overprotective father. He just seemed proud of his gun,” Mr. Pastis writes. Julie’s dad brought out an honest-to-shotgun-shells elephant gun, bragged that it was “designed so you can’t really miss” and mugged with it.

All conversation ceased when the gun went off about 2 feet from our storyteller’s head. The foyer “was now destroyed. The fancy double doors, the Persian rug, the hardwood floor. All filled with holes.” All Julie’s dad could whisper in his defense was, “I didn’t think it was loaded.”

Mr. Pastis presents his young self as a coward who could be found “clinging to the curtains at the back of the living room, as far from the decimated foyer as could be,” but that seems a stretch. It’s unlikely that same cowardly kid would grow up to entertain U.S. troops in occupied Iraq, as he did as part of a USO tour in 2010.

He tells us a real-life story to open this fictional collection because all of its elements would fit perfectly in his comic strip. The budding young romance pruned by parental folly; the deadly slapstick; the eye-popping looks on all of the stunned faces; the pained punch line — these things are what “Pearls Before Swine” is all about.

The elephant-gun story foreshadows a new character readers meet just past the halfway mark: Potus the Pachyderm Peace Officer. This clueless copper tries to “work out a compromise” between Zebra and his next-door neighbors the Crocs, who are always trying to eat him. Yes, the elephant does have a few mishaps with his sidearm in the process.

“To break the ice” with the Crocs, Potus suggests Zebra ought to “give ‘em a hand.” Zebra says OK, “but with what?” Potus insists that he meant that literally. After all, “you’ve got two.” When an angry Zebra insists that is not an acceptable compromise, Potus pleads with him: “Got a sibling you don’t like?”

The rarely political Mr. Pastis was deluged by reader mail. Letters noted that POTUS is the Secret Service’s shorthand for president of the United States and speculated this must be a sly satire of the Middle East peace process. The reason people thought this, he writes in liner notes, “was that Zebra was being asked to give up body parts like Israel was being asked to give up land for peace.” It made so much sense to him that Mr. Mr. Pastis concedes it might have been lurking in the back of his brain as he wrote.

There are several fun new characters in this collection, including a feral ballerina and Kiko the Lonely Cactus; bad puns galore; and, of course, unprovoked aggression by “Pearls Before Swine” characters against other characters on the comics page.

In one Sunday strip, Rat breaks into the syndicate’s database and dubs the words of Benito Mussolini over “Family Circus.” While father Bill does paperwork in the background, little Dolly whispers to Jeffy, “Let us have a dagger between our teeth, a bomb in our hands, and an infinite scorn in our hearts.”

• Jeremy Lott is editor of Real Clear Books.

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