Fifteen Knee-Slappers
Assorted Funny Books, Readings and Reviews

The Guardian recently asked fifteen authors to list their favourite funny book. The heading of the article was "I fell out of bed laughing." Fifteen titles were dutifully produced.

Problem is, there was no way for readers to know if any of these books were complete, true, dyed-in-the-wool knee-slappers. And if you look up the title, what you get is a discussion, a summary of the plot, if any. Hardly side-splitting.

My thought is that if I want a laugh, I want a laugh . . . not some writer grappling with the problem of telling me how funny a book is, or was, or should be. It reminded me of that old saw from my earliest writing classes. Don't just tell me. Show me.

So what we've done here is to offer a dozen readings from authors that we think are the best, those with a raucous wit, a sense of timing, and a vocabulary to match. These selections are drawn from the many we've presented on these pages over the last twenty-two years. This will give you a chance to decide for yourself if these writers are worth the candle.

At the same time we offer here a link to The Guardian's "I fell out of bed laughing" page so you can see who they like. And, if you go down to the very bottom of the page, you'll find over a thousand comments that have come in from readers, listing their favorite whimsical, amusing, jocular or diverting books.

The Rural Life
S. J. Perelman
One night recently, for instance, I suddenly felt I had to think things out and packed my family off to the seashore. It was ten above zero and building to a blizzard, but when I have to think things out I have no time for sentimental considerations. Breathing a sigh of relief, I double-locked the doors, barricaded them with bureaus and chairs, and set about preparing supper. I had some difficulty getting the beans out of the can, but I shortly contrived a serviceable bandage for my wrist and snuggled down in front of a crackling fire with the diaries of Wilfred Seawen Blunt. I had read little more than three pages when I realized I was holding the diaries upside down and listening intently to a noise in the kitchen.

Loosely speaking, the sound combined a creak and a sigh suggestive of a musical saw. Now and again, it was smothered by a soft, mirthless laugh ending in a sharp click. My dogs, quick to guard their master, formed into a hollow square and withdrew under the couch. I dried my palms, which seemed to have accumulated a slight film of oil, and picked up the fire tongs. "Who's there?" I inquired in a crisp falsetto. (After all, I thought, why waste a trip to the kitchen if nobody was there.) There was no answer; whoever it was didn't even have the common decency to reply. Angered, I strode toward the kitchen, whistling to warn of my approach, and flung open the door. Everything was in apple-pie order, including the apple pie, except that the rocking chair was bobbing slowly back and forth.

"That's odd---very odd," I murmured, re-entering the living room and tripping over a chair. "Probably caused by a draft from an open window, or something."

"Or something," agreed one of the dogs from under the couch.

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The Year They Tried
To Block The Deputy

Warren Hinckle
I locked myself away with a late edition of the Manhattan Yellow Pages and a bottle of Scotch whiskey and drafted a magnificent telegram, in length somewhere between the Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence, and kept the Western Union lady on the telephone for nearly three hours, as I dictated to her the names and addresses of an eclectic group of invitees drawn at whim and whimsy from, the Yellow Pages. I am no longer in possession of a complete list of those opinion-making journals which received a ramblingly urgent telegram the next morning inviting them to meet Edward M. Keating for Bloody Marys and Danish at the Waldorf Astoria, but some stained notes indicate the nature of the constituency:

The American Organist, Bedside Nurse, Casket and Sunnyside, Detergent Age, Elementary Electronics, Floor Covering Weekly, Foreign Affairs, Greeting Card Magazine, Hebrew Weekly, Hardware Age, Hospital Management, Hot Rod Magazine, Irish Echo, Intimate Story, Iron Age, Jack and Jill, Jewish Braille Review, Kosher Food Guide, The Journal of Nuclear Medicine, Little Flower Magazine, Metal Finishing, Mobile Homes Magazine, Model Airplane News, Modern Concrete, New York Daily Fruit and Vegetable Reporter, Oriental Rug Magazine, Paris Match, The Polish Press Agency, Personal Romances, Plastic Laminating, Professional Barber, Progressive Grocer, Refuse Removal Journal, Rubber Age, Saucer News, Scholastic Coach, Sexology, Solid Wastes Management, and so on.

I asked the exhausted Western Union operator her name, as I wanted to send her one hundred roses; she declined, I believe suspecting baser motives. I crashed the into bed, exhausted, to await the dawn, secure in the hope that Ed Keating would have the pleasure of the company of at least some ladies and gentlemen of the press in the morning; most of those papers had never been invited to a press conference at the Waldorf, let alone in a telegram from a Catholic publisher who was defending an anti-Catholic play against Jewish pressure groups.

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American Schools
H. L. Mencken
The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality. That is its aim in the United States, whatever pretensions of politicians, pedagogues other such mountebanks, and that is its aim everywhere else.

If any contrary theory is cherished among us it is simply because public schools are still new in America, and so their true character and purpose are but little understood. The notion that they were invented by American patriotism and ingenuity, and go back, in fact, to the first days of the New England Puritans --- this notion is, of course, only hollow nonsense.

The early Puritan schools were not public schools at all, in the modern sense; they were what we now call church schools; their aim was to save the young from theological heresy --- the exact aim of the Catholic parochial schools and the Jewish Cheder schools today. The public schools, which originated in Prussia during the Eighteenth Century and did not reach the United States, save sporadically, until the middle of the century following --- even in Massachusetts there was no Board of Education until 1837 ---, have the quite different aim of putting down political and economic heresy.

Their purpose, in brief, is to make docile and patriotic citizens, to pile up majorities, and to make John Doe and Richard Doe as nearly alike, in their everyday reactions and ways of thinking, as possible.

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Fun at the Democratic
Convention 1968

Paul Krasner

Two men in suits were sitting in front. We got out of our car and walked back to theirs. They tried to appear nonchalant.

"Hey," Abbie said, "are you guys following us"

"Yeah." Reluctantly.

"Are you local or federal?"

"We're plainclothes officers with the Chicago Police Department. You're under 24-hour surveillance."

"Wow," I said, with perverted pride, "three shifts, just for us."

"No, we're short on manpower. We're on two 12-hour shifts."

"Well, it's an honor just to be nominated."

We introduced ourselves and shook hands with the cops. Their names were Herbie and Mac. We offered them official Yippie lapel buttons.

"No, thanks, we're on duty."

I explained that if we happened to lose them in a crowd, we'd be able to spot them more easily if they were wearing Yippie buttons, so they accepted the buttons and pinned them on their jackets. But this kind of communication is a two-way street, so the cops asked us if we were planning to eat soon, because they had been following us for a while and now they were hungry. Although we had terminal dry mouth from the hash oil, maybe lunch would stimulate our salivary glands. We were new in town and asked the cops to recommend a good restaurant.

"Well," said Herbie, "the Pickle Barrel in Old town has pretty good food."

"And," Mac added, "their prices are reasonable."

It felt like we were in a TV commercial of the future, where all the authority figures are cops.

"Okay," I asked, "what's the best way to get there?"

"Follow us."

This was indeed a rare and precious moment, to be embedded in amber for posterity. We obediently got back in our car and followed the cops. I thought they were going to try and shake us, but we managed never to lose sight of them. It was as if someone had pushed the Rewind button, and now our slow motion chase scene seemed to be running backwards.

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Another Stinky Dog Story
R. P. Warren
Then Tom Stark and one of the reporters shoved on the tail end and I heaved on the front end and held my breath and we got Buck the seven feet to the Boss. The Boss braced himself, and we heaved up the front end, and the Boss got a gust of Buck.

That gust was enough.

"God's sake, Pappy," the Boss demanded as soon as he had mastered his spasm, "What you been feeding this dog?"

"He ain't got any appetite," Old Man Stark said.

"He ain't got any appetite for violets," the Boss said, and spat on the ground.

"The reason he fell," the photographer observed, "was because his hind legs gave down. Once we get him propped we got to work fast."

"We?" the Boss said. "What the hell you mean we. You come kiss him. One whiff would curdle milk and strip a pine tree."

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Dirty Artists &
the Clean Rich

Joyce Cary
"I'm sorry we can't offer you a bed beyond Monday, but we have only two bedrooms."

"I could sleep on the sofa," I said.

"Oh, Mr. Jimson, but we couldn't allow you to be so uncomfortable."

"Then why shouldn't Sir William sleep with the Professor and I'll sleep with her ladyship. You can count me as a lady --- at sixty-seven."

Alabaster turned green and coughed as if he was going into consumption. But I knew I couldn't shock cultured people like the Beeders. They get past being shocked before they are out of school, just as they get over religion and other unexpected feelings.

"A very good idea," said Sir William, laughing.

"I am greatly complimented," said the lady, "but I'm afraid I should keep you awake. I'm such a bad sleeper."

"Perhaps," said Sir William, getting up. "Mr. Jimson would like to see some of your work, my dear."

"Oh no, Bill, please."

"But Flora, that last thing of yours was really remarkable --- I'm not suggesting that it was up to professional standards. But as a quick impression ---"

"Oh no," said her ladyship, "Mr. Jimson would laugh at my poor efforts."

But of course they both wanted me to see her work and say that it was wonderful. And why not. They were so kind, so good. "Why," I said, "amateurs do much the most interesting work." The Professor began to hop about like a dry pea on the stove. He coughed and made faces at me, meaning "Be careful, be tactful, remember these people are used to luxury of all kinds."

But I laughed and said, "Don't you worry, Professor, I'm not pulling her ladyship's leg. I wouldn't do such a thing. I have too much respect for that charming limb."

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Jon Gallant & L. W. Milam
If you have legal work papers, there are many jobs for you in the United States. You can be a farm worker where you get to test pesticides directly in the field.

You can be a construction worker and tear down the scenic older parts of our cities.

Sales are very attractive to some people. Many unskilled workers go into "telemarketing." This means they call people on the telephone during dinner or while they are performing brain surgery and try to sell them something.

Car salesmen sell you cars permitting you and your descendants to make payments until 2095 or so. Time-life salesmen take up your time, sometimes for life (toda la vida) selling you things you may not even need until the next life.

You can also work in a sweatshop, making sweat. The most popular sweat is used by businessmen being investigated by the IRS, or mothers with a dozen or so four-year olds at an all-day birthday party. High-test designer sweat (called "perspiration") is available to upper-class people as they tend their gardens, run on treadmills, or lie in the sun working on their melanoma. Finally, there is your industrial-strength sweat used by steel workers, roofers, field hands, or drivers stopped for a broken tail-light who at the moment are carrying illegal drugs under the seat.

The most popular sweatshops are located in the Bronx or southeast Los Angeles, in nondescript run-down industrial or apartment buildings. They can be recognized by storm fences topped with accordion wire, and pit-bulls who chase workers trying to get out on vacation.

There are some poor people (gente pobre) in this country. Most of them are unwed mothers who receive money from a Welfare Office where social workers talk mean to them and threaten to cut off their payments if they don't stop working or having babies without permission or living with men who are not their husbands. Poor people are also required to watch daytime TV because they can't afford to go shopping or go to the movies.

When poor people are not watching TV, having babies or pretending not to work (or being talked at by their social worker), they raise large black Norwegian rats in their apartments as a hobby.

Poor people's rooms are so small they often have to go outside to change their minds. For that reason, many of them prefer to live in the streets. Supermarkets loan them shopping carts so they can carry their clothes, bags, food stamps, bottles, husbands and children around with them.

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Two Hundred Horse-
Power Cheeses

Jerome K. Jerome
I called for the cheeses, and took them away in a cab. It was a ramshackle affair, dragged along by a knock-kneed, broken-winded somnambulist, which his owner, in a moment of enthusiasm, during conversation, referred to as a horse. I put the cheeses on the top, and we started off at a shamble that would have done credit to the swiftest steam-roller ever built, and all went merry as a funeral bell, until we turned a corner. There, the wind carried a whiff from the cheeses full on our steed. It woke him up, and, with a snort of terror, he dashed off at three miles an hour. The wind still blew in his direction, and before we reached the end of the street he was laying himself out at the rate of nearly four miles an hour, leaving the cripples and stout old ladies simply nowhere.

It took two porters as well as the driver to hold him in at the station; and I do not think they would have done it, even then, had not one of the men had the presence of mind to put a handkerchief over his nose, and to light a bit of brown paper.

I took my ticket, and marched proudly up the platform, with my cheeses, the people falling back respectfully on either side. The train was crowded, and I had to get into a carriage where there were already seven other people. One crusty old gentleman objected, but I got in, notwithstanding; and, putting my cheeses upon the rack, squeezed down with a pleasant smile, and said it was a warm day. A few moments passed, and then the old gentleman began to fidget.

"Very close in here," he said.

"Quite oppressive," said the man next to him.

And then they both began sniffing, and, at the third sniff, they caught it right on the chest, and rose up without another word and went out. And then a stout lady got up, and said it was disgraceful that a respectable married woman should be harried about in this way, and gathered up a bag and eight parcels and went. The remaining four passengers sat on for a while, until a solemn-looking man in the corner who, from his dress and general appearance, seemed to belong to the undertaker class, said it put him in mind of dead baby; and the other three passengers tried to get out of the door at the same time, and hurt themselves.

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Betty MacDonald

Then I gathered the eggs. Gathering eggs would be like one continual Easter morning if the hens would just be obliging and get off the nests. Cooperation, however, is not a chickenly characteristic and so at egg-gathering time every nest was overflowing, the hen got her feet planted, and a shoot-if-you-must-this-old-grey-head look in her eye. I made all manner of futile attempts to dislodge her --- sharp sticks, flapping apron, loud scary noises, lure of mash and grain --- but she would merely set her mouth, clutch her eggs under her and dare me. In a way, I can't blame the hen --- after all, soft-shelled or not, they're her kids.

The rooster now is something else again. He doesn't give a damn if you take every egg in the place and play handball. He doesn't care if the chicken house is knee-deep in weasels and blood. He just flicks a speck from his lapel and continues to stroll around, stepping daintily over the lifeless but still warm body of a former mistress, his lustful eye appraising the legs and breast of another conquest.

Bob used to say that it was my approach to egg-gathering which was wrong. I reached timidly under the hens and of course they pecked my wrists and as I jerked my hands away I broke the eggs or cracked them on the edges of the nests. Bob reached masterfully under the hens and they gave without a murmur. I tried to assume this I-am-the-master attitude but I never for a moment fooled a hen and after three or four pecks I would be a bundle of chattering hysteria with the hens in complete command.

Bob usually got home from "Town" around five and nothing ever again in all of my life will give me the ecstatic sensation as did the first sound of his returning truck. Ever few seconds I dashed to the windows to note the progress of the lights and then finally in he came, smelling deliciously of tobacco, coldness and outdoors and his arms laden with mail, newspapers, magazines, cigarettes, candy and groceries. How we reveled in those Saturday nights, smoking, eating, reading aloud and talking; unless, perhaps, as sometimes happened, I had forgot to order kerosene. Then I squeezed the can and poured all of the lamps together and turned way up the wick of the one lamp with the scant cup of kerosene in it.

But the effect of the pale, scant-watted light, the sweating walls and Bob's set mouth and hurt eyes was more than a little as if we were trapped in an old mine shaft. Stove loved situations like that and added to the discomfort by quickly turning black whenever I lifted his lids, then taking advantage of the murky gloom he would put out his oven door and gouge me in the shins. Bob was never one to scold but he showed his disappointment in me by leaving the table still chewing his last bite and thrusting himself into bed, to dream, no doubt, of the good old days of wife beating.

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Drilling for Boils
Charles Bukowski
He pushed the electric needle into my back. I was being drilled. The pain was immense. It filled the room. I felt the blood run down my back. Then he pulled the needle out.

"Now we're going to get another one," said the doctor.

He jammed the needle into me. Then he pulled it out and jammed it into a third boil. Two other men had walked in and were standing there watching. They were probably doctors. The needle went into me again.

"I never saw anybody go under the needle like that," said one of the men.

"He gives no sign at all," said the other man.

"Why don't you guys go out and pinch some nurse's ass?" I asked them.

"Look, son, you can't talk to us like that!"

The needle dug into me. I didn't answer. "The boy is evidently very bitter."

"Yes, of course, that's it."

The men walked out.

"Those are fine professional men," said my doctor. "It's not good of you to abuse them."

"Just go ahead and drill," I told him.

He did. The needle got very hot but he went on and on. He drilled my entire back, then he got my chest. Then I stretched out and he drilled my neck and my face.

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Kicking a Duck
Ed Zern
I took the mallard out of the cage, turned the faucet on and held the duck under it. It didn't seem to be getting very wet, but after a while it began to feel heavier, and while I was trying to decide if it was just my arm getting tired a car pulled into the yard and a skinny little bald-headed man got out. "My name's Pritchert," he said to Duncan. "I'm an inspector for the New Jersey League Against Cruelty to Animals. We check on shooting preserves, and if you don't mind I'll look around."

"Help yourself," Duncan said. "Be my guest. What I'd like to see, though, is somebody from the New Jersey League Against Cruelty to Shooting Preserve Operators." While Duncan was explaining some of the cruelties inflicted on him by various types of shooters, Mr. Pritchert came over and watched me for a minute. "What are you doing to that duck?" he asked.

"I'm wetting it," I said.

"That's what he thinks," Duncan said. "He's been holding it under there for ten minutes, and it's no wetter now than when he started. The only thing he's wetting is the property. Why don't you pinch him?"

"Why are you wetting it?" Pritchert asked, more suspicious than ever.

"So I can kick it," I said, changing the duck to the other hand as my arm was about to drop off.

"Ha!'' said Pritchert triumphantly, and then he stopped and thought a minute and said, "Kick it?"

"That's right," I said. "I suppose that sounds kind of kooky to somebody who isn't a writer."

"Why in the world would you suppose a thing like that?" Duncan said, and Pritchert said, "Kicking a duck is cruelty, mister. I'm obliged to warn you. You kick that duck and we've got an airtight case against you."

"If he can't kick any better than he shoots," Duncan said, "you wouldn't have a snowball's case in hell."

"Chance in hell," I said. "Good Lord. Snowball's chance in hell. Case in hell doesn't make sense."

"Well, now," Duncan said. "That's very good. You stand there holding a duck under a faucet that you drove seventy miles so you could kick it, and you're saying I don't make sense. Mama mia!"

"What's that?" Pritchert asked.

"Italian," I said. "It means his mother. It's an expression."

"Not that," Pritchert said. "That cage. Is that what you keep your ducks in? That little bitty thing?"

"What do you keep yours in," Duncan said, miffed. "A suite at the Waldorf Astoria?"

"He doesn't keep them in that," I said. "That cage was just for the one I needed for kicking."

"Look," said Duncan, "are you going to run that faucet all day? This place is a quagmire already, and that duck's still dry as a bone." It was, too, and my arms were so tired I turned off the water and put the duck back in the cage.

"Keeping a duck in that thing is cruelty," Pritchert said, "and no two ways about it."

"I agree," Duncan said. "Why don't you arrest him and take him into Trenton. Or anyway get him the hell out of here so I can get some work done."

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Das Volkswagen
Tom Weller
ACT 1, Scene 1
(A Grotto)
In a dank cavern that houses the forge of the gods lives the young hero Eggfried; his brothers Siegfried, a dwarf, Siegmund, a giant, and Siegheil, a toad; and their father and mother Siegar, a dragon, and Siegarette, an end table. Eggfried rails against having to hang around the grotto with such a peculiar family when he should be out doing heroic deeds. Stealing Siegmund's enchanted bicycle, he defies his father and uses the magic anvil of the gods to forge a sword from it.

While he is at it, he also forges a check on his father's bank account. He names the sword Nothing and sets out into the forest. In a rage, Siegmund invents psychiatry.

- - - From Science Made Stupid
Tom Weller
©1985 Houghton Mifflin Company

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Frying the Flag
Lawrence Durrell
The reason for a marked disposition towards misprints was not far to seek; the composition room, where the paper was hand-set daily, was staffed by half a dozen hirsute Serbian peasants with greasy elf-locks and hands like shovels. Bowed and drooling and uttering weird eldrich-cries from time to time they went up and down the type-boxes with the air of half-emancipated baboons hunting for fleas. The master printer was called Icic (pronounced Itchitch) and he sat forlornly in one corner living up to his name by scratching himself from time to time. Owing to such laborious methods of composition the editors were hardly ever able to call for extra proofs; even as it was the struggle to get the paper out on the streets was grandiose to watch. Some time in the early thirties it had come out a day late and that day had never been made up. With admirable single-mindedness the sisters decided, so as not to leave gaps in their files, to keep the date twenty-four hours behind reality until such times as, by a superhuman effort, they could produce two newspapers in one day and thus catch up.

Bessie and Enid Grope sat in the editorial room which was known as the "den." They were both tabby in colouring and wore rusty black. They sat facing one another pecking at two ancient typewriters which looked as if they had been obtained from the Science Museum of the Victoria and Albert.

Bessie was News, Leaders, and Gossip; Enid was Features, Make-up and general Sub. Whenever they were at a loss for copy they would mercilessly pillage ancient copies of Punch or Home Chat. An occasional hole in the copy was filled with a ghoulish smudge --- local block-making clearly indicated that somewhere a poker-work fanatic had gone quietly out of his mind. In this way the Central Balkan Herald was made up every morning and then delivered to the composition room where the chain-gang rapidly reduced it to gibberish.






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Pier-Luigi Zucchini
After leaving Venice for the court of Abalone, the Green Priest disappeared from view for several years, leading his biographers to suspect hanky-panky or worse. We next encounter him leading a string band (or possibly a string bean --- contemporary accounts differ) at the Duchy of Antipasto. About this time, Zucchini began experimenting with the large scale works which were to earn him his subsequent obscurity.His "Pastrami Sonatæ," a series of seventeen thousand Cantatas for each feast day, were published between 1647 and the morning after. Many of these works have been lost, by sheer good fortune, but the fragments that remain mark Zucchini as a consummate master of the picayune. Scored for large forces (double choir, fat soloists, and military band obligato) each work lasts no more than eleven seconds but seems much longer. The "Sonatæ" received several public performances, as a result of which Zucchini was deported.

In his later years, Zucchini turned his attention to the more intimate forms of the chamber ensemble. A striking series of quartets for transverse flute, viola da gamba, oregano and chili pepper flowed from his pen, sometimes dripping off the desk and staining his cuffs. During this period, Zucchini also wrote his monumental treatise on edible counterpoint, which eventually came out in paper but was snubbed by The New York Review of Books.

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It's 'Nudnick,'
Not 'Noodnick'

S, J. Perelman
(The Paris Review)
Q: Your writing --- like Joyce's, in fact --- presupposes a great deal of arcane knowledge on the part of your reader. There are references to cultural figures and styles long past, obsolete words, architectural oddities --- reverberations that not everybody will catch. Do you agree that you're writing for a particularly cultured audience?

A: Well, I don't know if that grocer on my shoulder digs all the references, but other than him, I write pretty much for myself. If, at the close of business each evening, I myself can understand what I've written, I feel the day hasn't been totally wasted.

Q: Perhaps you would talk about the incongruity that turns up so often in your use of language.

A: And then perhaps I would not. Writers who pontificate about their own use of language drive me right up the wall. I've discovered that this is an occupational disease of those ladies with three-barreled names one meets at the Authors' League, the PEN Club, and so forth. In what spare time I have, I read the expert opinions of V. S. Pritchett and Edmund Wilson, who are to my mind the best-qualified authorities on the written English language. Vaporizing about one's own stylistic intricacies strikes me as being visceral, and, to be blunt, inexcusable.

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