A hugely entertaining novel about the art of stand up comedy, This is Your Life was a runaway bestseller in England. O'Farrell's hero, Jimmy Conway, starts out the novel at the London Palladium. He is about to perform his stand up comedy routine in front of two thousand invited guests and millions more watching the event live on TV. He steps out blinking into the spotlights and waits for the applause to die down. He tries to appear confident but he can't help wondering whether he should have shared his little secret with someone by now. Jimmy has never performed any stand up before - ever. [via]
Conway, a nondescript thirtysomething with a long-faded dream of telling jokes in public, starts the proceedings at the lowest point in his life - teaching school, spending his evenings with a old and grizzled collection of barroom bores (including his ex-girlfriend Nancy) and generally feeling miserable over never having gotten his one lucky break.
Things take a turn for the better when a local comedy legend, Billy Scrivens, with whom Conway has exchanged a fragment or two of small-talk while out running, drops down dead. Interviewed on television, where he is plausibly represented as the deceased's jogging companion, Jimmy suddenly discovers a tiny chink in the door of the closely guarded gateway to fame and celebrity. After snatching a ticket to Billy's funeral (paid for by the UK equivalent of People Magazine, and awash with the rich and famous) he convinces a gullible journalist that he is the latest underground comedy sensation, a performer so principled that he shuns TV and restricts himself to unscheduled appearances at out-of-the-way clubs. A stack of forged reviews from a phantom American tour does the rest. Courtesy of a rave profile in a national newspaper, his career takes off.
The subsequent rollercoaster ride whisks him all the way from a best new stand-up comedy award (where his acceptance speech loss of nerve - "Look, there's been a terrible mistake" - is taken as a riotous gag) to a dullard contribution to a nationally syndicated television show, and even a lucrative ad campaign. Success, inevitably, has its downside: the girls are too eager even for sex-starved Jimmy, and the pub regulars are over-awed by his sudden success.
Which all leads to Jimmy's big night at the Palladium, an ingenious finish where the carpet is pulled from beneath Jimmy's feet, which is credit to O'Farrell's resourcefulness, and his relish of the comic twist and detour.