Ozzie Hinkle is having a bad day. For someone who loves to tell jokes and laugh, he is pretty glum. The trouble began at school, where he got in trouble because he wrote an unflattering (but very funny) limerick about his teacher. Then, after school, even though he has a great time playing a new board game with his best friend (games are his absolute favorite thing in the entire world), he makes a joke (again, he thinks it's very clever and witty) at his friend's expense, and his friend is so insulted he refuses to play any longer.
He gets home to find that his teacher has called his mother about his behavior, and Ozzie is sent to his room to wait for his father to come home - and his mother tells him he's going to be sent to a military boarding school to straighten out his behavior. That sounds horrible to him. He gathers up his life savings ($3.81) and decides to run away. He'll live off the land until he finds a fun place to live with other young free thinkers (who can take a joke) and grow up to be a famous comedian and show everyone. He climbs out the window and is making his way down the rose trellis when it rips off the side of the house and he finds himself falling...
He wakes up in an odd place, a place with empty space rather than sky. He meets another boy just about his age who's wearing a red devil suit and has little sharp fangs that protrude from his mouth. He introduces himself as Beelzebub, Ozzie's "guardian devil" (guardian angels are apparently for "goody-goodies," which Ozzie clearly is not) and explains that they are in limbo. Spread out in the valley below them is an enormous board game, and Ozzie must play it - and win - if he's ever going to get back to Earth. Beelzebub (or Bub, as Ozzie calls him) tells him that limbo is a place where nothing changes, ever, and that if Ozzie wants, he can stay there and play the game - the Big Joke Game - forever.
Ozzie sets to playing with enthusiasm, and the game is fantastic. I particularly enjoyed the visit to Troy (something Ozzie is learning about in history class) and the giant centipede. Even though this is set in the 1970s, avid video gamers will find they have a lot in common with Ozzie, and this book may well be the grandfather of all the virtual reality gaming books that have become so popular. Ozzie has a blast, but things don't always go well for him in the game - particularly when he's on a game square that prohibits making jokes. Bub is a bit unsettling to Ozzie at first (particularly the way he switches his tail around), but soon he proves himself to be a good companion and friend. If only he hadn't made a comment to Ozzie about him showing a lot of promise "for being our kind of guy." What exactly did that mean, anyway? Ozzie isn't so sure he wants to be their kind of guy, even if Bub seems all right, for a devil. And does he really want to stay and play the game forever?
I was so excited to finally be able to read this book again - and to read it to my children at the same time! I used to wish I could play the Big Joke Game - only I worried that I wouldn't be as good at making up limericks as Ozzie - he is quite skilled at that. It held up very well to rereading - although in my memory, the game was longer and more complex than it turned out to be. It is clear that Ozzie has A Lesson to Learn, but it is a fun learning, not heavy handed or moralistic, and no doubt will give readers food for thought as far as their own actions are concerned. This is a delightful tale, rendered even more enjoyable by Vasiliu's detailed illustrations, which accompany the text perfectly. What a joy it was to reread this book. I can only hope there are many more copies out there, waiting to be discovered. Or, better yet - that new ones will be reprinted and published soon.
The Big Joke Game by Scott Corbett; illustrated by Mircea Vasiliu (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1972)