Ring Lardner Jr.
1954, Fiction, 272, 281, or 302 pages depending on edition
This is a book guaranteed to offend staunch members of a particular religious affiliation and staunch supporters of a certain political stripe. Others, whose views are more accommodating, will find hilarious satire within its pages.
Ring Lardner was a popular journalist who wrote humorously about baseball and other topics. His son was a screenwriter, one of the Hollywood Ten convicted of Contempt of Congress for their refusal to participate in Senator McCarthy’s anti-Communist witch hunt. When asked, “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?” Ring Lardner Jr. responded, “I could answer the way you want, Mr. Chairman, but I’d hate myself in the morning.” This answer resulted in a stint in prison.
Owen Muir is the son of a Long Island financier, but cares more for books than money. Despite his efforts to remain obscure, Owen is elected president of his eighth grade class. Returning home, he attempts to explain to his father how he obtained his dubious honor. To this the elder Muir replies, “What are you telling me all that nonsense for? Look, Ownie, you’re a bright fellow in your own peculiar way, skipping grades and getting those marks. You ought to be beginning to think about things in grown-up terms, realistically. One of the basic rules of life, and don’t you ever forget it, is results count, nothing else does.”
Later in the book, his father explains how capitalism and advertising work, “The particular item you’re manufacturing may be useless in the sense that no one in his right mind would buy it of his own accord, and anybody who does buy it will feel afterwards that he’s been had. But the way our economy works, no occasion when money changes hands is useless.”
However, prior to Owen’s attempt to dabble in capitalism, he attends college: “In college as in school his unorthodox appearance was held against him and the fact that his attitudes were also non-conformist made him even more of an outcast. Barred from some undergraduate pursuits by ineptitude and from others by popular demand, he was compelled to the solace of his own devices. He listened to Sibelius in the hours devoted to football practice, read Schopenhauer during proms and absorbed facts while his classmates were exchanging gossip.”
With all that intellectual activity going on, Owen acquires ideals and refuses to register for the draft. Being a person of principal, Owen experiences harsh consequences which he could easily have avoided by compromising his principals. And so goes his life; Owen finds and follows ideals and attempts to find a place in a world filled with hypocrites and shallow thinkers.
This book is worth a read for its humor, but also for its depiction of the early 1950s. The American zeitgeist has changed since then. The fifties decade looked nothing like the sixties or seventies. Strangely, 2023 resembles 1954 to a fair extent. Read it for yourself if you don’t believe me.