S&R Nonfiction: "Studs Lonigan Revisited," by Fred Skolnik

by Fred Skolnik

   In the pantheon of the Classic American Novel, An American Tragedy and U.S.A. had been novels about the essential division of America between those who have and those who have not. Dos Passos produced an energetic narrative that raced along without lingering to give its characters a human face while Dreiser dissected his protaganist’s inner world so clinically that it is impossible to see him as a living, breathing individual. Not so James T. Farrell. His alone of the three great social novels of the era brings to life a full-blooded human being capable of moving us.

   Like U.S.A., Studs Lonigan is a trilogy whose individual volumes were first published separately: Young Lonigan in 1932, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan in 1934, and Judgment Day in 1935, and then the trilogy in one volume over 75 years ago in 1936. And like Dreiser, Farrell has been taken to task for his style, but in Farrell’s case the criticism is fully justified, and though the style did not bother me at all when I first read the novel as a teenager, I can see now right from the start what I’m in for as I pick it up again when Studs Lonigan, on the verge of 15 on the day Wilson is nominated for his second term in 1916, “stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug.” Farrell will write the entire first volume of the trilogy in the idiom of the South Side Chicago street as mediated by a lower middle class Irish-American teenager. Unfortunately he had a tin ear and went overboard trying to make the voice sound authentic though it was in fact his own teenage voice he was trying to mimic. Dos Pasos, who also wrote in the voice of his characters, did it far more naturally.

   In this first volume we meet Studs in the bathroom with the cigarette “pasted in his mug” on the morning of his graduation from the parish grammar school and after 70 or so of the novel’s 200 pages we find him masturbating in the same bathroom after being aroused by his 13-year-old sister, who “bumped her small breast” against him under her thin nightgown that “he could almost see right through” and who is aroused herself after playing post office with Studs and his crowd in the Lonigan parlor. The time between, after the tedious graduation ceremony and the “brief talk” of the “noble priest” that goes on and on “fat with superlatives,” is filled with Studs’ ruminations and little else. If anything comes through in these first pages it is Stud’s, and Farrell’s, deep-seated animus toward the Church and the hypocrisy of Catholic families. This is mirrored in Stud’s rebellion against the Jesuit future his pious mother has mapped out for him. The rest of the first volume shows Studs essentially hanging out in the summer following his graduation, first with a tomboyish neighborhood girl and then with his friends, including a fistfight with one of them, and then a ride with Johnny O’Brian’s dad and some reminiscences about boxers and ballplayers and a few choice words about kikes and niggers, and an enchanted afternoon in the park with Lucy Scanlan, whom he loves. In the final short chapter Farrell jumps to November and Studs is still hanging out.

   Farrell is at his worst describing action and in the sloppily constructed scenes involving Stud’s teenage friends::

“What you been doing?”

“Workin’ in an office downtown,” said Weary.

“Off today?” asked Paulie.

“I took the day off, and my old lady got sore and yelled at me. I had a big scrap with the family. The gaffer was home and he tried to pitch in, too, and my sister Fran, she got wise. Then I noticed that my hip pocket was bulgin’ a little. And when I leaned down to pick somethin’ up, they saw my twenty-two. They shot their gabs off till I got sick of listenin’ to them, and I got sore and cursed them out. I told them just what they could do without mincing my words, and they all gaped at me like I was at a circus. The ole lady jerked on the tears, and started blessing herself, and Fran got snotty, like she never heard the words before, and she bawled, and the old man said he’d bust my snoot, but he knew better than try. So I tells them they could all take a fast and furious, flyin’, leapin’ jump at Sandy Claus, and I walks out, and I’ll be damned if I go home. Maybe I might try stickin’ somebody up,” he said.

This is about as close to human speech as Leo Gorcey got playing Muggs Maloney in the East Side Kids. We watched these films and thought that this might be the way tough kids talked back then, until we became tough kids ourselves, and then it became clear that no one ever talked that way outside of books and the movies.

   As for action, here is the fistfight:

   Studs fought a boring-in fight. He waved his left arm up and down horizontally, for purposes of defense, so he couldn’t do much punching with it, but he kept his right swinging. Weary met Studs and lammed away with both fists. It was anybody’s fight.

   Studs cracked Weary with a dirty right. They clinched. Weary socked in the clinch.

(This is a scene, incidentally, that was praised by Hemingway, which tells you what a stiff he must have been in the ring.)

   And yet in all this, when he isn’t describing the movement of bodies or laying on the slangy dialogue, Farrell can occasionally write quite nicely, as in his description of Stud’s tomboy friend, or the long, suprisingly lyrical section in the park with Lucy Scanlan where Studs feels something “beautiful and vague,” or Sunday dinner at the Lonigan home where the speech is indirect:

   Mrs. Lonigan opened her mouth to speak, but Mrs. Reilley beat her to the floor and said that when a body gets old, all that a body has is a body’s children to be a help and a comfort, and that a body could expect and demand some respect from a body’s children….

   Farrell was not writing about ordinary poverty – the Lonigans are a respectable lower middle class family, the father a self-employed house painter and landlord – he was writing, in his own words, about “spiritual poverty,” the bigotry and superstition of the Irish Catholic milieu, and ultimately the sterility of the American dream. Studs Lonigan wants to be somebody. As Farrell writes in his Introduction to the Modern Library edition of the trilogy: “His dream of himself is a romantic projection of his future, conceived in the terms and the values of his world.” What he is in reality is a somewhat undersized kid who acts tough but is full of self-doubt. The dreams will not be fulfilled and as the novel progresses that short time spent in the park with Lucy Scanlan and the kiss she invited him to give her will become the focus of his dream life, the moment he will come back to again and again as the sweetest he had ever known.

   The second volume, twice as long as the first, as is the third, picks up the story in 1917, in the following spring, and ends in 1929. Not a great deal happens. In the 1917–1919 section Studs daydreams about being a war hero and is laughed at by a recruiting officer when he tries to enlist, runs away from home after a fight with his father but sheepishly returns the same night, and hangs out some more in the poolroom and the park. Then it is 1922 and “his life was pretty much the same as it had been last week or last year,” and “he wanted more and felt that somewhere there was something else for him in life …” There is a football game in the park and Studs regretting he’d dropped out of high school and hadn’t become a football hero, and back to the poolroom and more daydreams as he watches an action movie at the Michigan Theater, and housepainting for his father, and drinking himself blind on Christmas eve and going to mass on Christmas day and stealing glances at the “voluptuous blonde” sitting next to him who would also become an object of his fantasies, and then back to the poolroom where “he didn’t think that he had ever felt so low in his whole life,” and now Farrell jumps to 1924 and Studs swimming at the Y and picking up a girl at a dance school and getting a dose and finally seeing Lucy Scanlan again after all these years and taking her to a dance but not really getting anyplace with her as she teases him with another kiss. In the meanwhile old friends marry, die, move away, and it is 1926 and then it is 1929 “and the dirty gray dawn of the New Year came slowly … and a drunken figure huddled by the curb … It was Studs Lonigan, who had once, as a boy, stood before Charley Bathcellar’s poolroom thinking that some day, he would grow up to be strong, and tough, and the real stuff.”

   Throughout the second volume Farrell continues to write heedlessly, that is heedless of grammar, sense, precision, or nicety of language:

The old man whewed as if expressing the difficulties of thinking down into disconsolate depths.

He backed into a corner, prepared to pay dearly for his life …

He was lassitudinous in a mood of let-down …

And yet …

   And yet despite the crudeness of the writing Farrell ultimately achieves a moving portrait of a young Irish roughneck with occasional tender feelings who hasn’t a chance in hell of making it in this world. Farrell simply wears you down. After the interminable dialogue that has no purpose other than to demonstrate the aimlessness of life on Indiana Avenue, you begin to accept Farrell on his own terms. You accept his world as a real world because behind it there is a real world, a world that you too have known, so that at a certain point the story of Studs Lonigan takes hold of you and you get a sense of being inside his skin and seeing the world as he sees it and you recognize his dreams and his feelings as perhaps your own.

   And now, in the third volume, we are in the Depression and Studs is 30 and there aren’t too many painting jobs and Stud’s father is going to lose his building and Studs has invested unwisely in the Stock Market and sees his savings of $2000 dissolving day by day, and he has a girl now who is a bit of a chatterbox and nags him about his cigarette smoking and goes on and on about her diet and he can’t help comparing her to Lucy and his own sisters and concludes that Catherine lacks their class but she is sweet and plump and pretty so he has mixed feelings but gets up the courage to propose, rigid with embarrassment and unable to speak the loving words she would like to hear though he does in fact feel such love. And now, as this final volume progresses, his dream of himself ceases to be “a romantic projection of things to come” and more and more “a nostalgic image turned toward the past,” as Farrell writes in his Introduction. And almost paradoxically, the farther Farrell distances Studs from his youth and the life of the street, the stronger his writing becomes. There are still some long, pointless scenes – Studs being initiated into the “Order of Christopher” (= Knights of Columbus), Stud’s at his brother-in-law’s bookie joint observing the bettors and then picking up a housewife who wants to turn a few tricks to make up her losses – and not a little clumsy writing, but once Farrell moves away from the street talk where everyone sounds the same he reveals a real gift for creating vivid characters by simply letting them talk in their natural way, from the said Catherine with her somewhat bossy tone and ironic little digs to Stud’s pretentious youngest sister and his stolid parents. And in the end Farrell achieves a powerful lyricism: “The song filled him with a soft kind of sadness, and he listened, forgetting things, feeling as if the music was a sad thing running through him.” And then Catherine pregnant and “here he was … getting just about nothing but the sour grapes of living.” … “And now all that he wanted was to be home and in bed asleep, so that none of these things would be on his mind, making him feel so tight and feel that any minute something might happen.” Studs catches pneumonia looking for work in the rain and dies at the age of 30, leaving Catherine pregnant and unmarried and Stud’s mother blaming her for leading her son astray and “the two daughters led the hysterical mother out of the room, and the nurse covered the face of Studs Lonigan with a white sheet.”

   The tragedy of Studs Lonigan is the tragedy of wanting and not having and it is the tragedy of more Americans than you could ever count. Farrell had set out to write the story of a “normal young American of his time and his class. His values became the values of the world.” When I first read the novel I felt that Farrell had somehow taken the easy way out by killing Studs off at such an early age, for the deeper tragedy would have been to live as Studs was destined to live, to have crossed the line into middle age with all his shattered dreams, resigned perhaps, with a dumpy, graying woman on his arm and children as distant from him as he had been from his own parents. And yet if the tragedy isn’t deepened by his death it is sharpened and as I read the book today it strikes me as appropriate. It rounds off the novel as a work of art with a beginning and an end and places it among other great tragedies whose end is death.

   After the trilogy was published as a single volume in 1936 it began to sell fairly well. In all, Farrell would turn out around fifty books, many quite lame and much of the fiction focussing on the Irish-American lower middle class milieu. He also had his Communist years, writing for the Daily Worker and New Masses. He died in 1979, a writer of the Thirties doggedly writing until the end of his days in a world that had left him behind but whose great masterpiece would never be forgotten.

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