29. Studs Lonigan: Young Lonigan by James T. Farrell

Year Published: 1932
Pages: 176
First Sentence: Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug.
Rating: 3/3 (read it!)

Young Lonigan is the first book in James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy, which I had to get from my university library because even though it's within the Top 30 on The List, no one has ever heard of it, at least not around here.

The story is about Studs Lonigan (actual name: William), who in this book is a Catholic Irish-American boy in Chicago. He's almost 15 and only a little younger than the 20th century: the year is 1916, America has yet to enter the First World War. Studs has decent parents and a stable home life but those things don't prevent him from getting into trouble with and in opposition to the other boys in his neighbourhood.

At the very beginning of the book, he and his sister are graduating from elementary school. A gathering follows at the Lonigan house where the boys and girls play various bizarre old kissing games such as "Post Office," which is apparently a common reference that I have literally never noticed before in my life. The rest of the novel is mostly concerned with the events of the summer, prior to Studs starting high school (although by the end the new school year has started).

Studs is a pretty typical teenage boy: he has a sense of beauty but it's undercut by how horny he is and, dare I say, the culture of toxic masculinity in which he finds himself. I'm being facetious there, but Studs really is torn between being a sensitive boy and a boy who idolizes roughness and toughness. His Catholicism means there's a healthy dollop of shame on top of all of that.

This is a tough novel to pin down. At times it's comic, like when Studs' mother is constantly telling him to pray to see if he has "the call" to be a priest. Studs clearly does not have the call. At other times, it's extremely uncomfortable. Young girls have a hard time in this world, which is putting it mildly. Lots of virgin/whore stuff and sexual harassment going on. Anyone who isn't Irish has a hard time, too. The adults around Studs are constantly opining to the effect of "there goes the neighbourhood" over the fact that Jews and immigrants from other countries are moving in to where they live and get their entertainment. To quote Old Man O'Brien, the father of one of Studs' friends:
"But I ain't so much interested in sports as I used to be. Baseball's the only clean game we got left. The Jews killed all the other games. The kikes dirty up everything."
I'll cut it off there because that's all we need of that, but the speech goes on. It's not much later in the novel that Studs is basically repeating that sentiment, trying to decide which beach he and his friend should go to that won't have any Jews or black people or Poles on it.

Above all, this is a character study of Studs. As such, many of the other characters are not well-developed, particularly the large mass of other boys hanging around: Johnny, Danny, Weary, Nate, Adam (or is it Andy?), and a whole list of them that I had trouble keeping track of. There are a couple of girls named Frances and a couple of girls named Helen. One of the Helens is a wonderful tomboy who I wanted to see more of.

The thing I enjoyed most about this book is that it feels like a picture of a time. The slang is occasionally bewildering but usually decipherable from context clues, making this a less extreme version of A Clockwork Orange, which I really liked. It can be a tough read because of its content, but it's a fascinating slice of life in a very specific community.

I'm very interested to see where this story goes next. At the end of the book, it feels like Studs could still go down any path. (Unfortunately the Wikipedia page about the book is a bit spoilery, so I have some idea which one he does go down.)

- - - - -
They had walked home lazy, and he had carried her books, and wished he had the price to buy her candy or a soda, even if it was Lent, and they had stood before the gray two-story building where she lived, and he had wanted, as the devil wants souls, to kiss her, and he hadn't wanted to leave her because when he did he knew the day would be blacker, and he would feel like he did when he had been just out of his diapers and he used to be afraid of the night. There had been something about that day. He had gone on in school, wishing and wishing for another one like it to come along. And now he felt it all over again, the goofy, dizzy, flowing feelings it had given him.
He puffed, and told himself:
Well, it's so long to the old dump tonight!
- - - - -

Five Years Ago This Month: August 2014

Five years ago this month...

...I reviewed The Gunslinger. This is the first book of the Dark Tower series that I can't seem to shut up about. I love it but maybe you won't. This is a series that I can see myself rereading before too long.

...I was distracted. Overall August 2014 appears to have been a pretty decent month. Enterprise may have been bad but I have some nostalgia about it anyway. I love Trip Tucker.

Cats making themselves at home in a spot they don't belong (as usual).

R71. Hot Ice by Nora Roberts

Year Published: 1988
Pages: 312

Pairing: Interior designer/ice cream heiress and international jewel thief
First Sentence: He was running for his life.
Climax: No explicit sex scenes, alas! -M.R.

Well, over eight years and 71 books in to the erstwhile Romance half of the Two Hectobooks project, I've finally read a Nora Roberts novel.

Nora Roberts is the queen of romance. A person could do a Two Hectobooks project of just her books and still have a ton of them left over. And, I discovered when I read this book, Nora Roberts is the queen for a reason: she makes this look so easy. But before I get too much into that, let me tell you about Hot Ice.

Written, published, and set in the late 80s, when Roberts was only a few years into her career and had only published about forty books, Hot Ice begins with jewel thief Doug Lord (one of the least inspired names I've come across—"Doug" is such an unsexy name) fleeing hitmen through the streets of New York. He hops into Whitney MacAllister's car and. Whitney is on her way home after spending some time in Paris to celebrate breaking up with Tad Carlyse IV. To Doug's surprise, Whitney doesn't just scream and get out of the car, she becomes his getaway driver. Whitney has basically grown up in the lap of luxury—her father owns an enormous ice cream empire, and somehow at 27 she's built an interior design business in which she works almost never.

Whitney's looking for a romp and Doug is hot so the two of them team up. Doug is on the run from a crime boss named Dimitri because Doug has stolen papers that lead to the way to a treasure in Madagascar that's been hidden there since the French Revolution. Whitney and Doug catch a plane to Madagascar, via Washington, DC and Paris, France. Just to emphasize that this was a different time, they're able to smoke on the plane. Dimitri's goons are hot on their trail the whole way.

Thanks to the fact that they're being hunted, Doug and Whitney have to basically hike overland across Madagascar from the capital city Antananarivo to Antsiranana on the northern tip, a city of 50,000 people which was formerly known as Diego Suarez (and referred to as such in the book). Soon after arriving, they find the treasure, a chest full of jewels buried beside a man who fled France during the Revolution but remained loyal to Marie Antoinette.

It's at this point that three things happen:
  1. Whitney catches morals about how the jewels should belong to everyone and be displayed in a museum rather than hoarded in a private collection,
  2. Both Doug and Whitney suddenly seem to think that they're completely safe despite being followed very closely by Dimitri's goons for the entirety of their journey, so
  3. They get sloppy, Doug manages to find a silk dress for Whitney in a city of 50,000 in a developing country, and while he's out shopping, Whitney is captured by the goons and brought to Dimitri. It's implied that Dimitri is squatting in somebody's mansion after murdering said somebody.

Whitney demonstrates just how ballsy she is by telling Dimitri that she murdered Doug, buying time to keep herself alive. Doug arrives to save her, and then Dimitri reveals he's way ahead of the two of them. Dimitri, by the way, is portrayed as effeminate. He was abused by his mother, who apparently had her wires crossed when it came to religion and poetry.

Just as Whitney and Doug are about to meet their maker, the Malagasy police burst in to arrest Dimitri, followed closely by a private detective and Whitney's dad, of all people. Everyone kind of chuckles about the life or death shenanigans and then returns to the hotel.

Doug ditches Whitney before she wakes up the next morning.

No, never mind, he shows up back at her apartment in New York a few months later to propose to her. He'll hang up his thief shoes and start a restaurant.

And then, as far as the book is concerned, they live happily ever after but I'm pretty sure that this relationship ends in divorce.

First I'm going to tell you what I didn't like, so we can end this on a positive note.

Things dragged a bit in the middle of the book. I knew that there would be a point where the two lovers would be captured and/or separated, and I got a bit bored waiting for that time to come. There was some awkward sexual stuff that reads a lot differently in the #metoo era than I guess it did in the late 80s. (Although of course it's nowhere close to The Sheik levels of upsetting.) There was some awkward racial stuff, too: use of the word "Oriental" when referring to one or more Asian people and a rosy portrayal of various Malagasy people as noble, salt of the earth caricatures. (Again, nothing as offensive as The Sheik!) Some things were dumb but I was willing to overlook them because they were fun. Other things, like a reference to a Bible being open to the "Book of David" and Marie Antoinette being portrayed exclusively as a victim rather than ... a morally ambiguous but important historical figure, were more irritating.

Worst of all was Doug. I think my hatred of him speaks well of Nora Roberts' skill at characterization. Both of the leads in the novel have well-realized personalities. Here's everything I hated about Doug:
  • Literal murderer (and I'm not counting his time in Vietnam after being drafted;
  • Stole and damaged library books;
  • Continuously calls Whitney "sugar";
  • Stole clothing and a pig from poor Malagasy farmers;
  • Grr.

Let's start my positive comments with Whitney, though, because I loved her as much as I hated Doug. She is shockingly sassy. She is extremely frivolous and brash. She is rich enough to afford to be all of these things and damn the consequences. She's kind to wait staff (ha!).

I haven't gotten a lot into this, but the novel, and Doug in particular, are obsessed with class, both in the sense of who is "classy" and also high class and low class in terms of wealth—rich heiress Whitney vs Malagasy farmers for example. It's pretty intriguing and also bizarre.

I've been going on for a long time, so let's wrap this up.

Nora Roberts is so good that this novel feels like something she just exhaled onto the page. The romantic and sexual energy between the two leads is real, the story hits every single beat it needs to, and the whole journey is a ton of fun even if it's ultimately just fluff. I don't ever plan to read another one of her* books, but I'm so glad I did read at least one.

* I do plan to read at least one JD Robb book. I'm aware that they're the same person but I'd say she's using the pseudonym for a reason and her romance novels should be considered separately from however you'd classify the In Death series.