Just Laugh and Turn the Page

The trouble with some writers is you never know when they’re joking.

“Unlike the great idealists and romancers who insist on a beginning and a middle and an ending for their stories mine possess none of these definite parts. You can open them at any page. It does not matter at all. You will be equally mystified if not revolted. I am myself.”

His books sold aplenty, back in the day. They were translated into movies and television series, always by taking great liberties with the original works. The fantasy involved was too wild to bring all of it to the screen, so only those bits which the general public could swallow were used.

“Without so much as turning a hair I freely admit that I am one of America’s great realists…Like life itself my stories have no point and get absolutely nowhere. And like life they are a little mad and purposeless.”

One authority claims the man wrote books only when he really needed the money. He would take the first editions of his own books, pawn them to buy whiskey, drink the whiskey, and write a book that would sell so well he could immediately go out and buy back the first editions for next time.

“They are like the man who dashes madly through traffic only to linger aimlessly on the opposite corner watching a fountain pen being demonstrated in a shop window. Quite casually I wander into my plot, poke around with my characters for a while, then amble off, leaving no moral proved and no reader improved.”

His books were known for high-speed humor, disregard for authority, and sheer wackiness. Large doses of slapstick nudity and heavy drinking didn’t hurt. And the ability of the characters to go through all of it and then return to depressing, humdrum lives ought, indeed, to have earned their author a place among the most depressing realists of his day.  He caused me trouble in the early days of the Book Fair. “Science Fiction?” customers demanded. “Why isn’t he in Humor?”

It’s possible, of course, but I’m not alone. Ballantine Books, in a noble effort to bring him back into style in the 1970s, published him in their Fantasy line, along with James Branch Cabell, an author with a similar attitude to society and life. Look at the plots: a man is snatched through a department store doorway into an alternate universe, a raygun brings statues to life, a photographer finds himself turning into a skeleton at random moments, an inoffensive businessman is haunted by the ghosts of a couple who were too wild for him to put up with while they were alive.

Nobody asks why I put Thorne Smith in Science Fiction any more because I don’t run into people who know who he is. People have seen the movies, certainly, thanks to TCM and AMC. The businessman with the ghosts was Topper, of course, who turned into a film series and then a TV series. The Passionate Witch became the movie I Married a Witch which of course became the series Bewitched, all without quite the whiskey and nudity of the original. The Night Life of the Gods was filmed in 1935, with statues a little less naked and without the ending in which characters, including the hero and heroine, decide they’d be happier petrified in museums than trying to deal with the world as it is.

He wrote one children’s book—Lazy Bear Lane—which is in the same style, only everyone keeps their clothes on. And he wrote the page I’ve been quoting as a filler in the back of The Glorious Pool, a story of what happens when a swimming pool turns into the fountain of youth properties is discovered. (People lose their clothes, natch.) He may have meant it all to be taken seriously. You just can’t tell, with some of these gentry.

Comments

I loved Nightlife of the Gods, and still have my copy. I am not yet ready to give it to the book fair.
Rain in the Doorway, though, has a fine bookselling episode.

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