Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The good-natured satirist: Max Shulman’s ‘Large Economy Size’

Any devoted reader of a specific author winds up taking a “journey” with them. In this case, I don’t mean just the journey to the locations in which their books take place, I mean the journey of discovering their work and the process of acquiring their books. Which, in the pre-Internet world, was a lot more lively and active hobby. In the case of comic novelist Max Shulman, I first encountered him in a newly opened used bookstore in my hometown of Jackson Heights, Queens, a few decades ago.

I was there with my father, from whom I had acquired my love of various comedians, from Groucho and Fields to Sellers, Woody, and Mel Brooks (I developed my fixation with Keaton, Kovacs, and other favorites on my own in later years). The bookstore in question was a paradise for the rabid bibliophile, a store jam-packed with paperbacks from floor to ceiling, named (naturally enough) Jackson Heights Discount Books.

The place was a nirvana (albeit a firetrap nirvana — no problem for me; in those days I was young and lithe), so filled with books that I didn’t know where to start. So I wound at the usual stops, as I was moving away from comic books at this particular time: the movie section (and even more amazing, several shelves labelled “TV/Movie tie-in”) and the humor department. Shulman’s books were both in with the general fiction and in the humor section, shelved with the 20th century’s most important wits and Larry Wilde ethnic joke books (did I note there was only a vague semblance of alphabetization in JH Discount Books?).

My father pointed out three or four humorists I never would’ve found on my own, people whose books he had loved in the Forties and Fifties. The writer with the hands-down most colorful covers — boasting cartoons that featured the lead characters (guileless, lovesick males and cute, ponytailed, busty females) — was Max Shulman.

I read most of Shulman’s books as a preteen but returned to them recently to see if they were as funny and frantic as I remembered them. The good news is that they are, and they also contain some sharply drawn (and sometimes surprisingly nasty) satires of social institutions I couldn’t have understood when I was younger.

So who was this Shulman guy? Fans of classic TV know him best as the creator of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis (1959-63), TV’s first teen show that adopted a teenage “voice” and got right down to the things that teenagers care about — avoiding schoolwork, finding dates, and obtaining money from their parents.

The best episodes of the Dobie Gillis series are either based directly on Shulman’s original short stories (collected in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, the only Shulman book that is still in print), or they are close variations on the themes he introduced. Shulman has thus gotten the rep of being a “teen humorist” (he was of course a middle-aged family man when writing the Dobie TV series), but he in fact primarily wrote humorous novels that were aimed at adults (particularly his later novels about suburbia and adultery).

What is most interesting is that while Shulman’s lovesick protagonists primarily describe people in ways that render them cartoonlike creations, they will “paint a picture” of their objects of desire that make them three-dimensional (perhaps because Max knew libidinous young men — and soldiers — were reading his books….).

[The Feather Merchants, p. 45] I did not try to conceal my satisfaction as I watched her walk across the sidewalk to the car. In ten years a Lane Bryant customer without a doubt, but now — five foot three, 125 pounds, black hair, blue eyes, small nose, small mouth, pointed chin, milk-white skin, high, disassociated breasts, narrow waist, a pelvis that could accommodate a pair of water jugs, full-calved legs which filled her Nylons so completely that if you tried to gather a pinch of stocking between thumb and forefinger you would fail, narrow ankles, size 4-AAA shoes. She was wearing a small, dark, veiled hat cocked low over one eye, a dark blue silk dress which billowed demurely where it didn’t matter, clung brazenly where it did. 

The most striking (and inviting) thing about Shulman’s books is their light tone. Time critic Richard Corliss, who has written brilliantly about the most sublime aspects of Fifties culture, has handily summed up the appeal of Shulman's work: “A bestselling author and anthologist of college humor, Shulman was a satirist with a sunny disposition… a Woody Allen without neuroses.” Woody himself put Shulman in the category of Perelman, Benchley, and Frank Sullivan as having “a real prose style that’s funny.” (Go to 1:40)


In rereading Shulman’s books, I was struck that his earlier novels are frequently punctuated by the device that these days is considered quite original when it appears on Family Guy, namely “cutaways” that allow the writer to make jokes about other topics, and jolt the audience in the process.

One seeming purpose for Shulman’s many “cutaways” to other material — usually stories being related by eccentric characters that our hero encounters — was that this kind of construction would’ve made it easier for him to excerpt fragments of his books and potentially sell them to magazines as separate stories. (The novels I’m going to discuss here are episodic, and can quite easily be “broken apart.”)

Shulman situated his kooky cutaways quite solidly, though, and they pertain to a rich comic tradition that he referred to in passing in two of his first three books. In The Feather Merchants, our soldier-boy antihero meets his English teacher on a train:

[Feather Merchants, p. 18] “Well, Daniel, do you remember anything you learned in my English class?”
“I was just thinking of something I learned there, Miss Spinnaker. The Canterbury Tales.
“Why those, Daniel?”
“Well, that’s what we’ve been doing on the train — travelers telling stories to pass the time away.”
“Why, so we have,” she said.
She felt much better. 

One of Shulman’s favorite devices was the use of oddball names for his characters. Corliss has noted that “Shulman, like W.C. Fields and Groucho (i.e., his writers Kaufman and Perelman), loved eccentric names.” Sorority girls Sally Gelt and Wilma Urbane; communist radicals John Das Kapital, Sam Nihilism, and Natashya Fiveyearplan; and my favorite, the young lovers Bob Scream and Peggy Orifice.

Corliss — who has written quite eloquently about the expert crazy-name creator that was S.J. Perelman — quite rightly notes that Shulman’s naming prefigures the memorably colorful monikers used in Dr. Strangelove and Catch-22.

Shulman’s penchant for “college humor” early on in his career came from a very legitimate source — he started out writing for the University of Minnesota humor magazine Ski-U-Mah. Thus, while his often-zany, sometimes sober, and sharply satirical writing was very original, it also adhered to a comic tradition he was all too happy to refer to. In The Zebra Derby, our hero’s garrulous girlfriend (picturesquely named Nebbice Upcharles), tells him a story: “This jellyfish I had in mind who was turned into a tiger by love was a friend of mine named Tristram Shandy. Most timid fellow you ever saw.”

A wink and a nod is thus given to the reader who understands (or cares) about the grand tradition of comic storytelling in fiction. Over the course of his nine books, Shulman drew on this tradition to lampoon aspects of politics, the Army, big business, advertising, television, motherhood, fatherhood, teenage rebellion, the Fifties flight to the suburbs, and (a personal fave of mine) false patriotism. He did this all while keeping his heroes schlemiel-type outsiders who feel incredibly awkward when they are “inside” the system.

His social satire was in fact so friendly that at points it’s hard to recognize it as satire rather than just simple comedy. By spotlighting his first three novels, all bestsellers that were published during WWII from 1943-46 (now sadly out of print), I'd like to show how he couched very wise and sharp satire in the guise of “good-natured ribbing.” The three novels in question were collected in one volume called Max Shulman's Large Economy Size in 1952; I'll be discussing this particular collection because it provides a great “entryway” to discuss Shulman's humor and writing style.

There isn't any definitive biography of Shulman online, with the exception of his New York Times obit. Suffice it to say that he was born in 1919, the son of a Russian house painter. He grew up in the Selby-Dale neighborhood of St. Paul, Minn, and was given his first big break by a Doubleday editor who was on a “talent hunt.”


Shulman supplied this tongue-in-cheek author bio to the Armed Services edition of his first novel: “Squat, moon-faced Max Shulman is a twenty-five-year-old sergeant in the Army Air Force. His life before his enlistment was placid to the point of monotony. He grew up in a steam-heated house in St. Paul, attended the University of Minnesota, where he met and married a squat, moon-faced classmate, and was graduated in 1942.

“While in college he wrote an irreverent column in the student newspaper, and increased his reputation as a tomfool with his blithe editing of the campus humor magazine, Ski-U-Mah (an Indian word meaning: ‘Close the window. Can’t you see it’s raining?’).”

His first novel, Barefoot Boy with Cheek, was published when he was a mere lad of 24 in 1943. That title perplexed me for years (this is pre-Internet, kids), until I read somewhere the 1855 poem “Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier (“Blessings on thee, little man/Barefoot boy with cheek of tan/with thy turned-up pantaloons/And thy merry whistled tunes...”).

Chronologically, Shulman came into prominence after the heyday of the Algonquin wits, was simultaneous with the brilliance of Perelman and Thurber, and anticipated the delirious anarchy of Mad magazine. To my mind he was a clear-cut forerunner of Kurtzman and company because he eagerly populated his early books with over-the-top characters in outlandish situations.

His work was also defined not only by his own deft comic flourishes, but by those of the illustrators whose drawings accompanied his text. Playboy cartoonist Eldon Dedini is the illustrator most identified with Shulman’s work, but Bill Crawford, who provided the illustrations for the first four novels, also did a great job of visualizing Shulman’s stranger-than-life vision.

Shulman was not a “Jewish humorist” per se (he could be most accurately described as “Midwestern”), but he did inject Jewish elements (names, Yiddish-tinged language, shaggy dog humor) when he thought they would be funny. The key to his work, especially these early novels, is exactly that — what would be the most jarring and funniest thing to introduce at a given point?

And what is funnier than notes made during wartime rationing on a menu in Yiddish dialect? [Feather Merchants, p. 47] The menu was unchanged from the last time I had seen it except for doubled prices and these two notices penciled on the bottom by Hrdlicka, the partner who could write: “ON ACCOUNT OF THE DURATION, YOU ONLY GET ONE PAT BUTTER” and “DON’T GET SO HUFFY IF THE SERVICE IS SLOW. HOW DO YOU KNOW MAYBE YOUR WAITER GAVE A QUART BLOOD THIS AFTERNOON?” 

Making Shulman's work eminently re-readable is the fact that he kept his books short and varied his style, delivering both lengthy spoofs and fast gags. The specter of the king of quipsters, Groucho, emerges when Shulman's best tossed-off jokes fly by.

[Barefoot Boy with Cheek, p. 195] “The legislature was stirred to action. They not only passed the appropriation, but they also lifted Bryan on their shoulders and carried him around the Statehouse. This, however, was not too difficult because Bryan was only six years old at the time and puny for his age.” 

One of the things Shulman clearly loved to was to spoof purple prose, from desiccated classics to poorly written pop fiction (which inevitably tops the bestseller list – then and now).

[The Zebra Derby, p. 190] ”Lodestone! Lodestone! Lodestone!” The name cascaded from my lips, and then the name was gone and there were only sounds, deep-throated yet curiously tender. Then there was a sweet flailing, a dulcet thrashing, a soft probing. Urgency came and controlled desperation and desperate control. Then colors that were heard and sounds that were seen, a chromatic arpeggio, an audible pastiche. Then a settling. A fast settling. A slower settling. A slow settling. Settled.” 

The central question that haunts humor writing is whether or not it is dated — because, much as each generation's notion of what is sexy is very specific, the notion of what is funny is just as specific and often sadly short-lived. In its particulars Shulman's work is indeed dated — two of his early novels concern the war and the way it turned American life upside down; in his later books he tackled consumer society in the Fifties and Sixties (which is once again of interest, thanks to Mad Men).

Like most great humor, though, Shulman's best work is timeless. Guys are always going to be pathetic lovesick creatures when confronted by their dream girl, some Americans will always take their patriotism to ridiculous lengths, and underdogs will always be trying to “beat the system” with hastily conceived schemes.

Which brings me to the first item in Large Economy Size, an essay called “How to be a Writer, or Oblivion Made Simple.” Written in 1948, the piece spoofs many formulas for good writing that have been dispensed over the years. Shulman loved to mock such quick fixes and so he offers a few incredibly simple and silly rules.

In the process he ends up showing how ridiculous any set of ironclad "instructions" for creativity can be. His exploration of all the possible types of flashbacks reaches brilliant levels of weird invention:

[from Large Economy Size:] False telescoping true flashback — A character remembers an incident in his past. The incident is narrated. This incident really happened. A character who appears during the narration of this incident remembers an incident in his past. This incident is narrated. This incident never happened. 

Here he's making things as ridiculous as possible, but damned if he also wasn't anticipating the "everything is possible" approach of the later French nouveau roman novelists, for whom all narratives could exist simultaneously.

BAREFOOT BOY WITH CHEEK
Shulman’s first three novels, the second and third written while he was in the Army Air Corps, are contained in Large Economy Size. Shulman’s debut novel is told from the point of view of an eternally optimistic — some might say dense — character, one Asa Hearthrug. Asa is from farming stock, but he dreams of going to college, and so he is thrilled to be enrolled as a freshman at the University of Minnesota.

He quickly is recruited by a fraternity and (like many lovesick Shulman heroes) falls for not one but two girls, sorority sister Noblesse Oblige and the fiery communist lass Yetta Samovar. At one point Shulman offers us a comic tour of his alma mater while Asa ponders his romantic fate.


The book ends with him returning to his original hillbilly girlfriend, Lodestone La Toole. As the above synopsis indicates, the plot is merely present to provide premises for comic set-pieces (and crazy stories told to Asa, many crazy stories). Shulman toned down the cartoonishness of his universe as he went along, but he was always game to insert a digression if it was funny enough and produced a properly deadpan reaction from our clueless hero, who acknowledges all he hears as being equally profound. (There are overt references to Chaucer and Sterne in this trilogy, but I’d also be willing to bet that Shulman had read or was well aware of Candide.)

Barefoot Boy with Cheek was turned into a Broadway musical in 1947 (the show ran four months). Shulman wrote the book, with music by Sidney Lippman and lyrics by Sylvia Dee. Yetta Samovar was played by later TV star Nancy Walker (Rhoda’s mother and director of Can’t Stop the Music!); the wonderfully monikered Shyster Fiscal was played by a young Red Buttons.

The star was William Redfield, a noted character actor who is best known for his work in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, among many other supporting roles. More interesting to me: Redfield either cowrote or himself wrote Mr. Peepers, a sort of novel, the tie-in book for the Mr. Peepers TV show (I love the series and was surprised to also love the book); he’s thanked by Wally Cox (the only listed author on the title page) for his help on the book. 

THE FEATHER MERCHANTS 
I will confess that, as a teen, I never read two of Shulman’s novels — Anyone Got a Match, because I couldn’t find a copy of it in the used bookstore or at the library, and this book, because I didn’t enjoy “service comedies” (Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates, Martin and Lewis’ At War with the Army, etc). As an adult I now realize that it is inarguably the best early Shulman, because it isn’t a service comedy but is instead a priceless satire of faux patriotism and self-aggrandizement by civilians during wartime.

Shulman was such an amiable, charming humorist that he was able to get away with sentiment that might’ve seemed phony coming from another writer. And so The Feather Merchants offers a fascinating and funny reflection on the “greatest generation” and how their service was being acknowledged while WWII was going on (their not-so-glamorous return home became the subject of Shulman’s next novel).

Our hero here, Sgt. Dan Miller, is a sharper character than Asa Hearthrug. He understands what is going on around him but is powerless to do anything about it. He is a very unheroic hero — serving time in Oklahoma instead of overseas —who is constantly lectured by his friends and neighbors about the ways in which they are helping fight the war. He is branded a hero when a friend’s fake story (told, natch, to impress some girls) is picked up by the local press, and suddenly he has to figure out how to be the “demolitions expert” he’s supposed to be.

There are a number of very funny and bizarre moments in the book, but my personal favorite has to do with a visit to a strip club. An extremely patriotic strip club…


The Zebra Derby 
The last book in the trilogy features Asa Hearthrug again, this time as an ex-solider whose family does not want to hear his tales of battle.

[The Zebra Derby, pp. 8-9] "How ghastly it must have been in the miasms of the Pacific. But of course you don’t want to talk about it.” 
“As a matter of fact,” I said, “I do.”
“That’s all right, Son,” said Father. “You don’t have to. I’ll understand.” 
“But I want to.” 
“No, Son, no. Don’t wake a flood of horrendous memories on my account. I know how it was. Didn’t I see Don Ameche get it in the guts in Perils of the Pacific, in the head in Beast of the East, in the thighbone in Hara-Kiri for Two, in the spleen in My Mother Was a Flat-Top, and true in the heart in I Love to See Dat Risin’ Sun Go Down? Do you think I don’t know how it was?”

Shulman spoofs the ads that tout companies’ participation in, as we now call it, “supporting the troops” (“Having contributed in no small measure to the final defeat of our insidious enemies… LUCKY STRIKE GREEN IS BACK FROM WAR.”) Some of the most memorable scenes in the book, though, concern Asa’s attempts to find a job and, when that fails, trying to fit in back at the University of Minnesota. At one point a veterans’ program adviser (named “Max Ivycovered”) swears he’ll help Asa overcome his supposed killer instinct.

[The Zebra Derby, pp. 170-71] Mr. Ivycovered shrugged. “We've got to let you go to school, Hearthrug. It's your right, even if you have been turned into a ravening beast, a bloodthirsty engine of destruction.”
I snarled and kicked over a lamp.

“How can we expect to interest you in the liberal arts?” said Mr. Ivycovered. “How can the humanities and social sciences claim your attention? For you have been schooled in mayhem and uproar, in ferocity and tumult, in outrage and infraction.”
I upset a settee and clawed plaster from the walls.
“All barriers have been stripped from you,” said Mr. Ivycovered. “You demand commotion and frenzy, rampage and fulmination, turbulence and riot.”
I butted my head through a window and set fire to a bookcase. 

While Zebra is written in the same broadly comic style as the preceding books, Shulman does a brilliant job in one scene (a radio show heard by Asa on the radio) spoofing corporate America and its vision of a free and unfettered post-war climate. A gathering of "the National Association of Rich Millionaires" discusses how important it is that the government not regulate their companies' activity. (As I noted, good humor is always timeless....)




Lest he be thought of as some kind of socialist (not that there’s anything wrong with that), Shulman devotes a good amount of space to describing a wonderfully awful communist play later in the book. (“MAX: We are undone. SWEET ALICE: I am tired. I think I will sleep now and have a dream sequence.”)

Large Economy Size represents the first “era” of Shulman's writings. His Fifties books offered up the ultimate vision of the frustrated but resourceful American teenager in Dobie Gillis. He followed his cartoonlike, episodic novels with two more conventionally structured novels (Rally Round the Flag, Boys and Anyone Got a Match?) that dovetail perfectly with the colorful, wonderful critiques of consumerism by Funhouse favorites George Axelrod and Frank Tashlin.

I hope to write more about Shulman, but will note that his final two creations — the 1978 movie House Calls (he also subsequently scripted an episode for the short-lived 1979 TV series derived from the movie) and the comic novel Potatoes Are Cheaper — showed that he still had the same light touch and sharp satirical sensibility in later life that he had as a young tyro writing this trilogy.

There was a lot more to the guy than Dobie Gillis….
 

NOTE: The quotations and Max Shulman passages above are copyrighted by the Estate of Max Shulman. This blog entry was intended as a study of Shulman’s work; the books can be found at very reasonably prices (with the original, awesome covers and illustrations!) on both Amazon and eBay. My thanks goes out to RC for the quotes about MS, and my dad for pointing the way in the first place.

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