2009: 108-110. Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy

“Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with his Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug.”

Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, Judgment Day, James T. Farrell

       Another cheat by the Modern Library people, putting a trilogy as one of their top “100” novels (which by my count is actually at least 115, and that’s only if none of the one’s I haven’t read yet turn out to be multiparters - and I have my doubts about the Alexandria Quartet!).  This is three novels about a young Irish Catholic hoodlum growing up in Chicago, from about 1915-1935.  The forward by the author says that it’s supposed to be a story about the spiritual poverty of an average American boy, and the introduction on my version distinguished between two sorts of Irish - the “drugstore cowboy micks” who hung around the poolroom and the earnest young Irishmen who became lawyers, teachers and pillars of their community.  

       Studs Lonigan falls most definitely into that first category - he spends three novels (465 closely printed pages) drinking and fighting and trying to get laid (and sometimes succeeding), and loafing about and generally wasting his life.  And Farrell captures that life, and that kind of person extremely well - you absolutely picture Lonigan and even understand him (that is, he’s young, and sort of stupid, and lacks ambition, because of his father’s success).  So I cannot say that I don’t understand why the trilogy is on the Modern Library list.  BUT, oh my lord (as Claudia Kishi would say), it was quite an effort to make myself care for all those pages, and Studs does the same stupid things over and over again.  Much like the USA trilogy, or Parade’s End, what impressed me for one book bored me for three - and while I at least finished all three novels here (mostly because they were more straightforwardly written than the Dos Passos and Ford, and thus just required determination to get through), I can’t really see why this needed to be a trilogy.  I got it after the first book, and the other two were just window dressing.

        And, you know, what this book really made me think about was A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - which is set in generally the same time period and deals with a very similar type of person - working class Irish (well, perhaps the Nolans are poorer than the Lonigans).  And I wondered, what does the Farrell give us that Betty Smith did not? Smith’s book is slightly more sentimental (but not much) and Farrell’s more hard-boiled, but that doesn’t make it better.  And I am certain many more people have read and been influenced by the Smith book.  The Modern Library list was criticized for sexism when it first came out, and while I am not necessarily saying I agree, reading the Farrell and thinking about Betty Smith made me wonder if that criticism wasn’t fair.  Gosh - maybe I need to read the Orange prize winning books next?

Date/Place Completed:  August 2009; D.C.

Categories:  Fiction, Modern Library Top 100, Book Resolutions


© Carrie Dunsmore 2017