Friday, May 23, 2014

The Wisdom of Studs Lonigan

A few years back I was visiting my good friend, Marty Klaif, and noticed on the end table in his living room a fat paperback copy (873 pages!) of Studs Lonigan, the classic trilogy by James Farrell, that's considered one of the best American novels of the 20th Century. I'd never read it and Marty recommended it highly, so I borrowed it.

Like many others, I have that disease where I acquire books faster than I read them, so I didn't get around to it opening it up until this spring. But it's a compelling story, with surprising application to modern life, even though it was written 80 years ago.

The story follows Studs from 13 to his early death—a span of about 18 years. He was the son of an Irish Immigrant chasing the American Dream on the south side of Chicago. Starting out as a tough, though essentially good-natured teenager, he degenerates into a physically broken, dispirited alcoholic. While the prose is somewhat wooden and repetitive, Farrell does an excellent job of capturing the ethos of working class immigrant neighborhoods going into the Great Depression, replete with sharply defined racial prejudice, a strong sense of peer camaraderie, serious abuse of alcohol and tobacco, and the essential failure of the Catholic Church to make a difference. It isn't just about the Depression; it's depressing.

o  The book opens with Studs smoking in the bathroom before his eighth-grade graduation—the last of his formal education.
o  He's obsessed with sex and women, yet tongue-tied in their presence. He fantasizes for years about being with Lucy, a girl that he once spent a lovely spring day with, holding hands and sitting on a tree limb in a neighborhood park (haven't we all been in that tree?).
o  Studs constantly dreams of getting ahead, but it never quite works out. He makes regular attempts to straighten out his life, and then falls off the wagon.
o  He's obsessed with looking good and being admired, which happens only occasionally and never lasts.
o  Studs is reflective and full of contradictions, critical of posturing in others, and then indulging in it himself.
o  He tries running away from home to assert his independence, yet has nowhere to go, gets found by his father, and continues living at home after recognizing the futility of striking out on his own. Ultimately he depends on his father for employment (in his painting business).
o  The old neighborhood transitions from Irish to Black in Studs' lifetime; the pool hall that was the centerpiece of his adolescent social scene gets sold and closes up.
o  He's prideful and easily offended. When challenged his knee-jerk response is to fight. While he enjoys a certain amount of success with his fists (until his health breaks down), it is more of a haunting memory than a persona.o  He doesn't know who to talk to about the things on his mind, or what to say when he has the chance.

Eerily, Studs' issues and self-perceptions are completely modern—or perhaps I should say timeless.

For example:
o  I wrestle with whether I drink too much.
o  I worry about stock investments and risk tolerance.
o  I don't easily talk about my feelings.
o  I imagine myself being the hero.
o  I silently judge others so that I'll feel better about myself. 
o  I wonder what others think of me.
o  I fantisize about sex.
o  I struggled to gain the respect of my father.
o  I worry about my gradual, yet steady decline of physical abilities.

Hell, we both grew up in Greater Chicago, and there's no doubt in my mind but that we'd both root for da Bears.

To be sure, today things are different: the power of the Catholic Church is no longer looked to (so much) as a moral compass; substantial progress has been made with respect to racial prejudice; the evils of alcohol and tobacco are better understood and moderated.

It's sobering to notice that I've already lived twice as long as Studs, and am still going. While I'm definitely getting creakier, two days ago I was the straw boss for the pouring of a 4.75 cubic yard concrete slab—and was still able still get out of bed the next day. Of course, I've taken better care of myself than Studs did. And now I'm letting Studs help take care of me, as art supplies insights to life.

Thanks, Marty.

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