Thursday, September 15, 2016

Book Review: Rally Round the Flag Boys

Title: Rally Round the Flag Boys

Author: Max Shulman

Date: 1957

Publisher: Doubleday

ISBN: none

Length: 278 pages

Quote: “Since his name was di Maggio, everybody naturally assumed he loved baseball…Actually, he would have been much happier to stay home, but he hated to disappoint people so he always went along. constant exposure made him, willy-nilly, a first rate ball player.”

The name of the leading male character is Di Maggio. The name of his fiancĂ©e is Maggie. It’s a comedy, so Shulman got away with it.

Max Shulman was one of the best known (and best paid) comedy writers of the 1950s. His best known book was a series of episodes called The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, which grew into a TV sitcom, of which Shulman later told an interviewer, “Maybe some of your readers will remember ‘Dobie Gillis.’ I hope not.” It branded him. He was known as a writer of funny stories that were free from explicit sex or violence, but laden with heavily, sometimes cloyingly, 1950s “romantic”-type eroticism. “They went steady for the remainder of their senior year, and Guido was the happiest of men” as “they…clutched each other in moist, happy embraces.” Later Maggie loses her first job by giving “a talk on sex” to the second grade.

Meanwhile, an older couple, Harry and Grace, married with children, are still in love: “And some day—some day when we don’t have to go to a meeting or a rally or a lecture or a caucus—some day when the lawn doesn’t need cutting and the trash doesn’t need burning and the hinges don’t need oiling and the stairs don’t need runners and the faucets don’t need washers and the weatherstrips don’t need tightening and the drawers don’t need loosening and the children don’t need bite-plates—some day, Grace, some day, mark my words, I’ll get you yet!”

On yet another track, Comfort, “a large girl of sixteen years with creamy haunches and a fast-rising bosom” is “still unawakened,” meaning that she spends evenings writing her diary in the form of letters to Elvis rather than smooching boys.

And so on. It’s not necessarily more explicit than P.G. Wodehouse, but…even the young couples in a Wodehouse comedy aren’t in heat, whereas in a Shulman novel just about all the characters are in heat and we’re told all about what sort of thing they want to do, and with whom, and why. The incessant “birds do it, bees do it” appeal to sexuality that saturated U.S. pop culture, in the mid-twentieth century, is the source of my own anti-romance aesthetic. I actually enjoy romance as much as the next gal, but a person can read only so many stories that fade out on an image of a kissing couple before the person starts actively looking for romance-free stories.

Apart from the epidemic of overstimulated libidos, the Connecticut town where these characters meet is reenacting the landing of the British on their beach during the Revolutionary War, which brings the characters together and also guarantees that, in a movie version, something would explode. After all, a story that’s meant to be a comedy for right-minded people who don’t read porn, but also appeal to people who would have been reading porn if they could, later, when they’re alone, such that they’d buy copies of the book, could hardly start out with all those cases of hormone overload walking around and not end with an explosion. Freudian symbolism fully intended.

As U.S. pop culture evolved, increasing numbers of baby-boomers rebelled against the incessant appeals to sexuality in pop culture. Even sex suffered from overexposure. The kind of stories guys (they were always guys) like Shulman wrote ceased to be models everyone followed. As a result it’s possible to look back at the comedies of Max Shulman or H. Allen Smith with a sort of nostalgic tolerance. Now that calmer, cleaner, more realistic stories are back in fashion for those who want stories, and porn, violent video games with lots of explosions, and also “comedy” consisting entirely of young attractive people speaking a language made up of insults and vulgar words, are on separate channels for those who want that…now, it’s possible to say that Shulman was funny, too; what he did, he did well.

To buy it here, send $5 per book plus $5 per package plus $1 per online payment, for a total of $11 via Paypal or $10 via U.S. postal order (the post office collects its own surcharge), to either address at the very bottom of the screen. Any combination of books we can fit into one package ships for $5. If the authors of some of the books in the package are still living, 10% of the price of those books plus the shipping charge, typically $1 per book, goes to the authors or charities of their choice.