If you know James T. Farrell (1904 – 1979) you know him for a trilogy called Studs Lonigan (1932-35), a frank Irish-American slum saga of some kind which wowed the literati and inspired Norman Mailer to change his vocation in life. And that early success turned out to be all the world needed of Farrell, who published over 40 books with bulldozer determination, all the while being slowly forgotten. Yet he sold as a pulp to judge by the number of his works Signet put out (all with wonderful cover art by classic pulp artist James Avati) so it’s clear average readers didn’t forget him. Just goes to show the power academics have over our collective literary memory.
Farrell wrote in the social-realist style and his 1941 novel Ellen Rogers can be seen as a reasonable demonstration of his flaws and talents (though judging by the Amazon sneak peak of Studs Lonigan his writing style became a good deal more simplified in the ensuing decade). The plot: Small-time manipulative bitch Ellen Rogers meets her match in lady-killer Ed “Hellfire” Lanson, who reduces her to a “bewildered lovesick girl” (quoting cover copy there). This is a novelistic equivalent to Hollywood melodramas of the era and has the two-fisted prose to match: She felt like crying. But she gritted her teeth, tautened her limbs, clenched her fists. She would be dry-eyed. She would not be weak.
But, oh God, how could she prevent Ed from leaving?
Clearly the feminists won’t be staging a Farrell revival and as a writer he was unconcerned with style, lacking the polish even of a Dashiell Hammett and rarely bothering with the descriptive pleasures Steinbeck would employ – perhaps all to the good, considering lines like the miracle of dawn was preparing for its unfolding before her eyes like a honeymoon in the sky. He boasted of never suffering writer’s block – all he wanted was to get his stories down on paper. No frills, no fuss. And this makes him a good example of literary pulp.
Like good pulpists, Farrell skipped the boring bits. The chapters of Ellen Rogers are short and broken into numerous sub-chapters, averaging 3-4 pages each. The book is character-driven, sticking to dialogue and amoral actions. Farrell was into socialism for parts of his life but unlike Steinbeck, B. Traven or Upton Sinclair he wouldn’t interrupt his story to deliver a conscientious plea or sermon – social awareness and moral condemnation are left to the reader’s own business and that, to me, gives Farrell a leg up over those guys.
So what does Ellen Rogers offer? The simple pleasure of a good story. A chance to brush-up on some 20s-30s lingo (The gaffer was a curious cuss). And despicable characters the author makes no apologies for; nor does he cast the blame on some societal scapegoat. Ellen is spoiled, bored, a femme fatale without the necessary wit to make a career of it. She starts the novel stringing along a local boy with a false pregnancy but when she meets Ed Lanson she quickly goes gooey-eyed and helpless. She’s upstaged from her own book and Ed takes over.
Ed is a hilarious, disgusting creation, a poseur intellectual of such magnitude I suspect some parody on Farrell’s part. He lives by a cod Nietzschean code, spouting all kinds of bullshit about how he and Ellen will “conquer” and “the world will be our onion” (seriously now, I can’t remember the last time I laughed so hard at a book) all while plotting to make it big without doing any actual work. A chronic liar, he’s hauled to jail for non-payment of rent and tells anyone who’ll listen that he’s in for safe cracking. He acts the aristocrat and goes on about his pride while “borrowing” money – usually from women. He calls himself a writer but has never written; this doesn’t prevent him from telling random girls about his almost-finished work. “It seeks to depict the romance of reality, and the reality of romance,” he said, and she was unable to mask her bewilderment.
Bottomline: Ed Lanson is a smarmy, conceited ass and a layabout. Ellen Rogers is a weak, watery excuse for a femme fatale whose protests to the contrary ring hollow. “You don’t think I’m hard, do you, Ed? You think I’m soft, pliant. Well, I’m hard. Oh, yes I am. Hard. If you knew what I did to men, what I could do to them.” With such a cast, a biting comedy is introduced to the pages of flattery, ego-stroking and sentimental cooing they engage in together. A dime-store romance shown up in all its wishful cheapness by the paltry, contemptible duo at its heart. It doesn’t end well.
The book is a hoot yet there’s also more to it than simple entertainment. The women in Ellen Rogers are of a piece: stupid, needy, compliant. Exactly the type a player would go for. They listen to Ed expound his poisonous philosophy of the users and the used, unaware that he puts them in the second category. They respond with confusion, laugh it off, saying “you talk funny, Ed.” They go on believing he’ll make good and marry them. It’s sad. It also reminded me of A Hero of Our Time, concerning itself with the same moral themes as Lermontov, trickled down from the literary greats to the pulp realists. Some topics never fade.
Ellen Rogers is not so well written as his famous work, which he must have spent plenty of time polishing up. However, it’s a darkly funny snapshot of a time in America when “babbitry” was hot off the presses. Reading the entertainment of any era can give a surprising vantage point on the lives and concerns of ordinary people (and for all the Ivory Tower’s wish to represent them, probably more accurate). Average Joes of the 40s-50s might have read Ellen Rogers – they probably didn’t read Thus Spake Zarathustra. And books like Ellen Rogers are a great way to get your reading fix when you need to lighten up and take a break from the demand and focus of highbrow literature.