Inspired by the relatively new anthology of short stories, The Worlds of Edgar Rice Burroughs (in turn, inspired by the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs), I found an Ebook copy of The Mucker by the aforesaid ERB. The Mucker does not age well. Like some of the classic Robert E. Howard works, it is full of racial epithets (some of which, placed in the slang of the eponymous “Mucker,” were new to me) that often served to jar me out of my suspended disbelief. I think I was truly blind to just how racist mainstream society was in the earliest part of the 19th century. The protagonist in The Mucker even deliberately uses an anti-Italian epithet as an anti-Hispanic and anti-Native Mexican slur: “It ain’t never a mistake to shoot a Dago, … (Location 4603).
Perhaps, outside the plot in general, the most useful lesson in The Mucker is about the premature judgments we make on the basis of appearance and language. To be sure, this is a volume about personal transformation by an extreme effort of will (else there wouldn’t have been two additional books with the main characters), but it underscores the class consciousness of its generation in a very vivid way.
In the midst of the crudeness depicted within the dialogue and class prejudice, I truly enjoyed the use of unusual words and phrases within the volume. Devotees of Strunk & White would be horrified at the use of vocabulary such as “contumely” (Location 1294) and “avoirdupois” (Location 176, a term for weights and measures in English-speaking countries with which I was unfamiliar). Indeed, who could resist a line referring to the “supposititious purpose of the cruise” (Location 571). I enjoyed the biblical reference to the “evening and the morning were the third day” (Location 1545), quotations from cowboy poet Henry Herbert Knibbs (“’It’s overland and overland and overseas to—where?’ ‘Most anywhere that isn’t here,’ I says. His face went kind of queer. ‘The place we’re in is always here. The other place is there.’” –Location 3656)
My favorite line is the book is “…the eye-light of love and lust are twin lights between which it takes much worldly wisdom to differentiate.” (Location 846) This is an ideal phrase to use in discussing the main conflict in the book (indeed, judging from the Max Collins story in the anthology, it is the main conflict in all three books—though I’ve only read this one). The male protagonist is a tough from Chicago’s Grand Avenue gang culture of the early 20th century. His hostile, pugnacious nature gets him in trouble and he ends up aboard a ship of toughs in the midst of a piratical kidnapping scheme. The subject of the scheme is a New York City socialite named Barbara. Although street tough, mucker, “coward” as Barbara calls him, Billy Byrne initially despises Barbara and all her family and social class represents, it isn’t a spoiler to suggest that, in the course of the narrative, Billy will fall in love with her and save her life on many occasions.
The kidnapping leads to a shipwreck which allows for a mix of ERB’s jungle survival prose combined with an unexpected “lost oriental” theme. The latter was a surprise to me and I hope I haven’t spoiled it for potential readers.
Well, since the book is only halfway complete when the principals are rescued from the island (and this doesn’t quite work out the way one would expect), it is clear that this isn’t the end of the saga. Billy tries to make a life without Barbara, but even though he rejects her because it is the right thing to do (two different worlds, ya’ know, and also, apparently, a recurring theme), their paths cross again in a foreign country. Once again, Billy is thrust into the position of rescuer and would-be suitor, but he must intern for a time with a Pancho Villa rival in order to do so.
It was this latter part of the novel that offered the most incredulity to me as a reader. At one point, the bandito chief is convinced that Billy isn’t a gringo because his Chicago argot is practically a foreign language. At another point, Billy who only speaks a modicum of Spanish is able to negotiate a fine deal with his new “El Jefe” (the latter not ERB’s word). Yet, the entire section was a lot of fun because Billy was parsing rather precisely between his good intentions of going straight and his service of Mexico under command of this “general.” It’s an intriguing inner dialogue and more credible than some of the action scenes. Nonetheless, the action scenes are strung together like beads and, even though one knows largely what will happen, it is still interesting to see the beads come full circle.
Eventually, I’ll read the other two novels about these characters. As of now, I don’t feel any real urgency. My ERB appetite has been (probably because of the racism and classism) temporarily quenched and I’ll wait till I’m in another pulp adventure mood to trace down the other stories.