Woodman's Muse

Woodman's MuseI was flipping through an old magazine and I came across this quote. "I remember the first person I ever laughed at while reading was Max Shulman." I might not have paid any more attention to it than I usually do to denture adhesive ads or reports of alien abductions, except that the person who said it was Woody Allen. And when the Woodman talks, people listen. Well, at least people in the person of me.

But Max who? I Googled away: 1950s writer, originally from Minneapolis, wrote the novel the groundbreaking TV sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was based on. Yeah. And a week or so later, walking past a used book kiosk, there it was. Goofy, '50s New Yorker-style cover.Cheap price. Intact - it was a Shulman opus, Rally Round the Flag, Boys. I laid down my 50 cents (strangely, the same price the book sold for 50 years ago), sat back, and damn if I didn't laugh out loud. Just like the Woodman did.

Sure, the topical humor had dated. Elvis was long gone. So were Nike missile bases. But people, at least last time I checked, were still around. And boy, did Shulman nail human nature. His characters, while pitched to their time, were also timeless. And he turned quite a phrase along the way. What's more, they weren't just cardboard cutouts of comic dolls. They had some tragedy mixed in with their laughter. There were no obvious jokes either. The book worked on me on about six different levels.

First, the obligatory story overview - sans spoiler ending - that you expect from every book review. The army is forced to set up a Nike missile base in a quiet, Connecticut bedroom suburb, far enough out on the New Haven line to still be up to its keister in crusty old New Englanders, spicy Italians who built the railroad, and the 1950s version of new media types - lots of Martinis (and Gibsons), Madison Avenue, publishing, etc. In the midst of this is Harry Bannerman, working stiff. Harry is bored in his marriage - as, it seems, is just about everybody else in Putnam's Landing. Add to this a whacked-out military dude or two, a crafty public relations-minded soldier, a hillbilly singer, some teens, some juvenile delinquents, and a tryst or two, and you've got the plot. It reads like greased lighting. There are some very funny bits.

But it never indulges in irony, or cynicism, or parody - at least as far as I can tell. It's a comedy. And, incidentally, from a writing-craft point of view, it juggles scads of protagonists in the universe around Harry. Clever stuff. Incidentally, it's also quite cinematic. I've subsequently surmised, from reading more of Shulman's work (which I'm amazed to report is way better, and to use a silly modern critical catch-all, edgier) that this bestseller was made into a movie - I suspect he even did that timeless trick of writing it with the screenplay in mind.

It's a portrait of an America, of a world, before rock. It's like looking at a world that was about to be exploded - but not by Nikes. (The missiles, not the shoes.) It's a portrait of a more innocent time, which was also, interestingly, a more daring time. A less cynical time, when people still did stupid and funny things but were able to laugh about them. And it does the amazing thing of being just a light social satire, but one that has some real grit. All things that I only wish were more in evidence these days. But more on that in later obsessions of mine.

A few words on the mission of this CultureCatch feature - Verbal Obsessions. It's a way of me describing my reading diary, following along with me on my reading odyssey. BookLust? Well, call it book-like. In future installments we'll go with my current flow of other '50s and '60s American pulp humorists, many of them who had homes in Playboy, Esquire, and men's adventure mags. Men (and sorry, they were almost always men - although I'll give the amazing Jean Kerr her props, too) such as Bruce Jay Friedman, Shulman, Jean Shepherd, Allan Seager, the many sons of Shel Silverstein and his majordomo, Hugh Hefner. But in the meantime, just remember what The New York Times, the old grey lady of Times Square, said about Shulman's Rally Round the Flag, Boys back in 1954: "The funniest book of the year." And then, think of the Woodman.

'Til next time... Ken Krimstein Ken.jpg

Mr. Krimstein is a professor, writer, cartoonist, father, and grump who use to live in New York City, but moved back to Chicago. So there.

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