Studs Lonigan Trilogy by James T. Farrell

Studs Lonigan

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This trio is best read as one long continuous novel. The story is a tale of life in an Irish middle class neighborhood on the south side of Chicago from the years 1916 through 1931… all centered on one young Irish punk- Studs Lonigan. If it had been a movie, James Cagney could have won an Oscar starring in the role.

Studs Lonigan: A Trilogy is the best and the worst of American Literature- listed as number 29 on the Modern Library’s best 100 novels. The best: James Farrell writes of his own experiences (casting himself as one of Studs’ neighborhood buddies) so Studs Lonigan presents a very vivid, authentic view of cultural conditions during that era. Studs is a very tough bad boy- dropping out of school at the age of 15 to hang out on the Chicago streets. He would have liked to play football but boasts to his buddies, “I was out for freshman team, and the coach liked my stuff, but he finally canned me. Said it was discipline, because I didn’t show up every day. Hell, if I showed up every day, that meant I’d have to go to school. And they raise hell with you for not having homework and that stuff. You can’t fake Latin and algebra, and Jesus, you have to write compositions for English. None of that for me.”

In a simple matter-of-fact natural narrative, Farrell schools the reader on American life almost 100 years ago covering the turbulent years of WW I, civil disorder and race riots, Prohibition, the stock market crash of 1929, and the Great Depression. The working class population grappled with issues like their own personal battle between religion and atheism, socialism and capitalism. Read about Catholic schools with nuns as teachers, gangs that hang out on street corners and in pool halls, the prejudice against all other nationalities and religions, the rules and rituals of dating and the limited proficiency of the medical profession. It’s every bit as good as Dos Passos’ Trilogy U.S.A. which ranks number 23 on the Modern Library list.

The worst: This series is the most politically incorrect piece of literature I’ve ever come across. It doesn’t get any worse than this! As editors felt the need to remove the dreadful N word from Uncle Tom’s Cabin in recent years, it amazes me that this work of literature has been left alone… possibly because it would require removing entire paragraphs from the Studs Lonigan Trilogy.

Farrell certainly exposes the dark underbelly of middle class American society: murder, rape, petty theft, sexual transmitted diseases, intolerance and bigotry. It is difficult to read through the instances of brutal cruelty. And so much hate! Perhaps poverty breeds hate, and after the stock market crash of 1929, everyone was looking for someone to blame.

And it is disheartening to read of the unwarranted dangers:

Playing neighborhood football could be fatal because the game was played without protection, and the games often erupted into chaotic violence. It was not unusual to have a death occur during a game.

And Prohibition! All the neighborhood punks drank and the only alcohol available was moonshine. “The stuff was generally strong enough to corrode a cast iron gut. It was canned heat, rot gut, furniture varnish, rat-poison. When you drank it, you took your life in your hands, and even if it didn’t kill you, it might make you blind, or put your heart, liver, guts or kidneys on the fritz for life.” Yet they drank! By the time Studs reaches 30 years old, many of his childhood friends are already dead.

The three books of Studs Lonigan are Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgement Day. And indeed, what a judgement day it was! Reading this trilogy was a real eye-opener. Generally speaking, I like bad boys. But Studs had too few redeeming qualities. He was just too, too bad.

Taking the worst features of the three novels into consideration I concluded that the primitive attitudes, barbaric actions, and uncivilized behavior were all based on uneducated, raw ignorance. It makes for difficult reading, but what a treat to enter a time capsule that transports you to a very real whole other world in a very different time. It’s time travel at it’s best.

Rated 5 Stars

All contents © 2015 Lois Weisberg. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

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