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January 30, 2005 - Dead seventy years and still ahead of his time...

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Book Wrangler

Sunday, January 30, 2005

By Bob Patterson


Thorne Smith died more than seventy years ago and is still a man who was ahead of his time.


I first heard of him about forty years ago while working part time at a trucking company while going to college.  One of the older coworkers was quite well read and he would recommend things ranging from Byron’s Don Juan to Turnabout and The Bishop’s Jaeggers by Thorne Smith.


Back then, I used to get to go to hunt for bargains in New York’s Book Row of America, and thought it would be no problem to find stuff by Smith.  It turned out to be more difficult than I first imagined.


Smith’s Topper was made into a successful movie and TV series. 


Once (in 1968), I went into a used bookstore in Los Angeles and as I entered the store I had the premonition that I would finally locate a copy of Turnabout.  When I walked out and thought about the premonition, I realized that I hadn’t looked in the right section, so I went back in and there it was.  I got it and read it quickly.  In the book a man and a wife have weird experiences when their minds/brains/spirits exchange bodies.  The wife in the man’s body gets a new perspective on office politics.  The guy inside his wife’s body becomes hysterically afraid of becoming pregnant. 


There have been countless movies lately using that premise, but it was not original with Thorne Smith.  One of Arthur Conan Doyle’s non-Sherlock Holmes short stories features a college student and one of his professors who undergo a similar exchange.


My search for a copy of The Bishop’s Jaeggers took longer.  I would try to make it a part of any exploration of any used bookstore to look for that one.  Finally, on a routine weekly stop at Wilshire Books in Santa Monica, I found a used paperback copy in the bargain bin for a dime.  A twenty-year search ended for one tenth of a dollar!  (The bargain bin books are now twenty-five cents at that particular location.)


The story tells about a young couple that boards the ferryboat going to New Jersey.  It gets lost in a fog and lands at a nudist camp.  Given the fact that the movies today won’t tackle that subject, Smith some credit for writing about it more than 80 years ago.  His fact checking for background must have been a very clandestine operation. 


It’s a PG-13 handling of a strong R rated subject and one could easily surmise that it might have made a good movie by this time, but in an age when “edgy” is much sought after, this particular item seems to have been ignored totally. 


In an essay titled Run Fast, Stand Still, or, The Thing at the Top of the Stairs, or, New Ghosts from Old Minds, Ray Bradbury advises rookie writers about the topic “Where Do You Get Your Ideas.”  He mentions three books were especially recommended to him in his youth.  They were:  The Lost Weekend (by Charles Jackson), One Man’s Meat (by E. B. White), and Rain in the Doorway (by Thorne Smith.)


About ten years ago, the New York Times (in one of the Sunday Arts sections) ran a biographical feature story about Thorne Smith that supplied some background information.  It should be available online for a fee.


TV viewers who are a little bored with the continuing avalanche of fart jokes, might like a change of pace.  They are urged to go to their local library (is it within walking distance?) and see if they have anything by the obscure literary figure who is still ahead of his time and much more sophisticated than folks eating garbage on a reality TV show.


Here is a selection of the quotable lines from Rain in the Doorway that caught our eyes.


“We boggle at nothing and nothing boggles us.”


“He drew a sharp breath and tried to remember all the things he ever heard about Paris.”


“He thought of giant forests denuded for the sake of these books; of millions of publishers and editors crushed beneath the weight of their spring and fall lists, of numberless bookstore owners resorting to theft and murder or else going mad in their efforts to keep from sinking in seas of bankruptcy beneath the steadily rising tide of current fiction.”


(Does anyone want to volunteer to step up to the chalkboard and diagram that last one sentence quote?)


“He thought of haggard-eyed book reviewers turning their bitter faces to those strange and awful gods to which book reviewers are forced to turn in the affliction of their tortured brains.”


Has the Book Wrangler found a new motto?


“The man was giving signs of mental instability which, added to his obvious moral looseness, did not make an admirable combination.”


Wait just a darn minute.  One of our friends, who says his goal in life is to become a serial killer, shows signs of mental instability and moral looseness - and we like him.


Well, that wraps up another Book Wrangler for this week.  Come back again seven days hence.  We are reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent and expect to review that pertinent 100-year-old book, next week.





Copyright 2005 – Robert Patterson


Copyright 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006 - Alan M. Pavlik
The inclusion of any text from others is quotation
for the purpose of illustration and commentary,
as permitted by the fair use doctrine of U.S. copyright law. 
See the Details page for the relevant citation.

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