Saturday, June 21, 2014

Tarzan and the Ant Men by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1924)

I bought a copy of Edgar Rice Burroughs' amazingly-covered and titled Tarzan and the Ant Men (1924) at a thrift store in Omaha a couple years ago when I was home visiting family. Then last month while I was in New Orleans I bought another copy of the exact same edition at a used book store in the French Quarter. Apparently something about Tarzan, ant men, and the weird dudes on the cover of this book appeal to me... I was able to find a home for my second copy and quickly moved this one up to the top of my reading pile before I accidentally bought it yet again.

According to Wikipedia, this book represents Burroughs at the height of his writing powers and is one of the strongest in the Tarzan series. I'd half agree with that -- part of this book was a tight and interesting adventure with a well-developed sci-fi aspect, but the other half was a dragging and predictable trudge with some pretty ugly views on gender roles.

Our adventure starts when Tarzan (in full Lord Greystoke mode) insists on flying the small plane his son taught him how to pilot on a mega-solo adventure over the African plains. His son protests that he should at least bring a mechanic with him, but Tarzan is pretty stubborn and goes up by himself. He loses track of time and space and ends up crash-landing in an isolated part of the country that is surrounded by an impenetrable ring of thorn bushes (this set up really reminded me of the Oz books!).

Within this ring, two separate races had evolved: the Alali and the Minunians. Tarzan first meets with the Alali, a race of non-verbal Neanderthals where the women are strong and aggressive and the men are scared weaklings who hide alone in the jungle eating roots and waiting for a woman to capture them for some violent mating.

As Burroughs puts it: "The hideous life of the Alalus was the natural result of the unnatural reversal of sex dominance. It is the province of the male to initiate love and by his masterfulness to inspire first respect, then admiration in the breast of the female he seeks to attract. Love itself developed after these other emotions. The gradually increasing ascendency of the female Alalus over the male eventually prevented the emotions of respect and admiration for the male from being aroused, with the result that love never followed.

"Having no love for her mate and having become a more powerful brute, the savage Alalus woman soon came to treat the members of the opposite sex with contempt and brutality with the result that the power, or at least the desire, to initiate love ceased to exist in the heart of the male—he could not love a creature he feared and hated, he could not respect or admire the unsexed creatures that the Alali women had become, and so he fled into the forests and the jungles and there the dominant females hunted him lest their race perish from the earth." (Chapter 3)


Tarzan is captured by an Alali woman while he is unconscious from the plane crash, but ends up escaping from her cave with one of her sons, who he teaches to use a bow and arrow and generally stand up for himself around jungle animals.

One day, when wandering around and exploring on his own, Tarzan comes across an Alali woman attacking a small group of very small men (about 1/4 the size of a regular human) riding little antelopes. He saves the men, including Prince Komodoflorensal of the Trohanadalmakus (the names!) and is taken back to their city and treated as a hero. He gets to know and admire their structured and war-like (and ant-like) society and truly enjoys the company of the prince and the king.

One day, during a raid from a rival group of Minunians, Tarzan is overwhelmed by the small warriors, taken prisoner, and made into a slave back in their town. This second group of small people happen to have a scientist in their ranks who is trying to learn the secret of making small men big, but who so far has only succeeded in making big men small, which he proceeds to do to Tarzan. There are some pretty great adventure sequences as Tarzan and the prince (who was also captured) escape from slavery and take a sweet slave girl with them.

Sprinkled through the detailed descriptions of the Minunians and their society is some prohibition / WWI enhanced political debate:

"'In theory, but not in fact,' replied Gefasto. 'It is true that the rich pay the bulk of the taxes into the treasury of the king, but first they collect it from the poor in higher prices and other forms of extortion, in the proportion of two jetaks for every one that they pay to the tax collector. The cost of collecting this tax added to the loss in revenue to the government by the abolition of wine and the cost of preventing the unscrupulous from making and selling wine illicitly would, if turned back into the coffers of the government, reduce our taxes so materially that they would fall as a burden upon none.'

"'And that, you think, would solve our problems and restore happiness to Veltopismakus?' asked Gofoloso.

"'No,' replied his fellow prince. 'We must have war. As we have found that there is no enduring happiness in peace or virtue, let us have a little war and a little sin. A pudding that is all of one ingredient is nauseating —it must be seasoned, it must be spiced, and before we can enjoy the eating of it to the fullest we must be forced to strive for it. War and work, the two most distasteful things in the world, are, nevertheless, the most essential to the happiness and the existence of a people. Peace reduces the necessity for labor, and induces slothfulness. War compels labor, that her ravages may be effaced. Peace turns us into fat worms. War makes men of us.'" (Chapter 10)

Eventually, Tarzan heads back to the real world, but before he crosses the thorny barrier, he meets up with his Alalus friend. Things have really changed for their society since Tarzan entered the picture:

"Very proud, the son of The First Woman explained to Tarzan as best he could the great change that had come upon the Alali since the ape-man had given the men weapons and the son of The First Woman had discovered what a proper use of them would mean to the males of his kind. Now each male had a woman cooking for him—at least one, and some of them—the stronger—had more than one.

"To entertain Tarzan and to show him what great strides civilization had taken in the land of the Zertalacolols, the son of The First Woman seized a female by the hair and dragging her to him struck her heavily about the head and face with his clenched fist, and the woman fell upon her knees and fondled his legs, looking wistfully into his face, her own glowing with love and admiration." (Chapter 21)

Double sigh.

I love Burroughs and I can accept that my modern eyes are going to be stung a bit by the casual racism and sexism that trots through all his books (and particularly his Tarzan books), but the sub-plot of the Alali was a little too much, even for a mega-fan. Still, the good stuff is super good and if you can power through the cringeworthy parts, this is a pretty great example of the power of Burroughs.

[Want to read the whole thing but weren't the lucky friend who got my duplicate copy? No prob, Bob, check it out here for free.]

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Joe by Larry Brown (1991)

I meant to read Dr. Mystery's copy of Joe by Larry Brown (1991) before we saw the recent David Gordon Green movie staring Nicholas Cage. Alas, the size of my reading pile bit me in the ass and I didn't end up reading it until a couple of months after we saw the movie. Lucky for me this is one of those rare cases where both the movie and the book are great, but in slightly different ways, so experiencing one before the other doesn't put you at a disadvantage.

Joe is almost fifty, divorced, a serious drinker, done hard time. He has hit an equilibrium in his life that involves working a crew of men in seasonal work to kill second growth forest and replace it with high dollar pine trees. It also involves a lot of gambling, drinking, driving around in his truck, and, occasionally, making really bad decisions.

Gary and his family walk into town carrying all their possessions and dragging along his mean drunk of a father. They come across a long-abandoned house in the country and decide to stay. To support his mother and mute sister, Gary picks up cans and tries to get odd jobs. He doesn't really know how old he is, but he says he's fifteen. He ends up working on Joe's tree-killing crew and Joe takes an interest in seeing that the kid is okay. That's pretty hard to do when a kid is in a situation like Gary's.

This is a rough book: a mix of almost poetic observations on the Mississippi countryside combined with sudden violence, harsh reality, and crushing, honestly rendered poverty. All the people in Joe are broken: some of them turned out to be made of mean pieces, others to be made of mostly good pieces. There are no real happy endings in this book. There are small victories and tiny pleasures, but there isn't any real salvation or redemption, no real way to dig yourself out of the hole you were born in (or that you dug yourself). This is a wonderfully written novel, filled with perfect dialogue and moving descriptions, and readers shouldn't let themselves be turned off by the sad storyline. This is the first Larry Brown novel I've read, and I can't wait to read more.

[p.s. The movie is great too!]