Tuesday, December 8, 2009

goodreads book review: penrod, booth tarkington

Penrod (Penguin Classics) Penrod by Booth Tarkington

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
penrod is an amusing book. it's not laugh-out-loud funny but the misadventures of this inscrutable and bad boy are captivating, and knowing, and made me smile. tarkington lets us into the hallowed halls of an adolescent male mind which is itching for experiences, and wily in its meeting of any consequence that these experiences might bring. penrod, as the epitome of boys, an untroubled huck, breathes life into the archetypal boyhood. he is good at getting into scrapes whether they are of his own devising or not (usually they are), and things often spiral wildly out of his control despite his efforts at containment. he is popularized as the "worst boy in town" by the girl he likes best, and he's hotly defensive of his honour. he is curious, vindictive, but also sometimes kind. if you have spent any time with an unruly young man, with some brains, and too much energy, you have met penrod. the other characters too, are well drawn and quite familiar: his family, frustrated, amused, and perplexed by him; the other kids who are his friends and enemies all-at-once live in awe or fear, or collude with him; the other townsfolk cluck, or cause calumnies for him. the characterizations in this book feel real even if they also sometimes smack of caricature, as real people sometimes do.

some of the caricature in this book i had trouble with: specifically the endemic racism. i realize that it is a by-product of the society in which tarkington was raised, and understood, but it's distracting and painful to read some of these sentences that are tossed off, and in some cases, weaken the narrative. here's an example, with square brackets mine:

He sat staring at the an open page of a textbook, but not studying; not even reading; not even thinking. Nor was he lost in a reverie: his mind's eye was shut, as his physical eye might well have been, for the optic nerve, flaccid with ennui, conveyed nothing whatever of the printed page upon which the orb of vision was partially focused. Penrod was doing something very unusual and rare, something almost never accomplished except by [coloured people or by] a boy in school on a spring day: he was doing really nothing at all. He was merely a state of being.

cut those four words out, and it is marvellous writing, and cements the portrayal of a boy's mind which is the novel's central theme. and i can't even say that this is the worst of it. penrod has two black playmates named herman and verman, who have a raccoon they eventually name sherman after their dead brother, and they are wonderful characters, and is often the case, in some ways much more attractive than penrod himself. yet, we are forced to endure narrative that characterizes them as in the "lower stages of evolution" and the like. at least these racial slurs are relatively few in number, and the brothers are treated with respect by penrod and their other colleagues in the arts of chicanery.

i'm really glad i read this book despite the racism. each time i come across this issue, i face the quandary of to read or not to read. it is troubling, that a book that brings so much pleasure can also knock it out of you with a careless, and often useless remark. it is also a relic of the way the world was, and i can curse the editor of penrod for not seeing that the strength of the above paragraph was dimmed by the stupid addition of a folksy slur, and be glad that times have changed. boys and their spirits however, have not altered in essentials since the publication of penrod, and i cannot say that that is a blessing or a curse, so much as shake my head wryly at the epitome of boys so embodied in this book.

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