Saturday, May 21, 2011

Short Review: The Ecstasy of Owen Muir

Lardner, Ring Jr., The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, 1954, Prometheus: New York, 1997

The more pre-1960s America literature I read, the more interested I become. It started with Kerouac, then Bukowski, then Toole. These authors depict a life I could've seen myself living (save for the flatulence of Mr. Reilly and his preference of flannel and cord), if I'd been conceived in the '30s. Leading a semi-bohemian life, traveling from place to place, with no real cares save for penning what's important to me and close friends.

But then, somehow, I stumbled upon a book by Ring Lardner Jr. called The Ecstasy of Owen Muir whilst reading an article, I think. Or it could've been somewhere on a website, or perhaps on some RSS feed; I'm really not quite sure. Nonetheless, what I read intrigued me enough to buy it, straying off my path of buying what I should read (something I need to give up).
Lardner was an acclaimed screenwriter throughout the '40s, winning an Oscar for Woman of the Year (1947; later winning another for his film adaptation of M*A*S*H [1977]). He served time in jail as part of the Hollywood Ten during the McCarthy era. It was during his time in prison the he cultivated the idea for his comic novel.

Owen is a tale of Owen Muir, a pacifist who spends time in prison (just like Lardner) for refusing to serve in the army. He transforms from an overweight, insightful pacifist into a sturdy, athletic, muscular, insightful pacifist, thanks to the labour within the jailhouse (which leads to a slightly disturbing scene with his sibling upon release). After meeting April, his Catholic secretary, he falls in love and converts to Catholicism, overcoming the only obstacle on the path to marriage. Majority of the novel follows Owen's search for justifying his newfound religion to himself and finding his place in the world. In the process Lardner comments on a myriad of ideas and institutions, such as business ethics, advertising, sex, philosophy, racism, and, rather comically, on the failings of the Church (a major reason for the novel being refused publication in America). One chapter sees Owen calculate his indulgences (an utterly ridiculous concept), which come to a grand total of 84 000 years!!!!!! HA! Anywho, I won't spoil the ending, which is initially anticlimactic but upon meditation fits perfectly.

If you're anti-Catholic, or an atheist or agnostic, or care not for religion at all, or are Catholic and would like to see the oddities of your beliefs presented to you, then this novel is well worth the read. It's pretty standard in length (272 pages) and the prose is free-flowing and somewhat elegant. Although the content can get a little dense, particularly during the philosophical conversations. But even a relatively juvenile knowledge of the Church will allow you to follow these easily.

For a novel that's counted in the 'Literary Classics' range, I'm intrigued as to why it's not more popular (well, I suppose in Australia, what institution would actually assign it to a reading list? Probably book club material, at best). Not only is it a great story but, taken with a grain of salt, provides a valuable insight into a very tumultuous point in American history. 


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