City boy

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Book Review – ‘City Boy: The Adventures of Herbie Bookbinder’

Author: Herman Wouk

Simon and Schuster(1948)

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No matter how hard he brushes his unruly hair, it still sticks up untidily. He is brilliant in class but he dreams of ‘fitting in’ and being like the class bully.

Meet little Herbie Bookbinder. Lovably plump, very intelligent, this young Jewish eleven year old lives in Bronx, New York, with his pretty thirteen year old sister, Felicia (Fleece) and his upper middle class parents. Herbie has a massive crush on a young red headed girl in his school, named Lucille Glass. Her father is a well-to-do lawyer who maintains professional relations with Herbie’s Dad.

Herman Wouk’s ‘City boy’ is a delightfully funny story based in the spring of 1928 and centered around young Herbie’s summer vacation at Camp Manitou. The camp is run by his school principal, Mr Gauss, who is constantly trying to finagle savings and cut corners out of everything. Herbie is overweight and really bad at sports and constantly made fun of by the other boys, who are led on by the bully, Lennie Krieger, whose father is Herbie’s Dad’s docile business partner.

This is irony, Herman Wouk-style. The submissive, near-idiotic man (Lennie’s Dad) is constantly bullied into submission over business matters by his domineering business partner(Herbie’s Dad), while Lennie makes up for it by bullying Herbie at school. The two parallel interactions happen simultaneously, independent of and unknown to each other. Poetic justice.

Herbie has a yearning to fit in and win Lennie’s approval and be a boy among the other boys and not ‘General Garbage’ as they have named him. He dreams of winning the pretty but treacherous Lucille. At one point she even expresses her allegiance to him, though she leaves him in tenterhooks all the time. At the back of his mind, Herbiesomehow knows that Lucille is someone he cannot hope to actually get, in the end.

The novel humorously captures the innocent mind of a blossoming adolescent surrounded by amusing characters, not the least of all being ‘Clever Sam’, the old horse at the camp, who has figured out exactly what makes human beings tick and how to avoid having to do any work. We watch, yes you watch Herman Wouk’s books like they are happening in front of your eyes. We watch Herbie seeing for the first time, a world far more complicated than it had seemed, through his father’s business troubles, his fitting in with the boys, the skullduggery of the camp officials and the fickle treachery of his crush. We can’t help seeing ourselves in Herbie, if not all the way, at least in a few parts.

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‘City Boy’ was Herman Wouk’s second novel. First published in 1948, it initially failed to achieve commercial success. Readership picked up only after his sixth novel, ‘The CaineMutiny’, won the Pulitzer Prize and went on to become an international best seller. Since then, ‘City boy’ has gone through seven printings.

I consider Herman Wouk, who will be 100 next year, as one of the greats of 20th century American literature of the Charles Dickens-meets-Mark Twain-meets-Paul Gallico kind. Charles Dickens, because of the particular writing style that Wouk had – warm, witty and unpretentious. Mark Twain, because of the rib-tickling situations that Wouk’s protagonists often found themselves in. Paul Gallico, for the raw, vivid emotions that we all sometimes feel but are embarrassed to admit.

Wouk carried off pathos with élan. Some of his greatest works have had heart breaking scenes of loss and grief. He was a master at yanking raw emotions by their very root and observing them like a botanist. Testimonies to this are his Pulitzer Prize-winning ‘The Caine Mutiny'(1951) and his two masterful works of war-time historical fiction , ‘The Winds of war'(1971) and ‘War and remembrance'(1978), based on his years with the US Navy, in the Pacific Theater.

‘City boy’ touched me in more ways than one. The first time I read it was in 1987. My mother had come to live for a while and around that time, she began showing the first signs of Alzheimers which ultimately claimed her life.

Ma had this small room with a balcony, at the rear of the flat and being a voracious reader, she would spend her time sitting on a straight-backed chair, reading. Ma took up ‘City boy’ after I had finished reading it. I recall once coming home and emerging into the balcony, to find her staring out at the tree line at the far distance, her eyes swimming with tears. ‘City boy’ was lying face down, opened at page-20, on the small coffee table beside her.

I held her and she buried her face in my chest. “What’s the matter?” I said to her,” Are you okay? Do you want to visit the ashram for a while?’ My mother was a Hindu Bramhacharini(nun) of the Ramkrishna Mission and lived in an ashram(convent) near Kolkata, at that point in time.

“Na, na, ta noi……porte cheshta korchilam, kintu kichu aar monay thukay na, janish. Pata gulo shob jeno…guliye jaye re,” (No, no, its just that…I cannot seem to concentrate..I don’t remember where I left the story…the pages get all mixed up…you know”. ‘City boy’ was the last English novel my mother touched, before she began the long excruciating journey into oblivion. You will perhaps now understand why ‘City boy’ touches my heart.

I can’t leave you without giving you a glimpse of Herman Wouk’s gift of depicting feelings that we very easily identify with in our daily lives, without trying to make it sound like some earth-shattering piece of philosophical dissertation. Here is the part where Herbie is leaving Camp Manitou at the end of summer….

“….Herbie was enjoying his grief so much that he was disappointed when it started to wane like the glow from an ice-cream soda, after only a few minutes. He began using devices to work it up and keep it alive, such as humming, “Bulldog, Bulldog” and tapping dismally to himself, and reviewing every detail of his final hours at camp. It should be recalled that he did no such thing when he was overcome upon leaving his parents two months ago, but in fact was glad to be distracted from his emotions as soon as possible. True sorrow is painful. Sham sorrow compares to it like riding down a roller coaster does to falling off a roof. The thrill is there, but not the cost. Just as a child will yell in terror as the roller coaster dives, and then beg for another ride, so will sentimentalists like Herbie do their best to keep on weeping when the sadness is synthetic.”

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