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Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Scuffler, by Harvey Orkin
Published in 1974
The worst thing about this novel is that it is the only book by Harvey Orkin. The only one we get to read. He died not long after its publication at age of 57.
The good news is, if there had to be just one book, Scuffler is about as good as it could be. And like a true showman, which Mr. Orkin clearly was, he leaves the literary stage with a standing ovation and the readers wanting more.
On the surface this is a comic novel, a piece of popular entertainment. This is the first person narrative of one South Dakota farm boy, Tod Fleedhum. It is told to us by the 72 year old Tod. It is his autobiography. He takes us from his earliest days all the way through his life in a mere 184 action and idea packed pages. On the surface, because there is more here than one might first imagine in a popular comic novel. The idea packed part is what makes the reading experience so fulfilling, so gratifying. There is a great deal of story telling, laugh out loud wit, and crazy situations, but Orkin is a smart, coy, and artful novelist. This reads like a real testament, a statement about the glorious wonder of the experience of living. It's the voice of someone who loved life and knew damn well how to live it, even if that meant making it up, improvising along the way. And how is that done? By being the best you possible without comparison to others.
So it can be read as a sort of self-help book, or even a spiritual book. It is a lesson in believing in oneself. The joy of living that it contains is absolutely contagious and quite powerful. The art of it all is that it is totally painless, practically subliminal. The philosophical lessons are served with a bowlful of entertainment to help the medicine go down. This is a very entertaining fun read. Was Orkin aware of what he was doing? Did he set out to write a cheerful life-lesson novel or did that just happen naturally and unconsciously in the telling of the story, in speaking in the voice, and in the creation of the character of Tod Fleedhum? It really doesn't matter which it is. One never gets in the way of the other.
Tod Fleedhum is his own man, yet one influenced by whomever he happens to run into, by the people who latch on to him for whatever random life reason that happens to occur. Tod holds his personal center, more or less, no matter what sex mad faith healer, gangster con-artist, beastophile, showgirl, blowhard businessman, annoying land swindler or whatever comes his way in this carnival-like world that feels quite familiar and dead on. Although this book is over 30 years old, it has a very modern, every-man-for-himself attitude toward life. Tod is a nice guy amoral, unselfconscious anarchist, which is to say an All-American. Yet he is very much part of the whole. He is of his time and made by the people he runs into. For instance, at one point he is tossed out of Hollywood for relations with his mentor's wife and decides to sign on as an elevator operator on a trans-Pacific ocean liner. During the voyage he happens to be on deck at night as one man tosses another's dead body overboard. This begins his perhaps decade long career as a con man, and a rather ethical one at that. This is where the amoral element comes in. But the amorality is presented here as part and parcel of the American Dream. As the dust jacket blurb by Zero Mostel says, ". . .a marvelously funny takeoff of the 'American Dream.' I love it."
It doesn't all work perfectly. The dark night of the soul, "To Be or Not to Be" aspects of Chapter 10 feel rushed and not given the space or the considered treatment that they deserved. There is a feeling that there was more to tell here but Orkin either lost his nerve, was reaching beyond his skill as a writer, or was just in too much of a rush to move on the next thing. I have rather inside information that Mr. Orkin was already ill when he was writing the book and was struggling to finish it while he could. It is the weakest section of the novel. But soon he regains footing and things take off from there.
Orkin was quite involved with show business. He was one of the writers on the old Phil Silvers TV show for a brief time in the mid-1950s. This from the IMDB internet mini biography by his daughter Jenna, he was "a theatrical agent, first at William Morris and Frank Cooper and finally at Creative Management Associates (which later became ICM.) His clients included Richard Burton and Peter Sellers. While serving as the London liaison for CMA, he appeared on the BBC television program, 'Not So Much A Program, More A Way of Life'. This was taken off the air when Kenneth Tynan used the F word but returned three weeks later with a new name, BBC Three ."
On the dust jacket of Scuffler it only says, "Harvey Orkin is Vice President of Columbia Pictures. Scuffler is his first novel." That is an odd choice given that he had established writing credits in other media.
The Columbia Pictures connection brings up a question of possible autobiographical content in Scuffler. In an early part of the novel he is involved in Hollywood with the alcoholic wife of his mentor named Harry Tradler. Could it be that this rather full of himself boorish shoe manufacture could have been modeled on Hollywood pioneer and long time Columbia Pictures mogul Harry Cohn?
The novel is long out of print and should be made somehow available in print or e-book. It is richly entertaining.