Thursday, October 11, 2007

Booth Tarkington?

Yes, Booth Tarkington. He's not very well known to modern readers but he was a pretty hot author in his day. At least two of his books became films. Orson Welles wrote the screenplay for "The Magnificent Ambersons", starring Joseph Cotten and Anne Baxter (who is, by the way, the mother of a local actress, Katrina Baxter Hodiak). It received four Oscar nominations. "Alice Adams", starring Katharine Hepburn, received two Oscar nominations. These were big movies.

So, you ask, what does this have to do with humor? Booth Tarkington wrote about people and relationships. I discovered him in the "forlorn paperbacks" section at Powell Books, back in 1973. The book? Seventeen. I'm not sure what caught my eye about it, perhaps the .10 pricetag. I was easily beguiled by low prices at the time. And frankly, the 'reduced' table in a bookstore still claims my attention. I have purchased some wretched books simply because they were cheap. Of course, I didn't know they were wretched when I bought them. It was a sorry discovery when I began to read them. Some, however, were wonderful. So you never know.

I have digressed.

Seventeen is the story of a young man's seventeenth summer in a small Midwestern town in the 1890s. William Sylvanus Baxter is spending time in his usual dull pursuits, but his life takes a major turn at a chance encounter with a beautiful stranger. Tarkington explores all the angst (and resulting humor) of unrequited teenage love - William daydreams that he saves her dog from certain death but his vision of her grateful kiss is interrupted by his little sister Jane, his friends insist on calling him by his childhood nickname Silly Bill in front of the One And Only, his parents simply do not understand why he must have a dress suit to attend a party given in honor of the visitor. Alas for William. It's a gentle story full of feelings and situations that readers today will identify with. (Apologies for poor grammar.)

Once I finished reading Seventeen, I hunted down every Tarkington book in Portland. I loved nearly all of them. One, a real snore, was so unremarkable that I can't even recall the title. (You know, an author doesn't necessarily hit the heights with every volume. I simply moved on.) Many of his books are on my bookshelf as I write. One that I revisit often is The Gentleman From Indiana.

Penrod is another favorite, concerning an 11-year-old boy in (surprise!) a turn-of-the-century Midwestern town. Booth Tarkington was from the Midwest and he certainly wrote what he knew about small-town relationships and societal expectations. Penrod, poor child, is The Worst Boy In Town. It isn't deliberate. He is simply a boy doing what imaginative boys do. Again, this is a gentle read, full of warmth and humor.

If you're inclined to expand your reading horizons, try Booth Tarkington. Let me know what you think.

Next post: who knows? Stay tuned.

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