Saturday, December 8, 2012

Laughing Boy by Oliver LeFarge

I'm going to apologize up front for the curiously shrinking fonts in this review. When I cut and paste from Amazon I was sent into some HTML vortex that I am too damn lazy to figure out. Just bigify, OK?

Laughing Boy
by Oliver LeFarge
1930 Pulitzer Prize
2 stars - I read this book so you don't have to

Oh for crying out loud! I almost ditched this one after about thirty pages. The book is about Laughing Boy, a young Navajo living on a reservation somewhere in the US in the year 1915 (I got the year from the forward even though I don't recall it actually being mentioned in the book).

The writing was awful. What struck me immediately was the feeling that the author was writing in primitive, simplistic terms because he was writing about a strange and primitive people. OK, I decided to cut him some slack given the book was written in 1929. But with a Pulitzer Prize nod, I figured that there would be something hidden between the pages. Nope. Nothing.

Here's the summary of the plot from Amazon:

Capturing the essence of the Southwest in 1915, Oliver La Farge's Pulitzer Prize-winning first novel is an enduring American classic. At a ceremonial dance, the young, earnest silversmith Laughing Boy falls in love with Slim Girl, a beautiful but elusive "American"-educated Navajo. As they experience all of the joys and uncertainties of first love, the couple must face a changing way of life and its tragic consequences.

Promising. Right? Oh boy, I will maybe learn something about life for the Navajo during the early 20th century and it will be a beautiful love story. 

Oh yeah? Here's the story. Laughing Boy gets seduced by Slim Girl. He marries her against his family's wishes and they setup house just outside the local city. Slim Girl keeps Laughing Boy out of the city. Why? Because Slim Girl is a retired prostitute who now just hangs with one American guy who gives her big wads of money for sleeping with him. It's all part of her master plan. Laughing Boy finds out about her side job and gets totally PO'd and puts an arrow into her john and one into Slim Girl for good measure. But Slim Girl survives and all is forgiven and they decide to pack up and move back to the tribal community. Not so fast. On the way, Slim Girl is shot to death by some other dude that she threw over for Laughing Boy. Laughing Boy buries her and goes home and he's kind of sad. The end.

You know what else? This book was originally written as part of a Master's thesis by some twenty something dweeb college kid who went out into Indian territory to do a little anthropological research. Guess what? That kid couldn't write.

At one point (page 220 to be exact) Laughing Boy gets drunk and has some drunken moments of lucidity about what is really going on with that Slim Girl chick.

"We should have had children. I want children. I want to go home. What is happening to me? I am losing myself. She holds the reins and I am becoming a led horse."

Wow! That's deep, isn't it?

My first instinct was right. I'm thinking the reason this won the Pulitzer Prize is because it was, and I'm quoting from the dust jacket now, "... a daring experiment, triumphantly successful. To choose Navajo Indians as your material." Yeah, and write about them like they were simpletons. I shake my 21st century fist at the implication. A Navajo as an actual interesting human being! Wow! How revolutionary.

I have to share some of the reviews from the dust cover:

"La Farge has done for the Indians in this book what Porgy did for the Negro. His prose approaches the level of poetry. There is hardly a cliche in the entire volume. There isn't a trite situation in the plot"

Open your eyes Mr. New York World Telegram. The whole thing is trite and insulting. I missed the poetry part. Oh, here's one from the Philadelphia Public Ledger:

"The first thing of its kind. It is, as well, a prose poem of rare beauty, depth of feeling and emotional power. It is the finest American novel this reviewer has read in ten years."

I'm wondering what he read ten years ago, aren't you?

As a final note, rather than be left to obscurity, the book was made into a movie in 1934. In typical Hollywood style, Mexicans, rather than real live Native Americans were cast in the leads. Close enough, right? I love the one of the reviews on IMDB:

The combination of the two dynamic Mexican actors Ramon Novarro and Lupe Velez should have guaranteed a dynamite movie.

But someone at MGM, in their wisdom, cast them as Native Americans - a disastrous decision that doomed this film to failure even before it was begun.

Both struggle to make their characters even slightly believable, as they try to curb their Mexican passion into some sort of wise aboriginal spirituality. The spitfire in Lupe just can't help but surface, and all Ramon can do is try to maintain some dignity under that terrible wig. His singing is nice but anachronistic, and there is far too much of it.

Hard to believe this disaster was directed by Woody Van Dyke, who had made one of Ramon's best silent movies "The Pagan". Novarro was deeply ashamed of this film, and it's no wonder. What is saddest of all about it though is the way it wastes what could have been one of the most exciting star combinations of all time. Just imagine if Novarro and Velez were playing a pair of violently passionate Mexican lovers - what fireworks we would have seen!

Shame, MGM, Shame!

There. Happy? Yeah, I'm going to keep slogging through the Pulitzers. They have to get better, right? They started off so promising.


  1. Ugh. Thanks for saving me from a DNF. I have a couple looming. Oddly, the more acclaimed the book is, the more like I am to find it not worthy of my time.

  2. Maybe in 1929 the Pulitzer Prize people were all depressed about having lost their fortunes, and were trying to spread the agony. You know, before the Great Depression did that for everyone. The book and the movie sound like disasters.

    -Dr. Liz, who is glad that my snooty prep school didn't force us to read EVERY Pulitzer Prize winner...

  3. I'm thinking that a good stiff shot of something potent might have made this a better read. Or it might have just put you to sleep, which would have been a better use of your time. Thanks for saving us from this one.

  4. Thank God for Tony Hillerman. Not sure if the Pulitzer slog is going to get any easier. Seem to remember reading that the Pulitzer wasn't awarded last Spring, all of the candidates being considered so appalling it was better just not to award the prize. Reading all the Nero and Agatha winners might be more fun.

    Can't believe it, but I figured out how to fix the tiny type problem!