There isn’t much comedy in this collection of stories, apart from Evelyn Waugh’s sharp satire in An Englishman’s Home, so this amusing first person narrative is a refreshing change, despite its less than completely happy ending. While it is a retrospective narrative, the tone and style recreates the voice of an eager but naïve thirteen-year-old very persuasively.
The story is autobiographical, reflecting Lurie’s early fascination with comics. As one of his obituaries stated, ‘Lurie was five when his father arrived home from the factory with a huge pile of coloured American comics that had been packed in with some machinery. The young boy had never seen anything like it: ‘They were torn, greasy, crumpled, a mess, but there they were, and they kept me alive.’’ As he looks back at childhood dreams, he does so with fond amusement, mocking other ‘Dreamers!’ who have ‘their heads in the clouds’. While the young Lurie dismisses growing up to become an ‘astronomer’ or a ‘nuclear physicist’ as dreams, his list also includes the more ordinary ‘farmers… chemists’ and ‘doctors’. However, he does not question his own desire ‘to be a comic-strip artist.’
The significance of the comic to the young narrator is clear in the lengthy sequence of adjectives Lurie uses – it is a ‘full length, inked-in, original, six-page comic strip.’ It is also apparent in the list of his responses to it, as he ‘read it through sixty or seventy times, analysed it, studied it, stared at it, finally pronounced it ‘Not too bad’, the mixture of hyperbole and bathos raising a smile. Yet he also emphasises that the idea of publication is almost an accident. The artwork is stashed away, apparently abandoned ‘where my father kept his hat’ before the chance conversation with a school friend.
The casualness of that conversation is presented in the repetition of ‘happened to mention’ – just accidental, non-consequential pieces of conversation. However, the conversation does have consequences, not only the ‘disciplinary action’ following ‘too much mentioning’ – again the characteristic humour – but sparking the idea of the ‘magazine in Melbourne’. The impact on the narrator is emphasised with the abrupt sentence fragment: ‘Publication.’
The father is introduced as ‘a great scoffer’, so the reader is prepared for his portrayal as a man who ridicules his son’s achievements and hopes. Yet there is no cruelty or resentment in this characterisation; it forms another comic aspect of the narrative. The father’s cheery dismissiveness is taken to comic levels by the hyperbolic statement that his doubting questions come ‘Fifty times a night, at least’. Even when the cheque arrives, his father holds it ‘up to the light’ in order to verify it and has ‘a field day’ when the second comic strip is returned.
In this pair of archetypal family portraits, the boy’s mother’s approach is presented entirely differently, her pride in her son’s achievements breaking his own boundaries. Her garrulous pride is emphasised by the list; she has told ‘uncles, aunts, sisters, brothers’ about the Boy Magazine telegram before he has even seen it, and when the strip is published, is heard ‘on the phone explaining to all her friends what a clever son she had.’
The narrator’s detachment from these stereotyped parents creates much of the humour of the story, but the main comedy comes from his portrayal of himself. Though the tone and language mimics the young boy, the presentation is clearly informed by the adult retrospective view. The phone call to the magazine’s offices forms a key part of this self-deprecating comedy, as the boy is ‘standing on tiptoe’ to talk into the phone, using an ‘unnecessarily loud’ voice. This idea is continued with the use of the verbs ‘shouted’ and ‘yelled’ for his part in the conversation. On the other end of the line, Miss Gordon is unflappable, and the narrator’s comment that he did not refer to his age in the call confirms the reader’s suspicion that Miss Gordon had not realised his youth; by this means, Lurie creates anticipation for the meeting itself.
There is further humour in the choosing of the boy’s ‘Good Suit’ to wear for the interview, and the scornful rejection of his father’s, which hyperbolically has ‘enough material in the lapels alone to make three suits’ and fits a man who is shorter and heavier than the narrator. Lurie then builds up the suspense for the meeting a little more by delaying it, necessitating another shouted call.
The Boy Magazine Offices
The image of the narrator who ‘kept jumping up from [his] seat’ on the train reminds the reader of his youth and the first description of the office prepares for the deflation of his hopes. Rather than his idealised expectation of ‘neon’, ‘plate glass’ and exotic plants’, the actual description uses the word ‘ordinary’ four times. It is also made clear in the dialogue that the receptionist does not know who he is and is not expecting him.
The humour of the scene arises from the sense of embarrassment at the editors’ mistake and the narrator’s failure to grasp it. This starts when the lady sent to fetch him ‘seemed, for some reason, quite surprised’. He even commends her for her ‘poise’, not realising that it is his age which has caught her off-guard. There is similar awkwardness in the meeting itself, with the narrator’s rapid acceptance of ‘fifteen pounds’ while he ‘leaned back’ expecting to be offered a job, while the men ‘looked down at the floor’ and ‘coughed’ to hide their amusement. While a first person narrator often takes the reader into their confidence, often creating an alignment, here Lurie encourages reader sympathy for the narrator at the same time as creating a distance between their perceptions of events. The reader picks up the awkward pauses, the correction of the spelling and the comedy in the narrator’s face which ‘felt stiff from smiling’. There is humour too in the narrator’s dismissal of the professional comic strip as ‘just history in pictures’ and his judgement that the ‘inking and lettering… were just so-so’.
This attitude is similar to Lurie’s earlier joke against himself as a writer, depicting his younger self as scornful of ‘Stories’, dismissing them as ‘a bore’ and producing the comic stereotype of bookish readers: ‘always taking books out of the library and sitting under trees and wearing glasses and squinting and turning pages with licked fingers’. In the same way, he is bored by the factory tour and patronised with an ice cream before a somewhat demoralised journey home, now dismissing his ‘ridiculous Good Suit.’
Back to the Beginning
The coda to the story dissipates the humour and brings the inevitable let-down, even though the comic appears in the magazine. The narrator is ‘a hero for a day at school’ and his mother is proud of the ‘clever son’ she has. However, the passing of ‘Weeks’ after the submission of his second strip is an ominous sign and the ‘sickening’ sound of its return through the letterbox is indicative. His father continues to undermine him, but the narrator now rejects being a comic strip artist. However, he knows ‘right from the start’ that his new ambition of being a painter is ‘no good.’ In a neat circularity of structure, the narrative returns to the ideas of its opening, though now admitting that the narrator too ‘had become, like everyone else, a dreamer.’
Narrative methods to consider:
- First person narration