Barefoot Boy with Cheek (© 1943)
From Max Shulman’s Large Economy Size © 1948
Blessings on thee, little man,
Barefoot boy, with cheek of tan!
With thy turned-up pantaloons,
And thy merry whistled tunes;
With thy red lip, redder still
Kissed by strawberries on the hill;
With the sunshine on thy face,
Through thy torn brim’s jaunty grace;
From my heart I give thee joy, –
I was once a barefoot boy!
– John Greenleaf Whittier
Barefoot Boy with Cheek is an ironic tale of college life, told from the vantage point of Asa Heartrug, an enthusiastic young freshman with an impressionable mind, eager to fill his head with facts and find a sophisticated young lady to wed. After being hit by a car while gazing in thrall at the university campus (“‘Just a flesh wound’, I mumbled to a disinterested passerby“), Asa passes his physical examinations with flying colors and loads up on all manner of courses designed to turn him into a well-rounded individual with no prospects but writing.
Asa plunges into the thick of things after falling through a trap door and into a local fraternity’s clutches, becoming their only pledge that semester as well as their freshmen representative to the Student Government, attending meetings at the Subversive Elements Society (where people have names like Workingstiff and sing songs of Marx and Veblen), and wooing not one but two girls — a sorority débutante named Noblesse Oblige and a fiery young woman intent on a revolution of the proletariat. The book follows Asa through the whole of his freshman year, and possibly the whole of his academic career given that he flunks everything.
Shulman’s customary oddball humor is supplemented with thick irony in Barefoot Boy: he satirizes liberal-arts acadamia primarily, depicting the University of Minnesota’s professors as being horrified at the idea that people were coming to college to make money, and not to become sophisticated, well-rounded ladies and gentlemen who can debate the merits of Shakespeare as well as identify the eighth avatar of Vishnu. College life in general receives a sound mocking, although Shulman’s world now seems a relic. Its anachronistic charm is part of Shulman’s attraction for me, though: it’s one of the reasons I enjoyed Dobie Gillis so much. Barefoot Boy is also more surreal than the works of Shulman’s I’ve read: characters often launch into long, eccentric stories that have little bearing on the conversation at hand, dismissing Asa’s confusion by leaving. I half-expected the Colonel from Flying Circus to stop a chapter midway by declaring it silly. Chapter heads begin with a quotation in French or Latin, although the only ones I managed to translate tended toward the banal (“My uncle is dead.”)
It is an altogether silly book, one I enjoyed reading thoroughly — and look forward to sharing quotes from on Wednesday.
- If you’d like to read some of Shulman, his short story “Love is a Fallacy” is available to read online.
- The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, Max Shulman.