`Generation of Vipers' and other forgotten classics

Few people now remember the great Ring Lardner Sr. Does anyone at all remember Junior?
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AT THE Bath Book Fair on Saturday I was struck by the plethora of books that you can't imagine anyone ever reading again. I dipped into a collection of letters by W H Hudson and found him saying that he had just been forced to read a book by Mrs Humphrey Ward and, although it was not as bad as Robert Elsmere, he never again wanted to read anything by her (I did once read the very same Robert Elsmere, a novel about a clergyman losing his faith, because I liked the binding, and Hudson is right - it was terrible. I imagine that all novels about clergymen having crises of doubt are awful, but this was really hard work).

As I put the W H Hudson back, wondering whether anyone would ever again read him, let alone Mrs Humphrey Ward (was she the last female writer doomed to be known by her husband's name?), I found my mind wandering back to the books I was devouring in New York in the late Fifties and wondering if anyone else had read any of them since then. The summer of 1959 was the first bit of my life I had spent unprotected - I had just left school and had nine months to wait to go to university, so I was packed off to stay with an aunt in the Bahamas, after which I made my way to New York, got a job and more or less looked after myself.

One of the publishing successes of the season was a book about the underside of New York called Subways Are For Sleeping, which I bought in order to acquaint myself with the great city of which I was a resident, if only temporarily at the YMCA in West 23rd St. In fact, it wasn't really about the rough side of New York at all. It was about a dozen or so eccentrics living in Manhattan whom the author had encountered and who seemed worth writing about. There was one man, for example, who always lived in other people's houses. House-sitting is not unusual these days, but back then it must have been very odd to find a man who spent his whole life living in and looking after places when the owners had gone on holiday.

There was also a tramp who sat all day down on the Battery watching the boats come and go and became such an expert on the currents and tides that he became employed full-time by the New York Harbour Authority.

But the man I liked the sound of best was the millionaire who decided that the best way to spend his money was not in excess but in small, if expensive, whims. One of these consisted in going out after midnight with a bag of golf clubs and a bag of golf balls and hitting full-blooded golf shots down the middle of a dark and deserted Sixth Avenue. Occasionally the rich golfer would hear the far-off tinkle of breaking glass as his ball strayed off course to hit a window, and he would know that he had to iron out his slice again...

Well, that was Subways Are For Sleeping. On a more literary level it was also the time of the emerging Beat poets, so I sometimes hung around Greenwich Village looking for Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg or Gregory Corso. I preferred the writings of Corso, because I thought they were not only funnier but more juvenile, and I still have somewhere a copy of his The Happy Birthday of Death, which I bought that year. I never did see any of them in the flesh, but I did see Pull My Daisy, the short Beat Generation film they had just made together, which was showing in the Bleecker Street cinema in the Village, and I can safely say that it was the worst film I ever saw in my life.

Actually, a book which had a far bigger impact on me than all the Beat stuff was Generation of Vipers by Philip Wylie, an iconoclastic writer who thought we kids should think for ourselves and not take the old baloney handed down by the grown-ups; and although I can't remember anything he said, I can clearly remember the cold-water-in-the-face effect of his hectoring.

And I still clearly recall the book I bought to take with me on the ship home (yes, you still had scheduled transatlantic crossings then), The Ecstasy of Owen Muir, by Ring Lardner Jr. Few people now remember the great Ring Lardner Sr. Does anyone at all remember Junior? Well, in 1959 he had just written this satirical novel about Catholicism, in which the rich Catholic hero gets married five times, each time getting rid of the wife in ways the Catholic hierarchy accepts as valid without actually calling them divorce. It was funny and clever, and I have never met anyone who has ever heard of it. Nor have I met anyone who has read a Phil Wylie book or Subways Are For Sleeping or Robert Elsmere, or seen Pull My Daisy...

Coming soon: your voting forms for the Ten Top Forgotten Books of the Century; the book getting the least votes wins...