The "Studs Lonigan" trilogy

by James T. Farrell

Here is a single volume of three books: Young Lonigan, The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan, and Judgment Day. The books concern bullying, pernicious prejudice, & the Irish-Catholic experience in early 20th-century Chicago. And at once, paradoxically, they're tales of a young man's durable immaturity in the face of his chronological coming of age. Bad combo. Be forewarned, too, that the "Studs Lonigan" trilogy is yet an additional installment anointed by the Modern Library that is—true to form—brutish in its portrayal & treatment of women. (What else is new?) Additionally, because part of the time period covered is the Great Depression, much of the reading you'll do is largely a chronicle of indolence. Think you'd be bored if you had nothing to do? Imagine how it feels to read about a person who has nothing to do.

It's a long read. James T. Farrell creates an exhaustively objective world around his protagonist. The trilogy is a hefty book due in no small part to the fact that you are expected to read things like an entire graduation speech word-for-word, the play-by-play of an entire football game, a scene-for-scene paraphrase of entire movies...and their newsreels! Curiously though, the narrative gets gappy here & there...noticeably so amidst all the overwriting. Critics attribute this to the fact that much of "Studs Lonigan" is autobiographical & that Farrell—although himself embodied by a few different characters—relied on memory to write the three books and not enough on creative imagination.

Three things I learned from "Studs Lonigan":

  1. You think bullying is bad today?? Taking nothing away from hundred years ago it was FAR MORE physically brutal and usually based solely on race, religion, or territory. We've either evolved as human beings...or it's not actually a bad thing that kids no longer go outside to 'play.' (This book makes a fabulously unwitting & prescient case for video games.)
  2. Catholicism hasn't changed much in a century, modern medicine has, and most authors & protagonists on the Modern Library's list are, of course, male. Therefore: If you masturbated, it was a sin. But if you engaged in premarital sex, it was a double whammy! Not only were you sinning, you were running the very real risk of crippling your body with gonorrhea, your mind with syphilis, or your life with a baby. And the kicker? If you engaged in neither, and had no other outlet, then you beat people up. (See #1 above.)
  3. Classic Bitch thinks she's modern & hip when she uses terms like "S.O.L." and "tool" (to mean a person used by another for his own ends) in conversation. Whoops! The former comes to us circa WWI and the latter as early as the 17th century. Both caught my eye in the last book of the trilogy, Judgment Day, which was written back in 1935.

Finally, I wish I could place a moratorium on a book's ending being spoiled in its blurb! Unbelievable. All I did is read the back cover of my vintage paperback upon receiving it in the mail, & suddenly I found out something that would otherwise only have been revealed after 819 pages of reading. Bummer. Spoiler. Boo. And while you can probably tell from this review that I don't believe the "Studs Lonigan" books to be must reads, I'm feeling charitable, so I won't respoil the ending here for you.