I don't care what anyone says, I like the realistic
stories ERB wrote. He wrote them before they shut him down in this
type of story at the beginning of the twenties.
Two of my favorites are Bridge
And The Oskaloosa Kid and this one,
Efficiency Expert. The two might be called his Booth
Tarkington stories. One of the most successful authors of
his time, Tarkington was cresting in 1919 when ERB wrote this charming
story in such an offhand manner.
One may argue whether Burroughs was a great writer qua writer which
many deny him but I really have to believe that this novel is so skillfully
done that one isn't aware of the artistry ERB took pains to conceal so
that the story reads naturally. I maintain that this novel is among
the best and most skillful he wrote. Amazingly he wrote it in ten
There were a total of eleven Tarkington titles
in the library including Penrod and Penrod and Sam which are reflected
in the Oskaloosa Kid, also he had Seventeen and The Magnificent
Ambersons, all four of which retain some reputation today. Another
novel, The Girl From Hollywood was closely modeled on The
Magnificent Ambersons with strong William Makepeace Thackery
overtones. Almost like describing fine wine isn't it?
The Efficiency Expert is a wry look back on ERB's hopes and expectations
as a young man when he attributed his fumbling beginnings to inefficiency.
I have trouble with his use of the term efficiency. I'm not sure
I understand it nor am I clear on when ERB became 'efficient.' The
only period of his life when he was efficient that I can detect was his
period at Sears, Roebuck.
Sears was of course one of the most efficient institutions ever organized.
ERB's role in the Stenography Department was his only efficient period.
He did learn efficient paper management there which undoubtedly helped
in his writing career.
ERB always regretted never having attended
like his brothers and his friend Bert
Weston. He would have liked to have graduated but as he didn't
and managed to succeed anyway he now takes a swipe at college diplomas
in Jimmy Torrance who despite his diploma falls from the top to the bottom.
This symbolically reflects ERB's career. Born
a Prince, in his own imagination anyway, he was turned out from the castle
to live the first decade of the century as a pauper. He was able
to reclaim his role as a prince when he began writing but I suspect that
role was unacknowledged by his contemporaries who continued to see him
as a clown and goof.
I think I will tackle the story chapter by
chapter as the plot moves forward step by step. It was almost as
though he were writing a book to be adapted to a movie. It would
have made a good one. The story closely resembles Burroughs' own
career until Torrance obtains the job with the International Machine Co.
and the subsequent murder charges.
Torrance's college career closely parallels
ERB's school career with the exception that he attended the Michigan
Military Academy rather than 'one of the oldest and most famous colleges
in America.' One presumes he means Yale. Torrance's academic
performance was on a par with that of Burroughs. Both concentrated
on athletics as well as being popular to the detriment of their grades.
Both were football stars.
Torrance also excelled at Track and baseball also being the college's champion
heavyweight boxer as an add-on.
Torrance's last battle was an apparent recap
of the Jess Willard-Jack
Dempsey fight on July 4th 1919. The novel was written in
the incredibly short period of September 10-19 a few months after the fight.
Torrance who was much shorter than his opponent and lighter as was Dempsey
who nevertheless finished Willard off in four rounds as did Torrance to
his Freshman opponent.
After the fight Torrance is informed that he
will fail if he doesn't shape up which he does. ERB was asked to
leave the Phillips Academy and he may have had to cram to graduate
from the MMA.
As is well known ERB's father considered him
a failure and made no bones about telling him so. Consider this letter
from Jimmy Torrance's father after his graduation by the skin of his teeth:
God, what a crusher. Utter inutility indeed.
One assumes that the closing ''Your affectionate, FATHER" was either sarcastic
You have graduated - I didn't
thinkyou would - with honors in football, baseball, prize-fighting, and
five thousand dollars in debt. How you got your diploma is beyond
me- in my day you would have got the sack. Well, son, I am not surprised
nor disappointed - it is what I expected. I know you are clean, though,
and that someday you will awake to the sterner side of life and an appreciation
of your responsibilities.
To be an entirely orthodox
father I should raise merry hell about your debts and utter inutility,
at the same time disinheriting you, but instead I am going to urge you
to come home and run in debt here where the cost of living is not so high
as in the East - meanwhile praying that your awakening may come while I
am on earth to rejoice.
Am enclosing check to cover your debts and present
One wonders whether ERB received some such
notice when he graduated from the MMA. Perhaps such a response may
have influenced him to abandon the MMA and join the Army in an attempt
to please dad. But then, all too soon it was Hey Dad... and a confirmation
of his utter inutility.
After the Army ERB did return to Chicago and
go to work for his father while Torrance rather than submit to this fate
worse than death elected to go to Chicago to try his fortune where he always
had an idea that 'that was one burg where I could make good.' Probably
what ERB thought too.
Once again there is a connection to ERB's friend
Bert Weston as he places Torrance's home town in Beatrice, Nebraska where
Weston lived. After all, Weston went from the MMA to Yale, actually
had an officer's appointment in the Army and was a successful businessman
with his corn mills. Sort of a successful alter ego for ERB.
So Torrance arrives in Chicago too proud to
either live off or seek assistance from his 'affectionate father.'
In a charming Tarkingtonian manner ERB describes
the follies of a young man starting out in live. How much Torrance's
methods reflected his own is questionable but they ring true to the facts
of ERB's own life. In 1919 ERB was forty-four years old, this was
written shortly after his birthday, so perhaps he could write such a heart
breaking letter as Torrance received from his father without breaking down,
or perhaps he did break down. His own father had lived to see his
wayward son at least attain the success of being published in pulp magazines
which were considered much less than literature. Still success of
some sort. One wonders what the old boy's true reaction was.
Perhaps a - humph. At any rate he had been gone for six years
when ERB penned this one.
The eight years from 1911 and
Princess Of Mars to 1919 and The Efficiency Expert had been
momentous ones for ERB. His life and emotions had been highly compressed
from 1887-88 when he met John the Bully on the streetcorner to 1911 when
he began to write. The eight years of writing had been years of decompression
as he expanded his identity from that of the absolute pauper circumstances
had made him into his proper identity as a Prince; a voyage from The Mad
King of Lutha to Barney Custer of Beatrice, Nebraska. It should
be apparent that he longed to be like his ego substitute Bert Weston.
From a baby disinherited from a noble heritage born to the purple to a
jungle beast and the return to Tarzan,
Lord Of The Jungle. From a prince to a pauper and back again.
You can hear the plot of Twain's Prince And The Pauper running in
Now, in 1919 he was on the verge of leaving
Chicago forever. He was leaving in defeat having failed to make it
in that burg. Even though a successful writer he was still rejected.
Perhaps The Efficiency Expert was both a justification of himself
to Chicago and a farewell.
As he begins his life in Chicago Torrance in
the absurd confidence of youth believes that employers will be fighting
for his services to run their companies for them. They must have
had a good laugh in reading his ad in the paper offering his services as
Perhaps when ERB returned from Idaho in 1904
he did the same. If so Torrance had the same result. Abjuring
turning to the assistance of 'rich and powerful friends' he decides to
go it on his own.
Burroughs call in all his own rich and varied
experience in telling the story. Torrance befriends a master thief,
known as the Lizard, when the latter attempted to pick his pocket.
He has already declassed himself from his princely status by seeking non-executive
jobs, he now descends into the demimonde by accepting help from a philosophical
criminal. The Lizard is a criminal by choice. Not unlike the
current crop of drug dealers who would rather make big money at the expense
of their fellows than accept relatively low wages and attempt to work up.
The Lizard cannot understand getting a ten dollar a week job driving a
milk truck when he can make from fifty dollars to five thousand dollars
as a dip and a cracksman. Listen to the words Burroughs puts in his
mouth, nothing modern about the present or archaic about the past:
"I should think," said
Jimmy, "that a man of your ability could earn a living by less precarious
"You would think so,"
replied the Lizard. "I've tried two or three times to go straight.
Wore out my shoes looking for a job. Never landed anything that paid
me more than ten bucks per, and worked nine or ten hours a day, and half
the time I couldn't get that."
"I suppose the police
hounded you all the time, too," suggested Jimmy.
"Naw," said the Lizard,
"dat's all bunk. De fellows that couldn't even float down a sewer
straight pull dat. Once in a while dey get it in for some guy, but
dey're glad enough to leave us alone if we leave dem alone. I worked
four hours today, maybe six before I'm through, and I'll stand a chance
of makin' all the way from fifty dollars to five thousand. Suppose
I was drivin' a milk-wagon, gettin' up at t'ree o'clock in the mornin'
and workin' like hell - how much would I get out of dat? Expectin'
every minute some one was goin' tuh fire me. Nuthin' doin'- dey can't
nobody fire me now. I'm my own boss."
As Burroughs says it depends on your point
of view but Lizard's logic was OK. If you don't mind being a crook.
Burroughs delights in showing off his knowledge
of underworld argot which one assumes he learned from books. I'm
sure everyone knows but for those who don't a dip is a pickpocket and a
cracksman is a burglar and in Lizard's case a safe blower. I learned
the terms from books. In his realistic novels ERB got a chance to
use different vocal mannerisms and dialects which he studied carefully.
Thus he makes his characters speak true to type. As a panorama of
Chicago social mores of the time The Efficiency Expert is a fairly
significant literary contribution -- this is a good Chicago novel, not
inferior to those of Nelson Algren.
Torrance obtains his own first job as a sales clerk in the women's hosiery
department of a department store. Thereby begins a series of coincidences
which hold the story together in a fairly clever manner advancing it at
the same time. He waits on two beautiful women, Elizabeth Compton
and Harriet Holden. Bearing in mind that Torrance is exceedingly
handsome, for some reason I picture Richard Harding Davis, a big burly
heavyweight boxer and all around athlete. He probably put the shot
in Field & Track although Burroughs doesn't say so. Jimbo is
humiliated at having to wait on these women who are of the class from which
he has descended. In a fit of pique he quits putting him back on
Now begins a fairly intimate relationship with
the underworld. The Lizard obtains a job for him as a waiter at a
Levee dive called Feinheimer's. This place is based on a real joint
in the Levee so that ERB is displaying a fairly profound knowledge of the
underside of life. It is quite possible that he is just making it
up from general knowledge but, maybe not.
From 1905 to 1913 ERB was associated with mostly
quasi-respectable businesses except for Sears.
He seemed comfortable with them too. The patent medicine business
with which he was associated may perhaps not even be considered semi-respectable.
The police and authorities might even knock on the door from time to time.
One might develop a negative attitude, such as ERB displays in this book
toward the police and law enforcement. One might even develop a cynical
attitude toward the thin line between legal and illegal businesses such
as ERB seems to have done in this novel. The Lizard expresses the
notion in words similar to those given to Pretty
Boy Floyd the Outlaw by Woody Guthrie: 'Some will rob you with
a six gun; some will use a fountain pen.' I know that's true
from my own experiences. ERB seems to concur in this evaluation and
for myself I've never found better words to express it.
Apart from Dr. Stace, with whom ERB formed
a partnership, and his patent medicines, ERB was of the class of businessmen
who rented corners of other men's offices. So those companies he
had probably were running on the shortest of shoe strings.
While not illegitimate the practices of some of these people, often sales
organizations, would not draw the applause of 'respectable' bankers who
are of the fountain pen variety. For an excellent portrayal of these
guys most of which like ERB were hanging on by the skin of their teeth
before they bankoed out again see John Dos Passos' excellent 'The Big Money'
of the USA trilogy.
When ERB wrote Emma from South Bend he must
have been on some such selling expedition.
It should also be borne in mind that his father's
offices were on Madison Avenue which was Chicago's Main Stem and by extension
the Hobo Main Stem of America. Burroughs writes frequently of hoboes
so that he must have become very familiar with them and their loose interpretations
of the laws of the land.
While at Feinheimer's Jimmy meets Little Eva who
is the proverbial golden hearted prostitute. Little Eva of the golden
heart is contrasted favorably with the very respectable but cold hearted
Elizabeth Compton. Torrance runs into her again at Feinheimer's where
she is an unescorted woman in the evening. She and Harriet are slumming
it. Just as respectable people would later be fascinated by Al Capone
and other hoodlums so in this era respectable people got a thrill out mixing
with the demimonde down in the Levee at semi-respectable joints like Feinheimer's.
This gives ERB an opportunity to express his opinion
of labor leaders. Steve Murray, the head of some union, is in attendance.
He hangs out at Feinheimer's and most likely even lower joints indicating
the relationship of criminals and union leaders. As these beautiful
girls are unescorted it is not unreasonable to suppose they are of loose
morals or they wouldn't be at a place like Feinheimer's, now would they?
Murray acts accordingly in the coarsest manner.
Our erstwhile heavyweight champion of one of the oldest and most famous
colleges in America comes to her rescue by decking Murray. He's on
the street again, unemployed and looking for work.
However some boxing enthusiasts note his fancy
footwork and offer him a job as sparring partner for Young Brophy an aspiring
champion. Torrance is exploring every level of society as a declassed
prince and actual pauper. Here ERB brings in his boxing interests
which show up repeatedly in his writing making free with the comments on
the fight game. He apparently believes, and why not, that most of
the fights are fixed. If Young Brophy refers to any real event it
may refer back to the Jack
Johnson-Jess Willard fight which it was believed, almost certainly
correctly, that Johnson threw. Maybe ERB lost his bets on that one.
Still had hard feelings. At the same time Johnson was about to return
from exile to serve time on framed up charges. He might have been
on ERB's mind especially as Willard had just lost the championship obtained
at Johnson's expense.
Jimmy and the other sparring partners are supposed
to make Young Brophy look good in an attempt to set up good odds in his
favor since he intends to throw the fight. Jimmy has no problems
with this until Brophy sucker punches him with, who else, Elizabeth and
Harriet looking on. A couple of gentlemen friends brought them into
this sleazy environment. Thus ERB once again calls attention to the
short distance between the respectable and unrespectable. One begins
to think that his early reputation was following him around and he just
wanted to say that people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.
Rather than be embarrassed in front of the
girls in the next round Jimmy gives Brophy the old one-two and thereby
is out on the street again.
Getting a start in life's game ain't easy.
Here comes Lizard again with another job as
a milk truck driver. Wasn't good enough for Lizard but it's honest
and Jimmy accepts it. Nice the way ERB ties all the details together
though. You should read this one a little carefully. Rather
than being sought after by the Captains Of Industry Jimbo's career is on
a steady downward drift. One wonders if the pauper will ever be a
prince again. It is not looking good. Ex-milkmen usually don't
rise to CEOs.
Come on, do I have to tell yez? A fourth
coincidental encounter. Liz is disgusted but Harriet knows that Young
Jim is a declassed gentleman.
The milk truck drivers go on strike so Jim
loses that one. Now Torrance is really down and out but encouraged
by the Golden Hearted Prostitute, Little Eva and her loan of a hundred
dollars to buy him a brand new suit, anybody ever hear a tune called "Frankie
and Johnny," Torrance applies for a job as an Efficiency Expert in his
new suit. OK, here we are, the story.
One is inevitably reminded of ERB answering
the ad for the expert accountant. He may say that he had no
idea what an expert accountant did but then, on the other hand, he had
been the treasurer for the American Battery Company at one time.
Even though he worked for his dad pop expected him to shoulder some duties.
Treasurers have to have some familiarity with a bookkeeping and accounting
so I tend to discount ERB's wide eyed protestations that he didn't even
know what an expert accountant was. I think he knew his way around
a little bit, he kept the job for over a year, but it made a good
Even Jimmy says he'd watched efficiency experts
at his dad's plant in Beatrice so he had some idea of what they did.
Jimmy has enough sense of accounting matters to figure out that someone
is pilfering the payroll. ERB had to know something of accounting to include
that detail. At this point ERB gets to use one of his favorite ploys.
He was fascinated with "How To" books. Indeed he himself wrote a
"How To" sales manual. Little Willie Case of the Oskaloosa Kid
has his copy of "How To Be A Detective." Now Torrance buys a second
hand copy of "How To Get More Out Of Your Factory" for a quarter, which
seems kind of high but was a good 'investment' as he gets the job.
Now, who do you think employs him? That's
right. Elizabeth Compton's father.
Jimmy sets to work and does a good job but
he is opposed by Bince who is Elizabeth's fiancee while being groomed to
take over the business. He has a bad gambling habit, which in today's
drug related culture would be called an addiction, so that he is stealing
from his future father-in-law to cover his substantial losses as he naturally
is being fleeced. We know that ERB knew something about card rooms
so in a marvelously few words he captures the characters and ambiance very
convincingly, almost one might say effortlessly which is to say in such
a natural manner that his art is concealed which we are told is the essence
of good writing. What do you think?
In order to meet his obligations and gain control
of the machine works Bince has Compton murdered while pinning the blame
on Jimmy. ERB brings Steve Murray in again which allows him to take
a swipe at his bête noire the I.W.W.
In the wake of the Great War and amidst the
so-called Great Red Scare ERB also takes a fairly vicious punch or two
at 'foreigners.' Americans were shocked that many immigrants showed
divided loyalty during the war or differed in the country's approach to
the problem. They shouldn't have been amazed but they were.
In response immigration was shut down shortly after this book was written
culminating a desire expressed way back in the nineties by far seeing citizens
Jimmy is duly arrested and put on trial.
This scene is fairly reminiscent of the ending to The
Girl From Farris's which it is my intention to tackle next.
Harriet clandestinely provides him with an attorney who although one of
Chicago's best conducts an inadequate defense of Jimmy. Poor Jimmy
is going down for the count, although his attorney has been well paid,
of course, when the lizard comes to the rescue providing the evidence which
exonerates Jimmy while pointing the finger at Bince. Bince rushes
to the window taking a header into State Street four stories below.
Steve Murray remained cool and probably got off although Burroughs says
nothing about it.
Thus Torrance's life is pretty intimately bound
with if not the underworld at least the demi-monde. Since ERB was
safely out of Chicago when he wrote this he may have been making some comments
on the nature of Chicago society in general. As I said before the
line between the legal and illegal was pretty thin. ERB had walked
the line pretty tightly in his early career which may have been held against
him when he succeeded. But as he never crossed the line he may be
making some acerbic observations in return.
As Burroughs was now out of Chicago one wonders
if what he was saying is that he too was innocent of any and whatever Chicago
may have been saying about him. He must be saying, like Jimmy Torrance,
I am innocent. I didn't do it, whatever it was.
But ERB did do it. He had been thrown
on the discard pile but he wouldn't stay discarded which is a sin in itself.
He took Emma from Frank Martin. I have yet to discover who the Martins
were and how much influence they had but one gets the impression that ERB
thought he was being pursued in which case he probably was. Taking
Emma was an offence which the Martins certainly wouldn't forgive and possibly
in sympathy a large swath of upper economic class Chicago.
If this is true they were probably infuriated
when ERB escaped them to make it big. This in turn may have been
a partial reason ERB took extended vacations to California in 1913 and
1916, now in 1919 fleeing the city for good in which he had once hoped
to be successful.
There were plenty of good reasons for moving
to California and, as far as I'm concerned, none for staying in Chicago.,
but still ERB had wanted to triumph there. It was not to be.
The city still doesn't acknowledge him. For that reason I believe
Efficiency Expert which more or less recapitulated his years from 1904
to 1913 was his farewell to his home town.
He would make one more reference to the years
spent in Chicago in his Bandit
Of Hell's Bend and then he moved on.
Nevertheless, The Efficiency Expert
is a pretty good novel of Chicago life probably before 1913. The
question would be how much of the information was obtained first hand and
how much was distant observation and hearsay. After all he didn't
have much money in those years, he couldn't have done much. The idealized
criminal Lizard seems a little romantic while the Golden Hearted Prostitute
also seems a stretcher but ERB frequently displays little snippets of experience
that can astonish, such as in The
Mad King he tells us of being on a Chicago street examining a hole
cut in the window of a jewelry store with a diamond by a burglar.
Could it have been the Lizard? He incorporated that detail in his
story. A good imagination can do wonders with the slightest of details.
Imagination and observation were in plentiful supply with Our Man In