Sunday, November 23, 2008


Today's post covers the second half of the top 10 bestsellers from 1954.

No Time for Sergeants, Mac Hyman, Random House, 1954, 214 pp

This hilarious story was #6 on the list for 1954. It is the best spoof on the military that I have read so far, mostly because it is succinct and contains no bitterness. Will Stockdale is a backwoods Southern boy who gets drafted and tells his tale from his laconic and fairly clueless viewpoint.

He is forever trying to be helpful and to act like a good soldier, though he doesn't take shit from anyone and has a poor concept of rank. Of course, this throws an entire monkey wrench into any military operation in which he takes part. His superiors simply don't know what to make of him. He always speaks his mind and has no awe of officers or superiors, all of which should get him into a world of trouble, but this is the military, so he ends up a hero.

An excellent light-hearted read.

Sweet Thursday, John Steinbeck, The Viking Press, 1954, 273 pp

Ah, Steinbeck. How I love this author. Sweet Thursday, at #7, is a sequel to Cannery Row and takes place in the same town with many of the same characters. It is post WWII now and Doc is in a bad frame of mind. In fact, he has three minds going at once: upper, middle and lower, and while he feels he should be making something of his life, his lower mind knows that he is lonely and it is getting him down.

So his friends over at the Palace Flophouse go to work hoping to help him out. There is a new girl in town trying to work at The Bear House, but she is not really cut out to be a whore. In this hilarious tale of matchmaking, Steinbeck puts all he has into play: his deep understanding of people, friendship, love and loyalty.

I did not want the book to end. As much as I love East of Eden, I love the Cannery Row books even more. I don't know of too many authors who can embed their philosophy of life so unobtrusively into a novel.

The View from Pompey's Head, Hamilton Basso, Doubleday & Company, 1954, 409 pp

The intriguing title of this 1954 bestseller (#8) was a big letdown when I found out its meaning, as was the book when I finally read it. I'd had this book on my shelves for many years. I picked it up in some since forgotten used bookstore, buying it only because I was attracted by the title. Then it turned up on the 1954 bestseller list, which explains what it was doing on the shelves of used books.

Pompey's Head turned out to be a small town on the Georgia coast. The story is about a man who grew up there, fled in his early 20s to become a lawyer in New York and finds himself back in Pompey's Head in his mid 30s on an assignment from his firm. So there is a present time story going on which sounds promising because it is about a reclusive author, but which takes forever to be told because the back story and memories of the lawyer turn out to be the real story.

Both stories have disappointing non-endings and I figured out the mystery surrounding the reclusive author character about halfway through the book. Hamilton Basso was one of those New York City editors of mags like "The New Yorker." He aspires to write like that crowd but doesn't measure up. If I want a story about the insane social practices of Southern towns, I would much rather read William Styron or Eudora Welty.

Oh well. I still like the title but it is another way not to judge a book.

Never Victorious, Never Defeated, Taylor Caldwell, McGraw-Hill Book Company Inc, 1954, 549 pp

I've read several books by Taylor Caldwell over the years and there is just something a little skewed about her. This one was the #9 bestseller of 1954. It is a saga about a fictional family near Philadelphia whose patriarch started a railroad in the days of the Robber Barons.

The main characters are Cornelia de Witt, the ruthless, practically immortal granddaughter of the patriarch and Allan Marshall, son of a poor Irish railroad worker who invents an automatic coupler, becomes wealthy and marries Cornelia. These two are surrounded by a vast cast of family members, businessmen, financiers and politicians. Allan Marshall, a lapsed Catholic, has a brother who becomes a priest, thus bringing in the religious angle which so often features in Caldwell's books.

Cornelia is another strong heroine, which seems to be a theme in 1954, but is practically soulless. Allan suffers great anguish of soul. Most of the other characters just want money. There is an extremely odd political view being put forth in this novel which centers around evil men who are in a conspiracy to destroy freedom in the world for their own greedy and power-hungry reasons. Though a common view in many books today, especially science fiction and thrillers, this is the first time I've come across it in bestselling fiction, unless I take into account the Lanny Budd series by Upton Sinclair. But while Sinclair was an avowed socialist, Caldwell has some kind of Libertarian, Jeffersonian, Constitutionalist thing going and lumps communism, socialism and fascism together as the enemy. She seems to have no problem with monopolies that create wealth out of the sweat of workers, as long as free enterprise is kept sacrosanct.

I must say that Caldwell's writing is better than usual here. She still goes overboard on descriptions of nature and the hysterical element in certain characters, but though long, the book was a good read.

Benton's Row, Frank Yerby, The Dial Press, 1954, 280 pp

Then I came to the end of Frank Yerby Top 10 bestsellers. Eight of his formulaic stories have now passed under my eyes, and he actually got better in the last two. Benton's Row is set in the south, covering four generations of two families beginning in 1842 and ending after WWI.

In this novel, Yerby has taken on a more literary voice. In fact, he sounds positively Faulknerian at times. His characters are deeper and more complex and the drama is less predictable. Historically there is not much I have not read in other novels of this period.

Though he went on publishing novels up to 1985, none of them are on the top 10 lists, so I am done with Frank Yerby at last.

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