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Edgar Rice Burroughs
MASTER OF THE ABSURD
BY TOM SOTER
from COLUMBIA SPECTATOR, October 6, 1977
The Bandit of Hell's Bend (Ace Books, 280 pp., $1.75);The Girl from Hollywood (Ace Books, 244 pp., $1.75), both by Edgar Rice Burroughs.
"Me Tarzan, You Jane," was a rallying cry that Edgar Rice Burroughs never approved of. Although it netted him millions of dollars as the creator of a Jungle Lord who appeared in comics, movies, radio programs and books, the Chicago-born ex-pencil-sharpener salesman always felt that his creation was misrepresented by Johnny Weismuller and friends.
He was right, too. The fifty-year-old fascination that' the world has had with Tarzan is based not so much on the Apeman's primitive, back-to-nature quality (although that has something to do with it) as on the unusual combination of savagery and civilization that is Tarzan. As Lord Greystoke, the apeman is erudite, well-mannered and well-read, the master of many languages, including apetalk. As Tarzan, however, he is a wild and deadly adversary, just as much at home fighting lions as other men would be fighting their wives.
Burroughs wisely combines this unusual character with fast"moving, unbelievably fun plots that relied a great deal on coincidence, romance and nasty baddies. The reader had little time to think about flaws because everything moved so effortlessly. E.R.B. was rightly called the Master of Adventure, but he could also have been called the Master of the Absurd.
In recent years, the late author (he died in 1950) has gained a new set of fans who eagerly devour anything remotely associated with the Burroughs canon. Besides the Tarzan books (there ·are 25), E.R.B. also wrote 11 Martian adventUres, seven "inner world" novels, five Venus adventures, and many. other sciencefiction, mystery, and Western stories. Ace Books, in its continuing crusade to make money, has unearthed a pair' of those works which haven't seen the light of reprinting in over fifty years.
The first, The Bandit of Hell's Bend, is fairly standard Burroughs. Which means that there will be quite a bit of fast-paced action, a solidly dependable hero, a heroine who doesn't know her own heart until the last few pages, and an exciting climax where justice is achieved and everything is cleverly tied up.
E.R.B. books like this one are usually pretty heavy-handed, but manage to keep from being tiresome by the author's humor and inventiveness. Sentences like "Two men with muffled faces stepped before the leaders .... and covered the passengers with wicked looking six-guns" or "You unspeakable-THING! It I would be an insult to a cur to call you that" are certainly not worthy of Henry James, but might give Wilkie Collins a run for his coincidences.
Probably the best way to sum up Bandit, however, is to say that it would make a great R.K.O. "B" picture starring Randolph Scott and Rochelle Hudson: there are shootcem-ups, dudes, and cliches galore ("Oh, Bull, I have been such a fool! I have always loved you"), but Burroughs keeps up the pace nicely and most of the flaws can' consequently be overlooked. Bandit has the ferver of the best
Burroughs novels. And although it is marred by some poor dialogue, it is certainly not as campily dated as The Girl froml Hollywood, the second of Ace's discoveries, which is fun in a different way. This book is a little different, but not much, from the usual E.R.B. fare. Both the hero, a Tarzan-type named Custer Pennington, and the heroine, the "girr' of the title named Shannon Burke, are partially flawed: He drinks and she takes drugs. However, in both cases they overcome their weaknesses through the power of mutual love and clean living (what would novel-writers do without , love?).
The story is a contemporary one, set in 1922, and the picture of the grimy Hollywood life of junkies and sluts is interesting for its naivete and melodrama. It is also interesting because it is so unlike what Burroughs usually attempted: escapist fantasies in the jungles of Africa or under the moons of Mars. However, this is escapist stuff, too, only disguised. No one could take the fantastic coincidences, wild melodrama, eleventh hour escapes or corny dialogue (' 'I'd as soon kiss a Gila monster as you!") seriously. The curious thing is that it's an attempt by Burroughs to romanticize sordidness and show that even in the real world the good can win out.
The circumstances of E.R.B.'s own career belie this, however (failure in everything-including marriage-until he became a writer), and in the end, the book is fun mainly for its already cited flaws and also for a quality that Dickens had as well: that power of pure storytelling, where the characters and the plot contrivances are fantastic enough to make one forget yesterday's problems. The Bandit of Hell's Bend and The Girl from Hollywood are museum-piece books, contrived and sentimental with virtue winning in the end, and everyone living happily ever after. They're phony but they're also fun, and certainly offer proof that Edgar Rice Burroughs was more inventive than "Me Tarzan, you Jane" would suggest. They also offer reassuring proof that some things-like the appeal of ERB. and old-fashioned adventure never really change.
A LOOK BACK
By Tom Soter
As soon as I began writing for The Columbia Spectator, I brought my interests in Sherlock Holmes, Tarzan, and James Bond to the forefront. Writing about Burroughs was a natural; I had read almost his entire oeuvre by the time I was 14, published an amateur magazine devoted to his life and works, and even hosted a home-taped show called The Edgar Rice Burroughs Discussion Hour (see essay, http://www.tomsoter.com/?q=node/296). My interest in Burroughs continues to this day, although not at the fever pitch of my youth. I also reused some of this material (a good lead is hard to come by) for later articles on Tarzan for Diversion and Video (see http://tomsoter.com/?q=node/404).