Thursday, August 12, 2021

The Little Nugget by P.G. Wodehouse

Stalkers may have noticed that I tend to hit a P.G. Wodehouse book about every three to five months: I have my unread books in two-and-a-half bookcases behind me, organized by author, but Wodehouse is broken out to a shelf of his own in the middle of the first case. (It's because what I have are the uniform small Overlook hardcovers, so it can be a low shelf: other books don't consistently fit there.)

And I'm reading physical books in "order" - one book from this shelf, then one from the next, start again at the beginning when I hit the end. It's a weird system, but I find it helps ameliorate the anxiety of choice: picking from thirty or forty books is easier than picking from four hundred.

When I hit the Wodehouse Shelf this time, I wanted to go early - I was reading his nonfiction a few years ago (and got through what I think is all of it), and then a cluster of late books, so now it's time to see what the young Wodehouse got up to.

Parenthetically, it's weird to think of an author who lived so long as being young, but that's how time works. Just because Wodehouse died at the age of ninety-three doesn't mean he's wasn't once twenty, or forty, or eight. But the last view of a person is the one that sticks.

So that's why you get The Little Nugget today. A novel published in 1913, first in Munsey's Magazine and then in hardcovers , when it's author was in his early thirties and looking to move from being a writer of school stories into other areas. Late enough not to be juvenilia; generally considered to be one of the first really successful novels of his career; still early enough to be pre-Jeeves.

The Little Nugget himself is Ogden Ford, the teenage son of an American millionaire. He is horrible, mostly in ways well-bred English folks of 1913 would find the most appalling: recalcitrant, fat, demanding, rude, obnoxious. We are told he was spoiled by his mother, and we believe it. His parents are now divorced, and are fighting over him - having moved the field of battle to England from the vague Midwestern bit of America where they came from. The LN attracts kidnappers like nobody's business: two in particular (Buck MacGinnis and Sam Fisher) seem to have made a career out of it, despite not actually ever capturing the boy.

Into the center of this mess wanders Peter Burns, a moderately well-off young man with a broken heart behind him and a new fiancée, Cynthia, who works as a secretary for Mrs. Ford. She puts him up to a kidnap scheme, to get the boy back to his loving mother: he will take a position as assistant master at the rural school where The LN is about to be deposited, and use his access there to spirit the boy away and off to Mrs. Ford's yacht in Monaco. Then he can be joyfully wed to Cynthia, and all will be well.

The plot does not go along those lines. The LN is horrible in ways that both stymie and facilitate kidnapping, for one. MacGinnis and Fisher are both known to be snooping around that very isolated school. And the woman who broke Peter's heart five years ago, Audrey, turns up at the school as well.

This is not a full-bore Wodehouse comedy. The plot is mostly taken seriously, and Peter is in real danger from the guns of the kidnappers. The love-plot, and Peter's mental anguish over it, is taken seriously, and is the kind of thing that later Wodehouse would parody or simply yadda-yadda over. But this novel is funny here and there, and it clearly showed to Wodehouse himself and his readers that he could flex in the direction of amusing, and he flexed that way more and more as the years moved forward.

So this is not a great Wodehouse novel. It's also not a great early-20th century thriller. It's good, definitely: fun and engaging and entertaining throughout. But it's somewhere in between those two things: not quite a thriller, not quite a comedy. I like platypuses like that: things halfway between one form and another. If you do, too, especially if you like Wodehouse, The Little Nugget is wroth reading a hundred years later.

1 comment:

Mike Reeves-McMillan said...

I have been reading some hundred-year-old Wodehouse myself (from Project Gutenberg), and enjoying them more than I expected to. Around the early 1920s, he was a decent novelist who was able to provide humour, action, and romance and make the three work together in one book.

In a way, I regret that he eventually moved exclusively to the farcical antics of privileged idiots, even though he did that so well (and, in doing so, demonstrated that stakes that are purely social can still be compelling).

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