A Year in Reading: Paul Ford

December 14, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 2 2 min read

coverMuch Ado About Me is the autobiography of the early years of a poor Irish boy (b. 1894) who worked at the Boston Public Library, took up juggling, and fell into, among other things, ventriloquism. Later Fred Allen would become incredibly famous in radio (slightly less famous on TV), but clearly his somewhat melancholy heart always remained in Vaudeville.

And for good reason. This book is populated by the most interesting people: Contortionists, monologists, cockatoo trainers, most of them broke, dependent on each other but in mortal competition for stage time. All of them seem to be stealing each others’ acts, and hungry for both meat and booze.

Allen wrote his own material, so even if he doesn’t have a novelist’s sense of form, he does know a good story. One rooming house, to which he was exiled after the one with cockatoos shut down, “was owned by a professional beggar. This man had no legs and moved around the house on his two stumps, using his hands to bounce himself along from room to room. The actors called him ‘the Seal.’”

This Seal, wrote Allen, would go on begging tours around the country, hitting state fairs. When he came home to the rooming house, “the actors would gather in the kitchen, and the Seal would be lifted up and placed next to the sink to dominate the festivities as host.” The drinking would go on for days.

I’ve thought about that party ever since.

When Allen is remembered today, it’s usually for the fake feud he had with Jack Benny, which ran for years. Benny was the more famous, and far more handsome, but Allen was always the sharpest, and beloved of writers; Faulkner was a fan, and Herman Wouk started his career writing for Allen’s radio show. This autobiography itself was written along a plan put forth by John Steinbeck, copied out in the Foreword. “Don’t think of literary form,” Steinbeck advised Allen. “Let it get out as it wants to. Over tell it in the matter of detail — cutting comes later. The form will develop in the telling.”

“Don’t make the telling follow a form,” Steinbeck concluded.

As if to prove Steinbeck’s thesis, Allen died before the book was finished. So there’s more telling than form, with rough edges. And the whole thing peters out (as did Allen at 61, of a heart attack, as he walked along 57th Street). Yet who else’s story chugs along this way, from the semi-horrid Boston childhood; to having his act stolen by a man named Harry LaToy; to his show bombing in Toowoomba (“His Patter Whilst Juggling Is Very Humorous,” read the placard, but Toowoombans loathed him); to the glory of working with Arthur Hammerstein (the show, “Polly,” closed in two weeks)? It’s a catalog of humiliation punctuated by glorious applause. It’s sad he never finished it, but I’ve read no happier — if sadly forgotten — book this year.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is a writer who lives in Brooklyn. He wrote a novel and used to be on the radio but now he lacks context. He occasionally tweets as @ftrain.