- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 15, 2006


on Richard Bissell’s

7 1/2 CENTS

Several years ago I came across the information that the novelist Henry Miller — no relation — was a widely read person. Only thing was, it usually wasn’t “serious” literature, but popular fiction. It’s no wonder I’ve retained the information, as it supports my own behavior.

Then, just recently, I read that the essayist Bernard Darwin had read “Hamlet” only once, but the boy’s book, “Frank Fairleigh,” 10 times. Me, too: Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” (one), Robert McCloskey’s “Centerburg Tales” (seven).

So count me up there with the other Mr. Miller. I’ve read, and re-read, lots of serious literature, and with great pleasure, but give me half a chance and I’ll sink like an anvil down to “Peyton Place” and “The Godfather.” Mark Twain, who was responsible for a couple of classics of his own, was right: A classic is a book that everyone wants to have read and nobody wants to read.

The reference to Twain is not accidental. A few weeks ago I finished re-reading his “Life on the Mississippi.” I discovered something that I was too callow to recognize — and too reverential toward Twain to mention if I had recognized it — on the first reading decades ago: It’s a classic only in parts. The other parts are pure filler, pure sawdust, pure batting and ballast. But ballast helps keep the boat afloat, and the classic parts will put wind in the sails of this one forever.

But that’s only two readings for “Life on the Mississippi,” and, looking at things honestly, it’s probably the last. On the other hand, I also just re-read Richard Bissell’s “7 1/2 Cents,” inspired to do so by learning of the New York revival of the musical based on it, “The Pajama Game.” It was my third reading, and, unless bubonic plague or an errant bus dispatches me to my eternal reward in the near future, there’s probably at least a fourth awaiting me.

“7 1/2 Cents” is definitely popular fiction, or it was when first published in 1953, having been inducted into that then most hallowed of literary clubs, the Book-of-the-Month. Really, it’s quite intelligent, enjoyable fiction. It just doesn’t have whatever it takes to last forever, except on a shelf of my bookcase. (Originally published by Atlantic/Little Brown, it is not in print, but can be found in great abundance on antiquarian book Websites for as little as two dollars a copy.)

Anyway, “7 1/2 Cents” is a cheerful little feuilleton about life in the Sleep Tite pajama factory (Sleep Tite, the Pajama for Men of Bedroom Discrimination) in the fictional town of Junction City, Iowa, which bears a strong resemblance to the author’s native Dubuque. From Chicago to this poky Mississippi River town comes Sid Sorokin, a young man long in experience of the garment trade, to be superintendent of the Sleep Tite plant.

If I tell you that Sid soon runs into a looming strike over a 7 1/2-cent wage increase and that he falls in love with Catherine “Babe” Williams, a worker leading a slowdown in demand of the increase, you will have essentially the entire plot. The story could be told in half the length, but then it wouldn’t be half as good.

The dialogue zips right along and its humor does not, as happens so often in funny books, stray far from normal human speech. Bissell gives us characters like the elevator boy who quit school because he “wasn’t getting noplace there.” He gives us the occasional lovely phrase like “the silent summer trees of the State of Iowa.” He hits the squirrely errors in American English right on pitch: “the latest in satisfaction in Food and Fun,” says a small town night club’s M.C.

But most of all he gives us the battle for the soul of Sid Sorokin, a battle between Sid’s boss, Myron Hasler, a paranoid anti-unionist whose life is guided by the nostrums of radio commentator Fulton Lewis Jr., and Sid’s girl, Babe, whose nickname is, in the unregenerate lingo of the time, perfectly fitting.

It is, of course, no contest. Few if any musicals have been made from stories about young men who spurn the charms of a fetching young thing to work for the greater enrichment of the garment-trade bosses.

Chick lit notwithstanding, few novels are being made like this anymore — light, witty, with an obvious intelligence behind them. Television probably is to blame. Writers now take this sort of thing directly to the sitcoms or the cable channels. The content may be similar, but the intellectual effect is different—which is to say, too often dumber.

In conclusion, a return to Mark Twain. He said he had a whole library of books that weren’t by Jane Austen. Same here. I have a whole library of books that aren’t by acclaimed authors. And when I periodically winnow my constantly growing library, they are usually the ones that make the cut.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer, reviewer and editor.

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