By Edgar Rice Burroughs
Cross-posted to Black Gate.
I spent last year on an extended trip to Mars exploring Edgar Rice Burroughs’s fantastical version of the Red Planet. But after reviewing all eleven books in the Barsoom series, the time had arrived to return to Earth and the early phase of ERB’s career. Spending too much time with the final sputterings of Burroughs’s Martian stories, when much of his talent was ebbing, has a strong depressive effect. Let’s relive the enthusiasm of youth. Or middle age, in the case of Edgar Rice Burroughs. Yeah, he was a late bloomer.
So, on the centennial of its writing, I land back on Earth with one of ERB’s grubbiest, most “realistic,” and finest works of adventure, The Mucker.
The Mucker and its closely entwined sequel written two years later, The Return of the Mucker, have long held high positions in the canon of ERB’s work—but only for enthusiasts. The general reading population, who might pick up a few Tarzan books or go through the first three Martian novels, has scant familiarity with this oddly titled work. Perhaps it’s the strangeness of the name “Mucker”—is this about the adventures of a sewer worker?—or simply that it doesn’t belong to one of the author’s famous franchises, but the book usually inspires shrugs of ignorance when brought up, mixed with measures of curiosity. Of all Burroughs’s novels, this is the one about which I get the most inquiries: “Hey, is that ‘Mucker’ thing worth reading? I’ve heard good things, but I just never got around to it.”
Let me answer the question for everyone who has asked or planned to ask: Yes, The Mucker (and its sequel) is good. Actually, superb. Burroughs gathered all the conventions from the stories and novels of first fifteen years of pulp writing, most of which are unreadable today, and condensed them into a rollicking action yarn with fistfights, shipwrecks, cannibals, sword duels, a lost civilization, kidnappings (and not just of women), street brawls, piracy, and prizefighting. And he wrapped this all around one of his most interesting heroes, a man who goes from an alley thug without an ounce of sympathetic qualities aside from questionable criminal “honor” to a reformed hero in a tangled love tale.
When Burroughs wrote The Mucker in 1913, he had already started his most famous series. Tarzan of the Apes was a popular sensation. The “John Carter Trilogy” was complete. All-Story had just purchased At the Earth’s Core. Burroughs was experimenting with writing more realistic work, such as the Chicago-set novel The Girl from Farris’s, which wouldn’t see magazine publication until 1916. ERB wrote the first draft of The Mucker from August through October of 1913, but at first failed to sell it. Thomas Newell Metcalf at Munsey’s Magazines openly disliked it: “I have the feeling that you started to write this story without having doped it out so very carefully.” But after All-Story went to weekly publication and Metcalf made a deal with Burroughs for “first refusal” rights of his novels, he purchased the revised version of The Mucker for a then astonishing $1,450—the equivalent today of approximately $33,000. Metcalf then immediately outdid himself and bought the third Tarzan novel, The Beasts of Tarzan, for $2,500, a $57,000 payday in 2013.
Billy Byrne, The Mucker’s protagonist and eventual hero, marks a departure from Burroughs’s previous leads. John Carter of Mars is a gentleman warrior, and proud to tell you that at the least opportunity; Tarzan comes from noble blood and was raised as the king of the jungle. But Byrne is straightforward scum, a petty criminal lowlife who even as late at three quarters into the book contemplates raping the heroine. (Burroughs doesn’t use the word “rape” but it’s clear what Byrne intends.) The word used to describe him, over and over again, is “mucker,” a word with powerful onomatopoeia, even if readers don’t know what it means.
It’s the book’s title, so just what is a “mucker”? The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines it as an outdated U.S. slang term denoting “a rough or coarse person.” The phrase was already on the way out of usage during the time Burroughs wrote the novel, but still had some power in Old Chicago, the hometown of both Billy Byrne and ERB. The first chapter has its own definition of a mucker: “They were pickpockets and second-story men, made and in the making, and all were muckers, ready to insult the first woman who passed, or pick a quarrel with any stranger who did not appear too burly.”
In the early chapters, Byrne is painted with humorous sarcasm. This section shows Burroughs at his wittiest. “…it was about this same time that he [Byrne] commenced to find pleasure in the feel of his fist against the jaw of a fellow-man.” “…people of the West Side do not have hands; they are equipped by Nature with mitts and dukes. A few have paws and flippers.” There’s also the previously mentioned bizarre code of conduct that occasionally interferes in Byrne’s life in the slums:
Billy felt it was entirely ethical to beat up a cop, provided you confined your efforts to those of your own district; but for a bunch of yaps from south of Twelfth Street to attempt to pull off any such coarse work in his bailiwick—why it was unthinkable.Lesson here, children: only thrash cops from your own turf; to do otherwise would be uncivilized.
Although the narrator (no framing device tells us if this is the pseudo-ERB who already showed up in the Tarzan and Mars books) keeps an ironic distance from Billy Byrne’s personality, the descriptions leave no question how readers should view him. The only good that can be said of the man is that he isn’t a coward, but it’s difficult to admire this trait when it drowns among negatives:
Billy was a mucker, a hoodlum, a gangster, a thug, a tough. When he fought, his methods would have brought a flush of shame to the face of His Satanic Majesty. He had hit oftener from behind than from before. He had always taken every advantage of size and weight and numbers that he could call to his assistance. He was an insulter of girls and women. He was a bar-room brawler, and a saloon-corner loafer. He was all that was dirty, and mean, and contemptible, and cowardly in the eyes of a brave man, and yet, notwithstanding all this, Billy Byrne was no coward. He was what he was because of training and environment. He knew no other methods; no other code. Whatever the meager ethics of his kind he would have lived up to them to the death. He never had squealed on a pal, and he never had left a wounded friend to fall into the hands of the enemy—the police.Unlike many famous rogues of literature, Billy Byrne lacks chivalry along with all other social graces. Because of his abusive mother, he hates women with a passion, in particular women who belong to another group of people he despises, the upper class. “Chastity in woman was to him a thing to joke of—he did not believe that it existed.… He had doubly hated Barbara Harding since she not only was a woman, but a woman of the class he loathed.”
Byrne is a brute, almost animalistic. This is not the noble savagery of Tarzan:
The truth of the matter is that Billy was far from introspective; in fact he did very little thinking. His mind had never been trained to it, as his muscles had been trained to fighting. Billy reacted more quickly to instinct than to the processes of reasoning, and on this account it was difficult for him to explain any great number of his acts or moods—it is to be doubted, however, that Billy Byrne had ever attempted to get at the bottom of his soul, if he possessed one.
You can feel Burroughs was thoroughly enjoying himself painting this sort of main character, a type he must have known from his own youth in Chicago. The faux-erudite and polite diction applied to this horrible fellow is coming from an author having a damn good time playing with irony. There’s a good deal of believable local color in these early sections as well, which gives readers an opportunity to see ERB move away from his fantasy versions of Mars and Africa and in a world he knew firsthand.
(Biographical trivia: Burroughs grew up in Chicago’s West Side in his family’s three-story brick house on Washington between Lincoln and Robey Streets. Both streets get mentioned a few times in The Mucker’s early chapters to establish geography.)
For all the loathsome personality of Billy Byrne, he’s a fearsomely fascinating lead. From his introduction forward, you can’t help but run at his feet and wonder what sort of insanity the plot ill throw at him and how he’ll overcome it. Byrne goes through a long character arc—all readers will sense this is a character journey as well as an external journey—but never at any point in the story is he less than gripping to read about. Well… maybe the slang-stuffed dialogue he speaks for much of the book can grate a bit, but this was the style of the day.
The Mucker begins with Byrne’s early years as gutter grime, when his motto is “the world owes me a living, and it’s up to me to collect it.” After a childhood and adolescence of crime, Byrne begins to develop his skill at boxing. But he’s too much of a drunk to make anything of himself in the ring. When Byrne gets framed for a murder he didn’t commit, he hightails it from Chicago to San Francisco, where he promptly gets drugged and shanghaied onto the brigantine Halfmoon.
Aboard the ship, Byrne sobers up and takes to the work better than he thought he might. The Halfmoon reveals its true purpose after arriving in Honolulu (ERB’s future home). Skipper Simms and First Officer Ward have plotted the kidnapping of wealthy young Barbara Harding from her father Arthur Harding’s yacht the Lotus. Taking part in the scheme is Larry Divine, a social friend of Barbara’s who wants to trick her into marrying him, and a French ex-nobleman, Henri Theriere de Cadenet. After scoping out the Lotus, the Halfmoon intercepts her on the high seas. During the boarding fight, Byrne savagely beats Barbara’s close friend (and potential suitor) Billy Mallory and leaves him for dead. Barbara remains a prisoner on the Halfmoon, with the rest of the Lotus’s crew and passengers stranded behind on the crippled yacht.
Factions start to develop among the criminals of the Halfmoon, with Theriere and Larry Divine hatching their own plots to get Barbara and the ransom away from the skipper and first mate. Byrne isn’t involved in the plotting until Theriere tries to rope him to his side. After Byrne rescues the Frenchman when he falls overboard, Theriere starts to think highly of the mucker from Chicago and abandons his original plans to turn on him.
Samurai cannibal headhunters. Zowie, I love the pulps!
The action, already at an intense pace, gets crazier. Barbara of course gets kidnapped by the Samurai leader, Oda Yokimoto, although she ends up capable of taking care of herself—rather brutally so. Soon Theriere, Barbara, and Byrne have banded together, and the two men start to discover that they are no longer as vicious and uncaring as they thought they were. And even though Byrne apparently murdered Barbara’s good friend Mallory, the young woman start to feel different toward the mucker.…
We know where this is heading; from the first page, The Mucker signals that it will be a redemption tale. Barbara Harding and Billy Byrne are headed for love, if only Barbara can turn him away from the worst part of his nature. She first manages erase his confusing argot, wiping away the apostrophes and misspellings that are one of the book’s more noticeable flaws. (It’s easy to get sick of reading lines like “I’m wise to wot youse an’ dat guy was chinnin’ about.”) Barbara’s feelings toward Byrne become all the more astonishing each time we realize that Billy beat her best friend to death in front of her. It turns out the “to death” part was premature (the plot couldn’t have handled that extremity), but while Barbara still believes that Byrne killed Mallory, she’s able to form a bond with him and see that there is something worth rescuing inside that rough exterior.
While Billy Byrne at first rejects the notion of becoming one the upperclass folk for whom he has such a blazing hatred, he ends up going to the halfway point. The Mucker’s villains are from both extremes of the spectrum: the refined and wealthy Larry Divine is as much a hideous fellow and criminal as the dregs aboard the Halfmoon, and even Theriere starts out as a noble-born man with the least noble aims. Barbara becomes the strong center between the villain extremes, and draws Billy Byrne toward it.
As an adventure story, The Mucker would rip up the road even without the character-driven core. The pacing is relentless, leaping from one escape and danger to the next without ever feeling artificial or random, a problem Burroughs would often have in his lesser work. On the surface, a shipwreck throwing pirates onto an island of insane cannibal samurais is absurd. What kind of careful, logical plotting is that? In The Mucker it feels organic: each step starting from the Chicago streets pushes the adventure to just the right next level of imaginative lunacy that readers have no choice but go with it the whole way.
Burroughs makes a number of missteps in the objective pacing: the action on the island takes place over many months; the villains aboard the Halfmoon vanish from the story soon after the principle action against the samurais, leaving only a small cast left; and the story makes an abrupt shift to New York and the world of boxing at the conclusion before a genteel ending inside an elegant mansion. But subjectively, nothing goes wrong here: Burroughs built such wonderful characters and conflicts as the pegs for the action that readers never have time or the desire to question anything. After letting Billy Byrne take the lead for the first few chapters, the plot puts him into the background while developing the schemers aboard the Halfmoon and the character of Barbara. Then, at the perfect moment, Byrne re-enters the action (beating a man to death) and the cast gets tossed into the tempest of the island adventure. Before returning to New York, Burroughs puts his characters into a tense limbo, hurtles out an incredible series of bone-crushing boxing scenes, and then neatly finishes off with an unusual coda.
The Mucker concludes in a way similar to Tarzan of the Apes. After the racing-pulse boxing ring climax, our story ends with a personal tragedy that shows Byrne’s growth and his willingness to accept the consequences of his actions. He selflessly surrenders his love for Barbara, giving her over to a man who is better for her. Byrne feels he has no business in Barbara’s world: “a single lifetime is far too short for a man to cover the distance from Grand Avenue to Riverside Drive.”
However, like Tarzan of the Apes, the story and its hero are too exciting to keep down. Lord Greystoke needed to be with Jane, and Billy needed to be with Barbara. And so, The Return of Tarzan meant there would also be The Return of the Mucker.
And that’s for next week.