Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, January 29, 2016


The Feather Merchants by Max Shulman (1944)

Once upon a time one of the best-selling humorists was a guy named Max Shulman and this guy was really funny.  How he came to write so many books is a mystery to me because he to had to have been spending most his time burning the midnight oil with Bennett Cert, Clifton Fadiman, and Faith Baldwin correcting papers for the Famous Writers School.  Sadly, few people remember Max Shulman today or, if they do, they confuse him with the butcher down the block when they were growing up, or with some other person who appeared to be worthy of a name like Max Shulman. Max Shulman was the man who gave us Dobie Gillis and Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys and so many others.  (But, then again, who remembers Dwayne Hickman or Tuesday Weld nowadays?)

Anyway, feather merchants is a term once used by soldiers to describe civilians and the hero of The Feather Merchants meets a lot of them during a ten-day leave.  Sergeant Danny Millar finds himself in a non-glamorous, non-combat job as a paper-pusher on an Oklahoma army base during World War II.  He had joined up expecting to be trained as a pilot but fate worked against him.  He's taking his ten day leave to go back to Minneapolis to win back the heart of his one true love Estherlee McCracken.  On the eve of Danny's departure for the army, Estherlee, knowing that her boyfriend might die in combat and throwing caution to the winds, gave up her virginity.  After finding out that Danny was never going to see combat (and certainly never going to die in combat), Estherlee felt betrayed and cut all ties to Danny.

The only person who is not a feather merchant that Danny runs into is his childhood friend Sam Wye, who is actually due ro ship out for combat in a few days.  Sam has always been a mischievious troublemaker and in the past his antics have gotten Danny in trouble.  Sam is also a great fabulist and loves spinning tales that (incredulously) people are apt to believe.  One evening on the town, Sam starts making up a story about Danny being a war hero and blowing up an enemy bridge.  this is overheard by a would-be reporter and blank verse poet who is currently working the advertising desk at the local paper.  Danny's fictional deeds (highly conflated from the original lies Sam told, mind you) appear on the front page, written (very poorly) in free verse.  Suddenly Danny is the greatest hero in Minneapolis and feted by the rich and powerful.  And, since Estherlee realizes that Danny's story of a desk job was merely a cover for a covert and brave exploit, she pledges her devotion to him and allows him once again to taste her charms.  How can Danny refute the story and risk losing Estherlee again?

Things come to a head during a city-wide celebration for Danny where Danny is expected to blow up an old bridge.  (There just happened to be one handy that needed blowing up.)  Things do not go well.

That's the story of The Feather Merchants and -- as a guess -- it takes up about a third of the book.  The rest of the book is about the civilians Danny meets along the way, each with their own wild and wacky story.  Shulman shines at this sort of thing which allows him to skewer just about anything and everything.  This is the sort of book that makes you smile at every page.  Although written in the Forties, you don't need to know some of the once-household names mentioned in passing (John Gunther, Walter Duranty, John Lewis) to enjoy Shulman's whimsy.

An extra bonus is the many illustrations by Eldon Dedini whose wonderful cartoon of zoftag women graced many a Max Shulman book as well as the pages of most major magazines.

Recommended.  (And for those who miss the old days, highly recommended.)


  1. I'm a big Shulman fan and have done a couple of FFB reports on his books, along with a review of the movie version of Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys, which I like a lot. Shulman's one of the greats, and it's sad that he's forgotten.

  2. Bill, in the Sixties I gobbled up everything I could read by two very different Shulmans: Max and Irving. Both pretty much forgotten now. I think the old days need a resurgence.

    And congrats on your recent election as President of the Western Fictioneers.

  3. I read a number of Shulman's books way back when, including the Dobie Gillis tales, RALLY 'ROUND THE FLAG, BOYS, and others, but, alas, missed this one. It sounds like a gem. He's definitely an author who deserves to be rediscovered.

  4. The story that Sam Wye concocts in the bar borrows heavily from the plot of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls. I'd love to be able to convince the Coen Brothers to make a movie of this. Shulman was from Minnesota, as are the Coens, so their comic sensibilities mesh well, and the Coens aren't afraid to do period pieces. I think they could take this material and run with it.