Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, October 15, 2021


 Rain in the Doorway by Thorne Smith   (1933)

Thorne Smith (1892-1934) is best remembered for his humorous fantasy novels.  Topper and Topper Takes a Trip involves fun-loving ghosts haunting a conservative banker.  In The Stray Lamb, another banker finds himself transforming into various animals.  The Night Life of the Gods has Roman statues of various gods transformed into living versions of themselves.  Turnabout sees a married couple exchange bodies.  A photographer and his dog suddenly become living X-rays in Skin and BonesThe Glorious Pool imagines a Fountian of Youth and its effeccts on an elderly couple.  And The Passinate Witch (completed by Norman Metcalfe after Smith's death) is about a man who unknowingly marries a witch.

The books are a funny, ribald mix of drinking, sexual freedom, and jovial minor law-breaking and the tweaking of authority.  The main character is usually an uptight, conservative man in an unhappy marriage, who discovers an exciting change of view (and experience) through the supernatural events.  A sexy, much-younger, free-spirited girl shows an interest in the poor protagonist.  By the end, lives are changed, presumably for the better.  There is wordplay, misunderstandings, innuendoes, double entendres, and magnificent satirical prose.  Much is hinted and left unsaid -- something that fits the Twenties and early Thirties when they were published -- and all were popular best-sellers, many of which were adapted for films and television.

And then, there is Rain in the Doorway, a novel published the year before the author's death of cancer.  First, you must understand that this is a funny book.  Readerss, including myself, liked it.  But there is something odd about it.  It reads like a parody of a Thorne Smith novel.

We open with third-generaation trust lawyer Hector Owen waiting patiently in the drab doorway of a department store for his wife.  There is a tremendous rain storm going on and there is not much to look at in the shabby doorway except the rather odd, jumbled window display which featured a disarray of goods, as if no thought had been given to the display.  For the first two chapters Owen waits.  We learn that he is not a happy man, that he often escapes through fantasy for a more exciting life, and that his wife is cuckolding him.  We also learn that Owen's business mainly consists of managing a large estate for a family that wishes to sell it to maintain their individual lifestyles, which consist of drinking, drinking in bed, nd drinking whike incarcerated; unfortunely one member of the family, a woman, has gone missing and her signature is needed on the documents, and Owen is charged with finding her.  His patience is interrupted twice, once by a homeless beggar and once by a soggy woman of the streets.  Then the door behind him opens and he is grabbed and pulled into the building.  Ten minutes later his wife finally appears and he is nowhere to be found.

Owen finds himself in a large TARDIS-like department store staffed by many beautiful young women.  The man who had jerked him into this fantasy world was Mr. Horace Larkin, the owner-manager of the store.  Larkin and his two partners, Britt-Britt and Dinner, had won the business in a card game and have no idea how to run the store.  That does not bother the trio, though, they have an irresposible attitude toward the business and appear more interested in drinking, causing trouble, alienating customers, and participating in sex while the nubile sales staff.  

One of thee first things Owen saw was "a young and beautiful salesgirl [who] had  reached across the counter serarating her from her customer and had angrily seized the customer's noe in a grip of eternal animosity.  The customer, one of those large, officious, disagreeably arrogant ladies who infest department stores, was emitting a volley of objectionable and highly unladylike noises.  Above her voice came the clear, crisp, furious words of the salesgirl, 'You mean-spirited, overstuffed, blue-faced old babboon you wicked-hearted old cow walrus,' said the salesgirl, 'take that and that and that'...The that and that and that designted three seaparate and distinct tweaks to the nose of the customer."  To Owen's amazement, Mr. Larkin watched the scene with great delight, remarking that th salesgirl was doing splendidly.  He tells Owen that the customer is 'a most pestiferous bitch' and that 'describes her nicely -- a regiular she-dragon.  And a bully.  Attend a moment and you will see something amusing.  Watch how she gets hers.'  Suddenly all the sales staff in sight descend upon the woman and throw her bodily out of the store.

Within minutes, Owen and Larkin spot a shifty-looking man rushing past them and out of the store.  Larkin says the man has probably stolen diamonds, and it turns out he did -- a large handful of big diamonds.  Larkin makes no attempt to stop the thief and his  matter-of-fact, laissezz faire approach puzzles Owen.  But Larkin is more interested in lunch.  "No wonder we're going bankrupt," he tells Owen.

The next distraction was "four beautifully formed girls clad in the sheerest underwear were speeding down the aisle.  Behind them sped four decidedly determined gentlemen almost, but not quite, draped in towels."  Each of the fur women leaped upon Owen, Larkin, and his two partners for protection, climbing quickly up to their shoulders; the girl who had leapt upon Owen got her foot caught in his pants and underwear and, as she climbed up, those articles of clothing climbed down.  The men who had been chasing the girls had been skinny dipping in the pool (yes, this magnificent store had a swimming pool) and would not believe the girls were underwear models...

You now have an idea of what type of department store this was -- one completely unlike any other store in the world.  Certainly one run like no other department store had been run.

Larkin then tells Owen that he (Owen) has been named the newest partner in the store.  To start him off, Owen is to work in the Books Department.   It's unclear if the store has a general Books Department, but Owen finds himself behind the counter of the Pornographic Books with a free-spirited young nymph named Miss Honor Knightly, better known as "Satin."  Satin enjoys her job and enjoys working with Owen, deciding that he is hers to keep.

Owen and his new partners (and Satin) go to a meeting of the Kirians, a group of distinquished business from throughout the city.  By this time much alcohol has been imbibed and Owen has joined in the devil-may-care spirit of his partners.  Gone are all thooughts of his legal business; Owen is just having too much fun.  The meeting is held in a large hotel some distance from the store.  The four partners disrupt the meeting by various means (including duck calls) and cap the meeting off by setting the hotel on fire (that's after they set the officious program speaker's beard on fire.)

Did I mention the stuffed whale?

Much of the book is taken up with Laurel and Hardy-type routines of double-talk.  Unrelenting routines, incident after incident after incident, leaving victims and bystanders (including earnest mothers, would-be customers, city leaders, and bank officials) addled and confused.   This type of interplay is a hallmark of Smith's comic writing, but in this case, it seems much of the narrative is nothing but. This over-dulgence gets to be a bit wearing. I suspect Smith decided to go this easy route rather than work to flesh out a plot.

The novel ends as expected and is designed to appeal to the Walter Mitty in all of us.

It must be mentined that this is Thorne Smith's most ribad book,  but the sex is merely impled and never graphic.  Just as well.  Fantasies deserve to be private.

A good, entertaining, but flawed, read.  Or, perhaps, I've just gone beyond the Walter Mitty portion of my life.

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