The Fascinating Stranger

by Booth Tarkington. Garden City, N. V.: Doubleday, Page & Co. 1923, 12mo. +492 pp. $2.00.
IF Booth Tarkington had lived in the seventeenth or eighteenth century he doubtless would have been interested in the development of the picaresque novel, for no one who created any of the romantic rogues of that, period has been more successful in making trickery a virtue. Mr. George Tuttle is the hero of ‘The Fascinating Stranger,’ the initial narrative that provides a title for this new volume of thirteen Tarkington stories, which the author has gathered from the various magazines in which they were first published. Mr. George Tuttle remains a fascinating hero through the series of incidents that record a series of clever rascalities. And it is an interesting fact to observe that the age and method of old romance are not necessary for the successful recreation of the picaresque type of fiction. Under the facile direction of Booth Tarkington’s pen it realistically reëstablishes itself in the midst of automobile bodies, shop acreage, taxicabs, and lawn-mowers. The paraphernalia is different; the atmosphere is as delightfully wicked as that which lingeringly surrounds Gil Blas, Colonel Jack, and Moll Flanders.
Most of the other stories in the volume are in the William Baxter vein — a vein rich in adolescent and pre-adolescent psychology. The urban life of children on North Pennsylvania Street in Indianapolis, as portrayed by Tarkington, is duplicated in every American city, but not every writer has the Tarkington vision for the dramatic, the humorous, and for the concrete that phrases the universal; and fewer still his genius for portrayal.
One of the stories, ‘The One-Hundred-Dollar Bill,’ is cast in an entirely different mould. It is neither picaresque nor juvenile; it is more sombre, less satiric. It tells of the temptation of a gambler—not a professional gambler, but an employee who unfortunately chanced one evening to have in his possession a sum of money which belonged to his firm. It was all recklessly squandered in a friendly game of poker. Of course Mr. Tarkington does not indulge in any long moralizing; instead, he makes significant observations of which the following, about the gambler’s experience that night on his melancholy walk home is typical: ‘Of itself the thing that happened was nothing, but he was aware of his folly as if it stood upon a mountain top against the sun — and so he gathered knowledge of himself and a little of the wisdom that is called better than happiness.’
Few modern novelists handle dialogue more effectively than Mr. Tarkington-and none is so satisfying as he in the use of northern-negro dialect. Indeed this is but a part of his accurate observation of the minutiæ of life - minutiæ that would not be regarded as literary material by any except those who have an eye for what Walter Bagehot inventively called the literesque.