Monday, June 16, 2014

The Fighting Fool by Perley Poore Sheehan

The Ugly American conquers the Himalaya
The Fighting Fool, a novella by Perley Poore Sheehan, was first published in the July 1932 issue of the pulp magazine Thrilling Adventures. It is one of a series of adventures that Sheehan wrote featuring Pelham Rutledge Shattuck, a character who also goes by the moniker of Captain Trouble. I don’t believe this is the first adventure in the series, at least I hope not, because it alludes to a big, complicated back story that’s almost unintelligible. Shattuck is an American drifter who is kicked out of Russia for reasons too convoluted to explain here. He ends up in the Himalaya, where he stumbles upon a remote village, the inhabitants of which are Tibetan. In short order, Shattuck assumes leadership of the tribe, basically by pointing a gun at someone and demanding it. As is unfortunately all too typical of the pulp fiction of this era, the submissive natives are more than willing to hand over authority to a random stranger with a white face. Of course his coming was foretold by a mystical prophecy, so they bestow upon him the sword of Kubla Khan and worship him as their savior.

Beyond the political incorrectness of all this, it’s just not good storytelling. It’s fun for the reader to see the hero triumph over adversity. When success is just handed to him on a silver platter because he happens to be a macho and savvy American, where’s the fun in that? Later in the story when Shattuck goes into battle, his opponents seem to fall at his feet without much trouble, once again depriving the reader of any thrills or suspense. The purpose of this story seems to be to elevate Shattuck into a position where he will lead an army in his next adventure, but a more difficult and circuitous route to that end would have been nice.

It’s really hard to like a story in which the main character is such a jerk. Shattuck embodies the arrogance and rudeness of the “Ugly American” in a foreign land. Perhaps the best that could be said for him is that he appears to be an equal opportunity jerk, showing no respect for anyone and ordering everyone around regardless of race, color, or creed. The nickname of “Captain Trouble” is self-styled, yet he insists that others call him by it. At other times he adamantly demands they refer to him by his Tibetan name, Shada-khan. “Say it! Repeat it!” Is this obnoxious behavior supposed to be cool? Even by 1932 standards, I find that hard to believe.

Sheehan’s confusing prose doesn’t help the uninspired plot. It’s often difficult to tell who’s getting punched or who’s stabbing whom. Even those who enjoy classic adventure fiction have to admit that a lot of what came out of the pulp era was mediocre at best, and much of it was just plain garbage. Once in a while you come across a real gem that deserves to be reprinted and preserved for posterity, but The Fighting Fool isn’t one of them.

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