Set in the Roaring Twenties Jazz Age, The Big Town tells the story of a failed businessman whose dreams of prosperity hinge on the secret proposition of a millionaire industrialist and a dangerous relationship he falls into with a poor young woman, orphaned and chasing love in the great American metropolis.
“Monte Schulz’s The Big Town exposes decadence, wealth and consumption in Jazz Age America as spiritual myopia — where desperate, haunting characters hinge their lives on impossible dreams. This lyrical, gripping novel is as close to 1920s America as it gets, and penned with such frightening realism that the chaos of a bygone era erupts from its pages.” – Simon Van Booy
Harry Hennesey’s hopes of success, both in his household and the world, have driven him to sell his home in an Illinois small town and take his chances in the big city. He rents a room in a run-down hotel. He deals in wholesale items scavenged from yard sales and close-outs. One night at a movie theater downtown, he meets a teenage flapper named Pearl who latches onto him and won’t let go. For several years now, Harry has threatened his marriage and self-esteem with innumerable infidelities. Now he finds himself falling in love with a girl less than half his age. But that’s not all.
Charles A. Follette, chairman of the board of the American Prometheus Corporation, comes to him with a slick proposition: find Follette’s missing niece, and the road to riches shall be his. Soon, though, Harry discovers a darker secret to the identity of the missing niece and what lies behind the urgency for her detection. It’s this revelation that leads him to a closer examination of what it means to the life he’s known since the birth of his children and that life he believes awaits him if he can only reach the top of the ladder.
Harry’s story in The Big Town is set against a fantastic backdrop of an archetypal 1920s big city USA. We see speakeasies, sanitariums, skyscrapers, and a glittering Gatsby-like party high atop the metropolis. Lost in his own moral confusions, we watch Harry try to reform his young lover and uncover the secret of her own past in a small canal town miles beyond a city where gangsters murder ordinary citizens and everyone seems to have a get-rich scheme as the Roaring ’20s come to a thunderous close. The Big Town evokes a lost era through language and flamboyant characters reminiscent of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Ring Lardner, etc. Yet it’s also eerily relevant to our own time with its study of the role of business, crime, morality, and love in our lives.
An excerpt from Monte Schulz’s The Big Town
One cold autumn evening at Milwaukee about eight years ago, Harry was asked by a fellow salesman named Bill Dunbar to go with him to a spirited I.W.W. meeting. There were maybe twenty or thirty men roughly Harry’s age gathered in a small hall decked out with slogans such as: “When Labor Hangs by the Neck, Liberty Hangs in the Balance,” and “America: Where Labor is Strong and Valiant and Beautiful.”
Harry took a seat in the middle of the hall expecting to hear how much better his life would be in Soviet Russia, or that salesmen like himself were dupes of capitalist greed. And he did hear some of that, of course, and would have been disappointed if he hadn’t. But an hour or so into the meeting, his friend Bill Dunbar went up to the podium and began arguing that each one of us plays the role of victim and oppressor from time to time.
It’s as natural, he explained, as watching rain falling from the sky. We feel within our rights to complain when it rains too much or too little, but does that sort of rebellion get us anywhere? There are laws guiding our behavior that were established long before Noah built his ark. Unfortunately, we can’t seem to face a few simple facts about how the world is meant to be organized. In Bill’s own household, for example, labor was divided among himself, his wife June, and his three teenage sons. Being husband and father, Dunbar explained, he was naturally expected to bring home a paycheck substantial enough to allow June to buy groceries at the A&P every Thursday morning, while his wife’s duties involved shopping, cooking meals, and keeping their wonderful home neat and tidy. As the Dunbar boys have grown up, they’ve been taught to have their rooms clean, trim the hedges, take out the garbage, and keep the family dog fed and brushed.
Whether the division of labor was equitable or not, this was how the Dunbar clan succeeded. Certainly he and his wife bickered every once in a while over what amount of money they ought to risk in the market, whether or not their old Ford was worth replacing, or if the dining room needed new curtains. Most choices were made by putting both their heads together and arriving at a sensible decision, but Bill was the head of the household, and always would be. June had no dispute with that, nor did their sons who understood that someone always had to have the last word, and he was that person whose responsibilities were the greatest.
If I lose my job tomorrow, Dunbar told the hall, my family knows we’ll be out in the street in nothing flat. Likewise, if Henry Ford loses his shirt, and his auto company goes under, a lot of fellows in Dearborn’ll be out of a job, too, maybe for good. But if those thousands of autoworkers walk out on him, and he can’t drum up anyone competent enough to take their places, he’ll lose his shirt, just the same. And if June decides I spend too much of my time speaking at meetings like this or having a drink on Wednesdays after work in the storeroom at Woolworth’s, and she takes the boys to her mother’s house in Beaver Falls, why, I’ll be just as bad off as Henry Ford. I can’t sew and my cooking stinks, and I doubt Mr. Ford can assemble one of those shiny new automobiles by himself. You see, a man’s household and his country work best when everyone works together, respectful of what each of us puts into the pot.
We have floods in Idaho and drought in Kansas, and we can’t switch places — no matter what the Communists might say. We just cannot share everything equally, nor are we meant to. Certain laws have come down to us from the blue skies above, and we succeed when we recognize those laws for what they are and adapt to them as best we can. This is the simplest explanation as to why things have come to be as they are.
Once the meeting let out, Bill Dunbar drove Harry back across town through a thin snowfall to a frame boardinghouse where they had hired a second floor room together to save a couple of dollars. Using the washbasin while Harry sat in bed trying to read, Dunbar said that the biggest trouble labor has these days is persecution, and he didn’t mean the Palmer raids. Give two men a pair of shovels and tell them each to dig a hole four feet deep. Let them know that whoever finishes first will earn six dollars. Once they’re both finished, the loser will likely complain that the other fellow had some sort of advantage with his shovel or the quality of dirt he was digging in. Either way, he’ll hate that fellow’s guts for having beaten him. Ask the winner if he’d choose his pal to help dig a ditch with him for twelve dollars and he’ll tell you he’d rather hire someone with more spunk. Pay them both equally and you’ll see how the loser will be happy, while the winner will ask himself why he bothered to work so hard.
This might seem hard for you to understand, Hennesey, but I lied to all those fellows at the meeting tonight. The anarchist doesn’t throw his bombs because of failures he’s suffered; he throws them because he’s had to suffer the success of others. People hate each other whether they’re treated equally or not. Worse yet, they resent the fellow who hires them unless he pays the highest wage for the least amount of work. Envy drives the world, Hennesey, not hunger.
Harry put down his book. I don’t believe that, he told Dunbar, because it would mean no one values work at all, and that’s just not so. In fact, it’s contrary to human nature. Some of us want to succeed, no matter what the other fellow does. We may well be persecuted for our efforts, but we’re certainly not the least interested in bothering with, much less persecuting, those who strike it rich or fall off the track of their own accord.
Bill Dunbar finished splashing water onto his face, then toweled off and sat down on the bed. Well, that’s just where you’re plain wrong, he told Harry, but I can’t prove it to you tonight. You’re too stubborn to hear me out, and we’ve got a train at six in the morning. All I can tell you is that one day you’ll see that none of us are ever good enough to each other. It’s just not our instinct, whether we pretend to dream it or not. We all have too much ambition.
Monte Schulz received his M.A. in American Studies from UCSB. He published his first novel, Down by the River, in 1990, and spent the next twelve years writing a novel of the Jazz Age, now available in three parts: This Side of Jordan, The Last Rose of Summer, and The Big Town. He wrote it for his father, the late cartoonist, Charles M. Schulz.