Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Piccadilly Jim by P.G. Wodehouse

Piccadilly Jim is a novel by P. G. Wodehouse, first published in the United States on February 24, 1917 by Dodd, Mead and Company, New York, and in the United Kingdom in May 1918 by Herbert Jenkins, London. The story had previously appeared in the US in the Saturday Evening Post between 16 September and 11 November 1916.

It does not feature Bertie and Jeeves; instead we get to meet Jimmy Crocker and Ann Chester, besides a whole bunch of people, of course. There is an admirable butler character as well: Bayliss.

Though a fairly early Wodehouse novel, I enjoyed every page of this quick-paced story peppered with fun characters and clever plot twists. At the end of it I can only marvel at Wodehouse's ability to come up with such clean, entertaining stories. No toilet humour, no unnecessary innuendos, just good ol' fun topped with delightful conversations... and some superb turn of the phrase.

What more could a book-loving worm want?!

Here's a glimpse: James Braithwaite Crocker aka Jimmy Crocker has a scandalous reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, due to his some-time playboy ways, over-drinking habits and penchant for getting into scuffles. The combined effects of which fouls up his snooty, social-climbing stepmother, Eugenia van Brunt's plans: of becoming a leading figure in London society and turning her second husband (Jimmy's ordinary baseball-loving father - Bingley Crocker) into Lord Crocker. [Bingley was a snapper-up of whatever small character parts the gods provided.] However, the future baron himself is yet to recover from the spasm of having discovered that fate had placed him, bound and helpless, in a country where they called baseball rounders and played it with a soft ball and a racket. The shocker for him was that: he finally understood how utterly alone he was in an alien land, after having lived a full five years in stiff-upper-lip-country! His better half though, was blissfully oblivious of all such inane matters and instead, doggedly went about lobbying and networking. That Eugenia was making admirable progress can be gauged from the fact that her friends were English, and every year more exclusively of England's aristocracy. She knew the right people, lived in the right square, said the right things and thought the right thoughts.

So, blaming himself for all the mess, Jimmy decides to move to New York... where he was once a newspaperman writing a society column under the byline "Piccadilly Jim". The newspaper though, continued running the column (minus Jimmy), as a 'tribute' to his notoriety. So effective was the column (rather Jimmy's writing) that the lines blurred... making Jimmy synonymous with "Piccadilly Jim". [And that perhaps effectively put an end to any flickering hopes of a career revival as a newspaperman/column writer.]

On his way to New York he meets the refined red-gold haired Ann Chester, whose company he is eager to cultivate. But all his daydreams are dashed when he hears her say that she already hates Jimmy Crocker, besides other things of course. Such as: 'Jimmy Crocker is a worm!' (Which causes Jimmy to spill his cocktail). 'I despise him more than anyone on earth. I hate to think that he's an American.' (Which makes him to drink the few drops that remained in his glass, partly to make sure of them, partly as a restorative... since it is an unnerving thing to be despised by a red-haired girl whose life he has just saved.) 'He's always drinking...' (Which makes him to set down his highball - hurriedly.)  
Stumped, since he is certain he has never met her, he embarks on an elaborate charade and poses as the upright and beloved son (Algernon Bayliss) of his own butler (Bayliss). Someone who is setting out - with his father's blessings - for the new world, where dollar bills grew on trees. [Algernon, though, sounds like the name of some exotic fern, no?]

Once in New York, he gets into yet another elaborate charade: that of posing as "Jimmy Crocker" - in his aunt's house - this time with Ann's collaboration.  

His aunt, Nesta Pett, is quite a formidable character and a staunch rival of (Jimmy's stepmother) Eugenia - in the social-climbing stakes. [Nesta and Eugenia are sisters.]

Here he is introduced to Nesta's toothless-tiger-hidden-dragon of a husband (and Ann's beloved uncle) - Mr. Peter Pett, the well-known financier, and his stepson - the bulging-from-all-sides, carrying-food-in-his-pocket, munching machine and first-class cigarette pincher - the very obnoxious Ogden.

There are several other occupants in this leading eyesore of a house, including some freeloaders with high pretensions of being would-be literary greats, besides an ex-boxer with a crushed proboscis (Jerry Mitchell, now Mr. Pett's physical instructor) and his ladylove - Celestine (Mrs. Pett's maid). There's a barking occupant too, Aida - Mrs. Pett's beloved poodle - who mostly prefers to bark from the shelter of Mrs. Pett's arms and snap at people's heels (when out of it).

There's a new butler by the name Skinner; he's efficient and a great fan of baseball...

Anything more would spoil the fun. So, grab this book and read, re-read, or re-re-re-re-read. :) Each page elicits a smile, a grin, and a giggle or makes you laugh out loud. The story has many layers and each layer is as delightful (if not more) as the previous one.

Sample these: #1. Solvency shone from the closely shaven faces of the men and reflected itself in the dresses of the women.

#2. Men with new religions greeted women with new hats.

This is superb Wodehouse. This is classic Wodehouse. Elegantly written, exquisitely crafted, endlessly amusing, languorously witty, surprisingly wise and funnily funny.

The satire on the stiff-upper-lip stratosphere is unmistakable... and delightful. After five novels and a collection of ten short stories, I thought I'd tasted most of that word-magician par excellence, P.G. Wodehouse's best cooking. Big mistake. If you are a connoisseur of good writing, you'll relish this one. It's not a book that you finish reading in a jiffy or even in a couple of days. Not even in 3/4 days for that matter. You want to take your time and relish the language, the literature and the play of words.

Verdict: This is a book to be savoured slowly. Yum!

The book jacket cover is quite well done; it shows (rather purports to show) old Mr. Bayliss, not in the pink of condition, but striding out gallantly nevertheless - in order to hand back the crisp five-pound note that his 'son' has so generously given him. He succeeds, leaving Jimmy Crocker aka Algernon Bayliss with a lump in his throat.

The production quality of the book is good; I don't recall any editing errors either.

My two pence worth: These Wodehouse novels make a nice add-on to my bookshelf... and also to my blog.

Wodehouse + Random House = great combo, right?

Though I am absolutely clueless about how far the preparation to welcome a certain Penguin into a Random House has come about. But then, since Penguins cannot get into any random house, wonder whether it will be igloo soon? :)

Details of the book: Piccadilly Jim/ Author: P.G. Wodehouse/ Publisher: Arrow, an imprint of Random House/ Binding: Paperback/ Publishing Date: 01/08/2008/ Genre: Classics/ ISBN-10: 978-0-09-951388-9/ ISBN-13: 9780099513889/ Pages: 300/ Price: $19.95

Picture: The book jacket cover of Piccadilly Jim. Courtesy: link.


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