by Edgar Rice Burroughs
Review by Hereward L.M. Proops
To fans of pulp fiction, Edgar Rice Burroughs is well known as the creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars. Burroughs’ inherently noble lead characters were models of the masculine heroic ideal. Despite his wild upbringing, Tarzan sticks rigidly to a strong moral code throughout his numerous adventures. Though stranded on an alien planet, John Carter’s southern upbringing ensures that his conduct is consistently courteous as befitting a gentleman adventurer. Perhaps it is these honest, upright qualities that have made the characters enjoy such enduring popularity. Though the original Tarzan novels now seem shockingly politically incorrect and modern scientific discoveries have effectively rendered the setting of Barsoom from John Carter’s adventures obsolete, the books still continue to be read by thrill-seekers in their thousands.
The hero of The Mucker and its two sequels has not been so lucky. Perhaps this is due to the fact that the protagonist, Billy Byrne, is a total and utter bastard. Born into a life of crime to an alcoholic, abusive mother, Byrne grows up to be “a mucker, a hoodlum, a gangster, a thug, a tough.” Drinking and brawling his way through the ghettos of Chicago in the early twentieth century, Billy Byrne shares none of the inborn qualities of Burroughs’ other creations. He is violent, illiterate and abusive towards women. Monstrously strong and wholly lacking in any moral fibre, he loathes those who frequent the higher classes of society and preys on the vulnerable and the weak. In short, he is the worst person ever.
It was a brave move for Burroughs to make the protagonist of The Mucker so unpleasant but it pays off. Billy Byrne, unlike many heroes of pulp novels, is a genuinely interesting character. Though not immediately likeable, Burroughs develops Byrne in such a way that the readers stick with him and watch his gradual transformation from merciless thug to unlikely hero. The first change comes from his enforced sobriety when shanghaied into serving on a pirate ship. Whilst onboard he also learns the value of hard work through the brutal discipline of a tyrannical captain. When he finds himself shipwrecked on a strange island with a beautiful, well-born young woman, the relationship which gradually develops between the couple gives him the desire to change his wicked ways. This metamorphosis is made more believable by the fact that whilst Byrne’s hard edged language is toned down and his antisocial behaviour is reined in under the tutelage of Barbara, he remains, at heart, a brute. The island, you see, is populated by a tribe of head-hunters descended from Japanese samurai and Billy is forced to use his formidable strength and fighting skills to protect them both.
Naturally, the path of true love does not run smoothly for our hero. On his return to civilisation, he realises that whilst his feelings for Barbara are sincere, their disparate lives mean that a relationship is impossible. The book ends on a sombre note as Billy Byrne allows the woman he loves to marry someone from her own station in life, a noble sacrifice that serves to illustrate how far he has come from the selfish, amoral individual at the start of the book.
It comes as quite a surprise to find anything resembling character development within the pages of a pulp fiction novel. This isn’t to say that The Mucker is a touchy-feely read. The novel is chock full of the visceral thrills and red-blooded excitement that is expected of the genre. The fights are convincingly depicted and Burroughs does not shy away from describing the bone-crunching blows and ghastly wounds that Billy inflicts upon his foes. Hoodlums, prize-fighters, pirates, samurai – Billy Byrne wades through them all like some unstoppable behemoth. If there was a Nobel prize for kicking-ass, Billy Byrne would win it.
The Mucker is not one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ better-known works but fans of pulp fiction will find it essential reading. Like its protagonist, the novel is neither classy nor sophisticated but it packs a punch.
Hereward L.M. Proops
Flames? Check. Damsel in distress? Check. Horde of samurai warriors? Check. Unfeasibly ripped man with no shirt about to fight EVERYONE with nothing but his ridiculous ham-sized fists? Check.
Frank Frazetta’s illustration for a reprint of The Mucker, officially the most awesome picture ever.