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Elmer Gantry by Sinclair Lewis

By Dropout! | Books | February 26, 2010 |

By Dropout! | Books | February 26, 2010 |

Elmer Gantry was drunk. He was eloquently drunk, lovingly and pugnaciously drunk.

I walked half an hour in the rain on a Saturday morning to pick up some books from the library. I love me some free books. And yet, and yet. I didn’t get more than a dozen pages into Elmer Gantry before deciding to make a trip to the Strand so I could buy a copy and mark the bejesus out of it. I came back with four novels by Lewis. That is how fucking fantastic those first few pages were. I mean, come on. Look at the opening lines up there. They introduce a man who becomes an influential, silver-tongued, and deeply hypocritical preacher who rails the fiercest against those sins in which he most gleefully partakes. How can you not want to read this book?

Elmer “Hell-Cat” Gantry starts out as a championship-winning football captain at Terwillinger College, as a great big loud, pushy, arrogant, thoughtless jackass whose good favor everyone wants to obtain since “[h]e was supposed to be the most popular man in college; everyone believed that every one else adored him; and none of them wanted to be with him.” The only two people in the world about whom he remotely cared were “his widow mother, whom he vaguely worshipped,” and his quarterback, roommate, and sole friend, Jim Lefferts. Although Terwillinger was a religious college, Elmer “detested piety,” and Jim was a “freethinker.” Elmer’s mother wants him to be a preacher, while Jim wants to convert him to the faith of science. The battle for Elmer’s soul begins. Elmer’s mother recruits Terwillingerian Eddie Fislinger*, who recruits a former footballing YMCA official to work on Elmer, and Jim recruits his atheistic father.

The footballer wins. The footballer wins by flattering Elmer, insulting Elmer’s courage, and challenging Elmer to a fight over The Lord. Elmer will end up using all of these strategies himself, to great success. Jim observes his defeat from his bed, laid ill with a bug no doubt divinely-sent.

Elmer’s start at religious leadership is rocky. He bribes and schemes his way into graduating, he gets a tiny rural church before getting kicked out for drinking on the job, he falls in with a roving pack of shoe salesmen and decides to try that for a while, he falls in with a New Thought lady and decides to try that for a while, he falls in with, and falls in love with, a flashy, bipolar evangelist and decides to try that for a while**, he decides to try out Methodism for a while, and something finally sticks. The one thing Elmer always had, not religious fervor, not honestly, and certainly not self-control, was ambition. OK, two things. Ambition and a deep, booming voice. He rises through the ranks, charming, bribing, and scheming his way into larger churches, into innocent maiden’s panties, out of forced shotgun weddings to those innocent maidens, into larger collection plates and larger salaries, all the while maintaining his glorious, unbelievable hypocrisy.

He was born to be a senator. He never said anything important, and he always said it sonorously.

Elmer does everything in his power to obtain the biggest possible radio audience for a sermon on the sins of ambition and the virtue of humility. He bullies his way into the police force to conduct raids on dens of iniquity, of which he didn’t exactly have disinterested knowledge. To the end he builds sermons around lines stolen from an atheist tract written by Ingersoll. (Love is the only bow on Life’s dark cloud. It is the Morning and the Evening Star.) And he doesn’t restrict himself to the pleasant vices, either. He can be a goddamn cruel asshole. When he finally gets the chance to fire his widowed church secretary after her brother dies, his reaction is as follows: “that was a pleasant moment; she cried so ludicrously.” He is horrible to his wives and conquests: withholding, emotionally abusive, sexually harrassing. It’s a good thing all of Lewis’s female characters are so freaking meek that they believe every protestation of innocence and kind-heartedness spewing from Elmer’s fat mouth. (Except for Hettie. Good on ya, Hettie.)

It’s not just Elmer, though. Almost every character is a fantastic hypocrite. The few religious leaders who truly do believe, or live their lives morally, are usually resigned to podunk towns and churches with a low “sacred rating,” and one of them even gets death threats*** for speaking out against fundamentalist witch hunts. Every prominent leader Elmer schmoozes with presents one virtuous personality with virtuous reasons for all of his dealings to the public, while hiding another mercenary, egotistical, and quite pervy private personality. Almost every person who convinces Elmer to join the ministry is a doubter himself. Newspaper men crow Elmer’s praises while knowing he’s full of shit. Salvation-seekers push their way to get into his sermons denouncing the varied and specific businesses of ill repute, complete with exact addresses. Even a charity organization that briefly pops up isn’t presented in a positive light.

Elmer Gantry did start to drag a bit in the middle, because there wasn’t much forward momentum to the plot, just Elmer fucking around, trying a bunch of different things and not doing well at anything, and I kept thinking, “how much more religious hypocrisy can even ex-IST?” As it turns out, much, much more. A great book, and highly quotable, even if you’re simply in the mood for some new insults (beautifically ignorant, tea-drinking mollycoddle, apostolic ice-cream cone, spiritual cold-storage egg) or homoeroticism (“He was reluctant to ask Eddie-Eddie would be only too profuse with tips, and want to kneel down and pray with him, and generally be rather damp and excitable and messy.”)

Words of wisdom from Reverend Dr. Gantry, esteemed writer of clandestine love letters and newspaper editorials:

“Dearest ittle honeykins bunnykins, oo is such a darlings, I adore you, I haven’t got another doggoned thing to say but I say that six hundred million trillion times.”
“It is not enough for the ministry to stand back warning the malefactors, but a time now to come out of our dignified seclusion and personally wage open war on the forces of evil.

The devil must have been shaken.

*”A meager and rusty-haired youth with protruding teeth and an uneasy titter, [who] had attained power in the class by always being present at everything, and by the piety and impressive intimacy of his prayers.”

**The ending of that chapter in Elmer’s life is awesomely and terrifyingly reminiscent of George Costanza at a child’s birthday party.

***”If you enjoy life, you’d better be out of this decent Christian city before evening.”

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Dropout’s reviews, do check out her blog, Beauty School Dropout.