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S T U A R T L. B U R N S Drake University St. Petersburg Re-Visited: Helen Eustis and Mark Twain When Helen Eustis’ The Fool Killer appeared, early in 1954, reviewers disagreed widely about its literary merit.1 Harrison Smith, writing for The Saturday Review, commended it as “the only American novel concerned with the physical and emotional life of a boy that . . . can be compared with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.”2 At the other extreme, Anthony West, reviewing the novel in The New Yorker, panned it unmercifully.3 Between these extremes stood a number of reviewers, expressing varying degrees of cautious acclaim and disapprobation. On one point, however, all agreed. Almost every review began by comparing The Fool Killer to one or both of Mark Twain’s classics—Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. That they should have done so is not at all surprising, inas­ much as the comparison was first suggested by the author herself. On the dust jacket of the novel, Mrs. Eustis is quoted as saying that “The Fool Killer was written in deliberate and devoted imita­ tion of a certain kind of novel I can describe best as the sort addressed to adults and children equally.” She then specifically mentions Twain’s novels as being representative of the type she has imitated. The opening paragraphs of The Fool Killer reveal beyond doubt that Mrs. Eustis has indeed been deliberately and devotedly imitative: When I come home I knowed the Old Crab was waiting for me, and I would catch it. I kicked around the yard a time, but it was cold out there . . . so I give up and went inside. She was by the stove stirring something; I tried to sneak past, but she reached out and catched me by the ear. 1Helen Eustis, The Fool Killer. (New York, 1954). Page numbers cited in the text hereafter will refer to this edition. 2The Saturday Review, XXXVII (February 13, 1954), 20.® “Arcadia Run to Seed,” The New Yorker, XXX (March 20, 1954), 120. 100 Western American Literature “Where you think you’re going, pray?” she says, and I knowed I was in for it. When she’d call me “sir,” mostly it was a clout on the ear, but when she’d say “pray,” it was a licking sure and cer­ tain. (11) The situation here is decidedly reminiscent of the initial scene in Tom Sawyer where Tom, equally guilty, and just as afraid of his “Old Grab,” Aunt Polly is seized “by the slack of his round­ about,” and threatened with a whipping. Similarity of incident on this scale extends from the opening paragraph of The Fool Killer to the end, where George Mellish, like his prototype Huck Finn, expresses a desire to “light out for the territory”: “Then I get a awful restless feeling . . . and I oftentimes think that if it wasn’t for Uncle and Aunty needing me here, I’d probly hit the road again, come spring.” (219) There is enough similarity between The Fool Killer and the earlier Twain novels that the casual reader might be forgiven for thinking that Mrs. Eustis’ hero is little more than a pale replica of Huck and Tom. Like Tom, George Mellish runs away after having been punished for a relatively minor offense; and his pic­ aresque journey from that point on, makes him kin to Huck. Again like Huck, George tells his own story and, as the quotations above indicate, speaks with a similar dialect. He is an adept liar who pragmatically recognizes (as did Huck also) that “the best lies is the ones which has most truth in them.” (15) George is twelve years old and thus stands midway between Tom and Huck in age.4 Further examples only elaborate the fact of Mrs. Eustis’ indebtedness to Twain and to the tradition of the Bad Boy who hates baths, gets into fights, runs away from home, and is generally a kind of adorable nuisance.5 But while on the surface The Fool Killer appears closely to resemble these earlier novels, it is actually a much more modem “Story of a Bad Boy.” To be sure...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1948-7142
Print ISSN
0043-3462
Pages
pp. 99-112
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-04
Open Access
No
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