The Natural Man, Ed McClanahan’s first novel, is a comic triumph satirizing the narrowness of small-town life (“City of Needmore, population 6 7/8 when they’re all at home”) and showing the quest of the human spirit to transcend this narrowness. Told in the third person, the story concerns Harry Eastep, an adolescent taken from the relative glamor of Dayton, Ohio, and transplanted to the small Kentucky town of Needmore, and Monk McHorning, an orphan adopted by Needmore’s high school principal to help the failing basketball team. Through Harry’s consciousness, the reader sees Monk, who has “the dirtiest mind and the dirtiest mouth of any man or boy in the entire recorded history of Burdock County” but who also, like Huck Finn, finally refuses to be controlled by corrupt social forces.
At first glance, these boys seem perfect foils for each other. Harry arrives in Needmore “Bookish and plumpish and standoffish, shy as a newt behind his pink-rimmed spectacles.” As he matures and begins taking an interest in sex, he imagines how his tentative gropings with one of the cheerleaders can become “an amusing little episode” in his memoirs. Monk, on the other hand, needs tutoring just to stay in school; at the suggestion of the school’s corrupt principal, Harry writes Monk’s English themes. Monk is hardly retiring; within minutes of his arrival, he is showing a group of boys his obscene tattoo.
Indeed, Monk’s appearance in Needmore is the result of his aggressive nature. Having punched the clergyman who runs the orphanage (“Sumbitch tried t’take my goddamn cigarettes! . . . Out inna goddamn schoolyard! So I was forced t’bust him inna goddamn snot locker!”), Monk is about to be expelled when the minister remembers that his wife’s aunt and uncle “had neither chick nor child to console them in their trouble, and that—who knows?—maybe the answer to those old dears’ prayers was even at that very moment right outside the Superintendent’s door. . . . Surely the Board couldn’t fault him for finding the scamp a good Christian home, when the lad so obviously needed a father’s guiding hand.” Monk’s behavior and certainty of his own rightness contrast sharply with Harry’s touching—albeit hilarious—fantasy in which “there was something terribly, terribly wrong with him, some hideous defect or deformity which not only was revoltingly apparent to all who looked upon it but also somehow entailed an equally profound mental impairment that rendered him—and him alone—incapable of seeing himself for the repulsive mutation he unquestionably was.” Taking this fantasy one step further, he imagines his father as a tycoon masquerading as a lowly barber, who has bought the town of Needmore and “driven all its original inhabitants away and replaced them with a huge troupe of actors and actresses, whom he paid handsomely to help him keep his ghastly secret.”
Despite these differences, there are several similarities between the boys that draw them together. Each, for example, is an orphan, either literally or figuratively. Monk has lived in an orphanage before being adopted by Needmore’s principal, and his adoptive parent only wants to use Monk for his basketball skill (“Nobby Stickler would happily have enrolled and suited up a rabid orangutan if it could rebound”); Stickler’s pieties about being Monk’s new father are as shallow as they are ridiculous. Harry is little better off. His family has moved to Needmore to protect their interest in his grandmother’s will, and his father soon tires of small-town life and returns to Dayton. Harry visits his family only on weekends, and when he leaves, it is “almost as if he had never been there.” One of his father’s few attempts at paternal advice ends up in a hilarious muddle: “’Son,’ he murmured solemnly. . . . ’did you know the Bible says ’tis better to cast thy seed upon the belly of a hoor than on the ground?’ ’It is?’ Harry said delightedly, before he could stop himself. He’d always suspected it would indeed be a great deal better, but he’d certainly never supposed the Bible would support him in that opinion.” Seeing the drift the conversation is taking, Harry’s father feigns a coughing attack “so artificial he might just as well have stood there saying ’Cough, cough, cough,’” and he closes his speech with the solemn advice “son, never whittle toward yourself.” Harry’s mother, for her part, has a night job as a telephone operator and rarely sees her son.
Both boys are also aliens in Needmore. Harry sees in the bus driver who delivers the papers daily an admirably cosmopolitan disdain for the town; as Harry puts it, “he had, well, class . . . he was suavay.” Monk’s reaction on stepping off the bus in Needmore is “Well, ain’t this a hell of a note.” As strangers in a strange land, both boys must forge their own values; Harry gravitates toward Monk because he sees him “as a fellow alien and cosmopolite, and he flattered himself that Monk returned the compliment.”
Even in the area where they seem most different—sexual experience—there is a common bond. Harry is totally...
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