Studs Lonigan is a sociological case study in fiction, a stern indictment of society awash in empty cultural institutions, and a chronicle of the failed American Dream amid a fractured urban landscape. It charts, in often brutal episodes, the life and premature death of a once promising middle-class Irish Catholic American, a product of parochial education, of a devout home, and of the city streets. The action is discontinuous, with episodes sometimes moving only minutes forward but on occasion leaping ahead years. Nevertheless, the gloomy tread of inevitability stalks every page of the degenerate journey made by James T. Farrell’s archetypal protagonist.
The failed authority symbols of church, home, and school dominate Studs Lonigan’s landscape. Despite the principles articulated before the young man, there never evolves within him an ethical purpose or a moral center. His response to life focuses on the ephemeral fame that underscores his street identity. Studs’s models become the fast-talking, luridly fascinating poolroom hacks; his poetry becomes the accessible braggadocio of the saloon. Education is for “goofs” such as Danny O’Neill, whose later commitment to radical social values testify to his humanism; civilized behavior is for the weak. Cynically, Studs concludes that everything is “crap”; a bleak nihilism comes to shroud his every attitude, even the fearful moments of halfhearted reform. His life reflects a compendium of failure. Studs’s imminent death is foreshadowed by the demise of the institutions that fail to reach him and that leave a spiritual vacuum in his life, unable to deflect him from the path of self-destruction.
Indoctrinated early into the streetwise brotherhood of sadism and self-indulgence, Studs remains surrounded by an urban ambience whose very physical environment reeks of threat and violence: decrepit pool rooms, sleazy bars, greasy diners, ominous brothels, and...
(The entire section is 793 words.)