When one thinks of author Edgar Rice Burroughs the name Tarzan readily leaps to mind or maybe John Carter and his adventures on Mars, but Burroughs was not just a prolific writer of jungle or Martian adventures his bibliography stretches from the mean streets of Chicago to the mesas of the Wild West, so I thought it would be fun to take a look some of his lesser known works. First up The Mucker.
Written in 1914 and first published in the pages of All-Star Cavilier the story of The Mucker follows the adventures of one Billy Byrne a self-professed thug who haunts the nasty streets of West Side Chicago daring any man, woman or child to cross him. Billy Byrne is not your typical Burroughs character; he has no secret noble origins or even a decent family life, a bastard through and through and is more likely to be found drunk than sober if given a choice. He would think nothing of kicking a man when he was down or beating an opponent into a bloody pulp long after they could defend themselves. Aside from his massive physique his greatest characteristic is his hate for the upper-class and by extension the cops who protect them. Billy Byrne is a man born of hate and living in a modern jungle where the phrase survival of the fittest is more than just words.
The story takes off when Billy Byrne is fingered for a murder he didn’t commit causing him to go on the lam, fleeing to San Francisco just steps ahead of the law. At a local dive he tries to get a couple of sailors drunk so he can roll them but the tables are turned when he is slipped a mickey and finds himself shanghaied aboard The Halfmoon, a ship crewed by not the nicest people in the world. There are those aboard The Halfmoon who have a darker mission and that is to kidnap a millionaire’s daughter, the beautiful socialite Barbara Harding, and either ransom her or trick her into marriage. Billy has no moral dilemma when it comes to this sort of activity and he’d sooner push in the face of a pretty socialite than kiss it, but when Miss Harding courageously stands up to Billy, calling him a coward and a mucker, he starts to see her and himself in a different light.
The book does a great job of showing the gradual change of what in most books would be a villainous slob into a heroic character. Onboard The Halfmoon he is forced to work hard and give up drink, and when acting instinctually finds himself doing heroic acts. During a hurricane he saves the life of one of the kidnappers, and later at considerable risk to his own life saves Barbara Harding by getting her ashore when The Halfmoon sinks in the storm.
Burroughs takes on the debate of “Nurture vs Nature” by saying that both environment and how one was raised have a great effect on how someone turns out, but that if a person is intrinsically good deep down, he can overcome both of those. Basically even a dark and nasty slob may have some decency deep down and if given the opportunity he can make a change for the better. So I think Burroughs arguments on human nature veer closer to the genetic, you are born either good or evil and environment or how one I raised is not the defining scale tipper.
Now I don’t want to make it sound like The Mucker is a treatise on the predisposition of good or evil, this is a fun and rousing pulp fiction novel that just happens to have a complex character as its protagonist. When Billy, Barbara and the crew of The Halfmoon wash ashore on a strange island after the ship breaks apart the adventure element of the book kicks into high gear because this island is inhabited by classic Burroughs’ trope, The Lost Civilization. In this case it is Feudal Japanese Samurai who fled Japan and took up residence on this remote island and after years and years of interbreeding with the local Malaysian headhunters have turned into a rather nasty and cruel society.
It will come as no surprise to any reader that Billy Byrne will have to rescue Barbara from these Samurai headhunters and that thrown together in this dangerous primitive world the two will fall in love, with only the social gulf between them being the only obstacle even Billy’s great brawn can’t seem to overcome. In The Mucker Edgar Rice Burroughs gives us your standard high adventure but with a variety of interesting ideas and settings, where multiple characters grow and change throughout the book and though Barbara Harding does fall into the “Damsel in Distress” role she is much richer and feistier character than say Dejah Thoris in the John Carter books. This is a book I can highly recommend to fans of Burroughs and pulp heroes.
Not so easily to recommend is the sequel called Return of the Mucker which was published a couple of years later in All-Star Weekly in 1916, later to be combined with The Mucker in 1921 as one complete novel, but sadly it is not of the same calibre as the original. Once again fleeing the law for the crime he did not commit Billy Byrne crosses over into Mexico where he gets himself mixed up with various Mexican revolutionaries. To say that Burroughs depiction of Mexicans is borderline if not outright racist at times would be fair, but the story and not period racism is the biggest problem with this book as the reader must wade through multiple rescues of various characters with nary a plot in sight. Redundant and teidous would be the two biggest descriptors of this book. There was a third book in the series, more of a spin-off than a sequel really, called The Oakdale Affair which doesn’t even have the fun adventurous Mucker but it follows a secondary character from The Mucker.