[…] What's an efficiency expert?"
"Oh, he's a fellow who gums up the works, puts you three weeks behind in less than a week and has all your best men resigning inside of a month. I know, because my dad had one at his plant a few years ago."
Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Efficiency Expert
Small spoilers ahead!
For a change of pace I decided that my next Edgar Rice Burroughs reading would be one of his attempts at a “realistic” story. So I made up my mind for The Efficiency Expert, written in 1919. What a strange little novel!
Meet Jimmy Torrance Jr, a charismatic and good-looking young man, fresh from his college years, where he excelled… in sports and sports only! Football, baseball and boxing are his passions, more so than academic skills, which he’s barely good at. With his diploma in his pocket, he’s convinced that every boss in Chicago will fight to have him hired in a managerial position, so he put an ad in the newspaper to introduce himself, and without a doubt he will be soon overwhelmed by hundreds of proposals… that would never come. Jimmy finds himself engulfed in this perpetual conundrum that still exists today: without experience, no job, but you have to get a job to have experience. So he brings his expectations down to accept whatever job opportunity cross his path…
Speaking of crossing paths, in whatever job he takes, it being hosiery clerk, waiter, boxing sparring-partner, or milk-wagon driver, he constantly bumps into two women, Elisabeth Compton and Harriett Holden, of the upper-class society. He takes an instant liking to Elisabeth, without knowing that she’s about to get married to an Harold Bince, a shady manager who in secret is stealing money from her father Mason Compton, owner of the International Machine Company. And guess to which company Jimmy is about to apply for a position of “Efficiency Expert” without knowing anything about the job?
“Burroughs coincidences” are in full display here, and the character of Jimmy Torrance is not unlike Burroughs himself to some degree. Burroughs always regretted what he perceived as a lack of academic skills due to his moving constantly from school to school in his early years. The impulsiveness in Jimmy’s character, which prompt him to quit jobs sometimes on a whim, surely has a resonance in Burroughs. His stubbornness also, maybe?
Other than that Jimmy Torrance is very much a typical Burroughs hero. Physical, confident, handsome, with a strong as steel sense of morality, and very, very dumb and clueless about women. Let’s talk about the women, by the way. The Efficiency Expert offers three really strong portrayals of women, and that’s probably for me the big surprise of this book. Elisabeth and Harriett are vividly portrayed. They’re from the upper class of society, Elisabeth is even about to get married, but they’re not above flirting with the seedier side of things, like going into a shady cabaret, or attending a boxing training. They both are intrigued by this strange man they keep seeing everywhere.
But the best character in the whole novel is by far Edith “Little Eva” Hudson. She’s a regular sight at the Feinheimer shady bar where Jimmy is a waiter, and she’s what we would call nowadays an escort girl. She and Jimmy takes a liking in each other, and after Jimmy is fired, he meets her again at a pawn shop. Then there’s a great paragraph that probably highlights all of Burroughs’ heroes attitude towards women in general:
“ "You talk to me different from what the other men do." She pressed his arm gently. "You talk to me, kid, just like a fellow might talk to his sister."
Jimmy didn't know just what rejoinder to make, and so he made none. As a matter of fact, he had not realized that he had said or done anything to win her confidence, nor could he explain his attitude toward her in the light of what he knew of her life and vocation. There is a type of man that respects and reveres woman-hood for those inherent virtues which are supposed to be the natural attributes of the sex because in their childhood they have seen them exemplified in their mothers, their sisters and in the majority of women and girls who were parts of the natural environment of their early lives.
It is difficult ever entirely to shatter the faith of such men, and however they may be wronged by individuals of the opposite sex their subjective attitude toward woman in the abstract is one of chivalrous respect. As far as outward appearances were concerned Little Eva might have passed readily as a paragon of all the virtues. As yet, there was no sign nor line of dissipation marked upon her piquant face, nor in her consociation with Jimmy was there ever the slightest reference to or reminder of her vocation.”
It is her who finds Jimmy the Efficiency Expert job, it is her who buys the business he will be wearing, and her again who gives him fake recommendation letters. Jimmy pays her back by making her hired in the company as a stenographer, offering her a chance to get past her previous life.
Then came the chapters that broke my heart.
Jimmy just gets back from the Compton’s house. He had there a confrontation with Elisabeth because she thinks he’s taking advantage of her father’s kindness (and frankly who could blame her?).
“Entering a telephone-booth he called a certain number and a moment later had his connection.
"Is that you, Edith?" he asked, and at the affirmative reply, "this is Jimmy Torrance. I'm feeling terribly lonesome. I was wondering if I couldn't drag you out to listen to my troubles?"
"Surest thing you know," cried the girl. "Where are you?" He told her. "Take a Clark Street car," she told him, "and I'll be at the corner of North Avenue by the time you get there."
As the girl hung up the receiver and turned from the phone a slightly quizzical expression reflected some thought that was in her mind. "I wonder," she said as she returned to her room, "if he is going to be like the rest?"
She seated herself before her mirror and critically examined her reflection in the glass. She knew she was good-looking. No need of a mirror to tell her that. Her youth and her good looks had been her stock in trade, and yet this evening she appraised her features most critically, and as with light fingers she touched her hair, now in one place and now in another, she found herself humming a gay little tune and she realized that she was very happy.”
Then during the dinner:
“Jimmy sat looking at the girl's profile as she studied the menu-card. She was very pretty. He had always thought her that, but somehow to-night she seemed to be different, even more beautiful than in the past. He wished that he could forget what she had been. And he realized as he looked at her sweet girlish face upon which vice had left no slightest impression to mark her familiarity with vice, that it might be easy to forget her past. And then between him and the face of the girl before him arose the vision of another face, the face of the girl that he had set upon a pedestal and worshiped from afar. And with the recollection of her came a realization of the real cause of his sorrow and depression earlier in the evening.”
In short, he has been in love with Elisabeth but she was lost to him.
“The girl opposite him looked up from the card before her. The lines of her face were softened by the suggestion of a contented smile. "My gracious!" she exclaimed. "What's the matter now? You look as though you had lost your last friend."
Jimmy quickly forced a smile to his lips. "On the contrary," he said, "I think I've found a regular friend--in you."
It was easy to see that his words pleased her.”
And later this evening:
“Their supper over, they walked to Clark Street and took a northbound car, but after alighting Jimmy walked with the girl to the entrance of her apartment.
"I can't thank you enough," he said, "for giving me this evening. It is the only evening I have enjoyed since I struck this town last July."
He unlocked the outer door for her and was holding it open.
"It is I who ought to thank you," she said. Her voice was very low and filled with suppressed feeling. "I ought to thank you, for this has been the happiest evening of my life," and as though she could not trust herself to say more, she entered the hallway and closed the door between them.
As Jimmy turned away to retrace his steps to the car-line he found his mind suddenly in a whirl of jumbled emotions, for he was not so stupid as to have failed to grasp something of the significance of the girl's words and manner.
"Hell!" he muttered. "Look what I've done now!"
The girl hurried to her room and turned on the lights, and again she seated herself before her mirror, and for a moment sat staring at the countenance reflected before her. She saw lips parted to rapid breathing, lips that curved sweetly in a happy smile, and then as she sat there looking she saw the expression of the face before her change. The lips ceased to smile, the soft, brown eyes went wide and staring as though in sudden horror. For a moment she sat thus and then, throwing her body forward upon her dressing-table, she buried her face in her arms.
"My God!" she cried through choking sobs.”
Jimmy Torrance Jr, you’re a f…ing idiot.
And some people say Burroughs couldn’t write…
From now on, the novel turns into a crime story, unexpectedly, and a hurried one at that, in which Edith keeps on showing an unflinching devotion to a guy I now utterly despise. Burroughs doesn’t help either, and the rushed ending feels ultimately quite unsatisfying (in fact I quite loathe it). Sorry, Old Master, you botched that one in my eyes. You made me care for naught. You can’t always produce a winner I guess.
The ending aside, it’s still an interesting novel to read. One thing of note is the timelessness of the piece. A few details give away the fact that it wasn’t written last week, like some jobs that have likely disappeared (milk-wagon driver), and the salaries (earning 250$ a month seems like quite a lot), but other than that, you can’t possibly date it. Burroughs doesn’t cite any know real-life business venture, preferring, for example:
“The buyer raised his eyebrows. "Ah!" he said. "With--" and he named their closest competitor.”
It’s the same with anything that could date the story. Burroughs never describes clothes, just the state they’re in. There are cars featured, but of unknown maker. At one point, Edith and Jimmy watch a movie, but we’ll never know its title. The only named places are the fictional ones that serve the story. Was it a way for Burroughs to ensure that his stories would achieve some kind of immortality? Knowing his obsession for this topic, that wouldn’t surprise me.
So read The Efficiency Expert, you perhaps will love the ending more than I do, and it won’t take long, since the book is quite short.