BY CHARLES RAMMELKAMP
2011, Burning Books
Filed Under: Literary, Historical.
Set in the early 1800’s in Robin Hood’s territory, Thomas Frick’s The Iron Boys is a real tour de force that takes the mayhem of the Luddites who resisted the Industrial Revolution as its subject. The term “Luddite” has long been used to describe a person who resists technological change, but it’s a sure bet that not many are really aware of its historical roots as an unorganized, almost spontaneous insurrection against the dehumanizing tendencies of the emerging capitalist economy.
The Luddites flourished in the second decade of the nineteenth century in the Northern English counties of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Cheshire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Ned Ludd, the mythical figure after whom the movement was named, was reputed to live in Sherwood Forest. The Luddites were crafts workers who largely had control over their lives and livelihoods until the advent of the textile factories, which dehumanized workers in the name of profits. Indeed, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was written to an extent as a reaction to Luddism, an eloquent treatise against the machine. Byron championed the movement in the House of Lords, a lone voice against the machine. The Luddites attacked the mills and smashed the machines that were ruining their autonomous way of life.
The Iron Boys in Frick’s novel are Luddites by another name. Related in the semi-literate first-person voice of Corbel Penner, a paraplegic middle-aged loner, the narrative meanders according to Corbel’s whimsical thinking but ultimately culminates in the Iron Boys’ futile attack on the textile factory owned by George Cogent Meadows Richard Pilfer Withy, a pontificating, greedy capitalist, a comical if slightly sinister character who was made to be played by W.C. Fields.
Corbel is a likeable character. When we first meet him he is conversing with the birds. Ricky did it. Ricky did it, they say, and Corbel responds, Whos Ricky. Whadideedo. Whos Ricky. Whadideedo. It’s clever the way Frick mimics birdcalls here and puts a human voice to the sounds, onomatopoeically, but it also suggests to us that Corbel is one with the natural world, which in the context of the story is crucial: nature versus machinery. By the end of the novel Corbel is no longer conversing with the birds, though he has not been conquered by the machines; he has achieved a new maturity, a level of equanimity.
Corbel tells us of his life, his love, his legs–we know that he has lost them but only find out how during the climactic scene, a plot development Frick handles skillfully, just as the turn of Corbel’s love life/family life by novel’s end is also handled with skillful storytelling.
In his meandering, Tristam Shandy-like narrative, Corbel introduces us to the principal characters in the story, including the machine=loving (anti-life) Withy, and the other Iron Boys who will challenge him. These include the inscrutable Pank, leader of the Iron Boys if there is one, William Dogg, Rose Stonewarden, Maggie Moats and New Billy, a sort of village idiot who may or may not be the pattern of Ned Ludd himself.
Many of the little stories that Corbel tells us along the way, which feel like pure digression, have the force of parables: the story of Black Whopper, William Dogg’s Lustrabustions, the construction of Withy’s factory compared with “the Babble Tower.” Corbel frequently mentions “the Black Book,” whose obscure prophecies make one wonder if this is some sort of magical Book of Runes, until it becomes clear he is talking about the Bible. Indeed, numerology has an importance for Corbel, the magic of numbers. Numbers also represent the mechanical, as embodied in Withy’s factory’s clock.
Frequently Corbel breaks into song, little bits of doggerel verse – some from the Black Book indeed–that have a sort of psalm-like folk wisdom. At times they echo with the simple emotion of folk tales.
Will Flowers “63”
Plays the Heavenly Lyre
Born bred & hanged
All in the same shire
The hanging of Will Flowers for killing a factory guard during an attack on a mill is an event that galvanizes the Iron Biys. Flowers’ father had been forced out of his household shop and so had a justifiable grudge, but it’s also likely he was framed by the authorities, made an example of. Withy, meanwhile, has delivered his own lecture about how “machines improve men.”
The Iron Boys carry little pouches of iron filings that they superstitiously believe have magical, transformative powers – alchemy – and it is from these that they derive their name. The Iron Boys take the iron oath:
With this sacred oath
I weave my word and will
With those of every Iron Boy
Our mission to fulfill
Their very words are one
An oath to set us free
And never shall it be undone
The salient part of Corbel’s “speech”–of the novel itself–a decision Frick has made, is the lack of punctuation–no apostrophes, no quotation marks, no question marks, no punctuation of any kind except periods at the end of sentences. The narrative is presented in paragraph-like chunks that are not really “paragraphs” but blocks of thought, or speech. Words are frequently spelled as they sound. The intention here is to sink the reader into the stream of Corbel’s thought, as if the entire book were being spoken, an oral presentation rather than a written one. Indeed, this idea reflects the basic tension between “nature” and “machine”: written language is artificial; grammar is a mechanical device imposed on organic speech; writing is a lifeless (mis)representation of speech.
The hillbilly-like voice is not meant as dialect, therefore, but the reader is still left wondering about it. Is this the way a person of a certain class in early nineteenth century England talked? Thought is the shadow of speech, after all. Even though Frick does not mean to represent “dialect,” the paradox is that this is a written narrative, a “book,” and not really a story being told aloud a la Homer.
At times you can even hear Huck Finn in Corbel’s narrative, as when he satirizes Withy. Withy the blowhard, the pontificator, makes pompous speeches that borrow Biblical language; he uses phrases like, “Verily I say unto you,” straight from the Sermon on the Mount. “Not that we eat more but there be ever more that eat he says.” Here Withy seems to be justifying the need for mass production, and Corbel comments with sly innocence, “Although you ask me I think Withy do eat more to judge from what his tailor let out.”
The Iron Boys is definitely a book that makes a reader think. It’s one of those books whose difficulty of style could easily result in a reader simply hurling it across the room in frustration and giving up on it, but it’s satisfying to those who pursue it to its end. Moreover, in its conflict between man and “progress” the plot has a contemporary relevance.
Similar Reads: Henry James’s The Ambassadors, L.D. Brodsky’s This Here’s a Merica, and Laurence Sterne’s The Life and Opionions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman