Book Review: The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis by Max Shulman
A book review by Joan Hall
The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, originally published in 1951, is an uproarious set of short stories telling the romantic adventures of a young man attending the University of Minnesota.
The writing is delectable, the characters are cute, and the plots are hilarious, putting the protagonist in improbable situations, and then letting Murphy's Law take its course.
I discovered this book back when I was in college, and I've loved it ever since.
The book was also, of course, the inspiration for the hit TV series of the same name.
About the author
Max Shulman (1919-1988) was an alumnus of the University of Minnesota. While in college, he wrote for the school's humor magazine, a similar rag to the one described in the story "She Shall Have Music".
He started writing Dobie Gillis stories in 1945. The stories were published in humor magazines. In 1951, the stories were collected and published as a book entitled The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.
He wrote other books and plays as well, several of which dealt with college life.
What I like about "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"
I love Max Shulman's writing. His language is vivid and precise. His sentences are beautifully crafted to shape a story just so, the words put together in a way that is almost musical.
In my job working at a private school, I've been looking at the high school curriculum standards for reading and composition. They want the students to know how to use precise language, good action verbs, sensory details, appropriate modifiers, words with the right connotations. "The Many Loves" could almost be used as a textbook for English composition. The book is also very nicely punctuated, but I don't know if that's Mr. Shulman's work or the work of an editor.
The stories themselves are light-hearted and give a sense of the exuberance, and sometimes naïveté, of youth.
And did I mention that they're funny? They're really, really funny. I mean laugh-out-loud-while-you-read funny. I mean starting-to-laugh-all-over-again-every-time-you-remember-a-passage funny. I mean making-your-kids-sit-down-so-you-can-read-it-aloud-to-them funny.
Buy "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" by Max Shulman
Amazon has some hardback and some paperback versions. This one is a hardback
The many incarnations of Dobie
The main character in each story is named Dobie Gillis and is a student at the University of Minnesota. But his character is not the same in every story. Different stories cast him with different majors, different personalities, and different interests. The only common element throughout is an interest in the opposite sex that gets him into wild predicaments.
Is there anything I don't like about the book?
Over and over, the thing that Dobie is drawn to and cherishes most in his women is their physical appearance. Even when he gets tangled up with a girl who is completely his opposite in temperament and character, her looks keep him coming back.
And he implies that his preoccupation with looks is the normal response that anyone would have. This is from the story "The Sugar Bowl":
"Why then, you may ask, did I cling to her? If you could but see her, you would not need to ask. One look at her expensive hair, her costly eyes, her exorbitant skin, her overpriced torso, her bankrupting legs, and you would understand. You would cry, even as I, 'Hang the expense! I got to have this dame!"
And this from "She Shall Have Music":
"I had been immediately smitten. And who would not have been? What healthy male would not have succumbed to her wise but frolicsome eyes, her firm but succulent lips, her sturdy but graceful throat, her youthful but mature form? What man could have resisted her manifold graces, her myriad charms?"
Again, the implication is that all men, not just Dobie, view women primarily as collections of body parts to be desired or rejected based on their shape, size, color, and smoothness.
I still find the book riotously funny and always enjoy reading it, but that one thing does get on my nerves.
It's interesting, though. At the same time that "Dobie" places such a premium on physical beauty, it's clear that the standards of the day for feminine desirability were quite different from the standards that women are held to now. The original book has illustrations (about one per story) showing Dobie having various misadventures with the objects of his desire. But the gorgeous gals who are depicted in the line drawings would be called "chubby" by today's beauty industry.
Something that makes me wistful
When I read this book, it's hard for me to imagine a time when men were so interested in making a commitment. Dobie and the rest of the young men described in the stories are looking for young ladies to go steady with, and then marry. I know that it's fiction, but it is indeed true that a lot more guys back then were looking for wives.
Warning: I'm going to go old school for a minute --
That's funny, I thought that the whole purpose of the Sexual Revolution was that people wanted to practice free love and not be bound by rules. But it turned out that there were enough men (not all, but enough) who really were dogs, who really wouldn't buy the cow if they could get the milk for free. So now come "The Rules", which women are supposed to study and keep a secret from men.
Back in the day, there was only one rule, and it wasn't a secret. Everybody knew The Rule: No sex before marriage. And, by golly, men actually showed an interest in marriage!
(end of old-fuddy-duddy ranting)
HERE ARE THE STORIES!
The eleven short stories from "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis"
I wrote a little blurb on each story and gave you a tiny excerpt from the text of each one.
All images are from Wikimedia Commons. Each one is a picture of something that is mentioned in the body of the story.
Story I -- The Unlucky Winner
When Dobie, a less-than-brilliant freshman, falls for a girl with an exhausting social life, his studies begin to suffer. His girlfriend, a schemer, claims to have the perfect solution, which leads Dobie into a sticky situation that gets worse and worse.
Of all the stories in The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, this was the one that had me laughing out loud the most.
"Then she argued some more, but I was firm as a rock. It took her more than twenty minutes to talk me into it.
For the next three days, as tragedy mounted on tragedy, I was numb with fear. I'll tell you how numb I was: a practical joker in my political science class put a tack on my seat and I sat on it all through the class . . ."
Story II -- She Shall Have Music
Dobie, an emotional soul who is on the staff of a struggling college magazine, proposes a plan to rescue the mag from its financial troubles. But it's really only a ploy that he hopes will reunite him with his true love.
"I must say that I have never behaved quite so calmly as on my first meeting with Mr. and Mrs. Hammer. I did not leap or spin; I did not cavort, dance, kick, whistle, or roll. Perhaps I twitched a few times, and I blinked a bit, and once I wrapped my hands around my head, but otherwise I was the very model of sedateness.
I cannot say, however, that the Hammers were impressed with my composure . . ."
Story III -- Love Is a Fallacy
Dobie, an amazingly intelligent (to hear him tell it) law student, figures that he needs a wife who is beautiful, graceful, and smart. When he finds a girl with two of those three qualifications, he is confident that he can mold her into the perfect mate.
This was the first story I ever saw from The Many Loves. It was in a college literature book.
This story is often used in classrooms to teach about logical fallacies.
"Cool was I and logical. Keen, calculating, perspicacious, acute and astute -- I was all of these. My brain was as powerful as a dynamo, as precise as a chemist's scales, as penetrating as a scalpel. And -- think of it! -- I was only eighteen.
It is not often that one so young has such a giant intellect. Take, for example, Petey Bellows, my roommate at the university . . ."
Story IV -- The Sugar Bowl
Dobie, a mechanical engineering major, is at the mercies of two women -- one a high-maintenance diva, the other a frumpy English major. Will he end up with the girl he wants, or the girl he can afford?
"What did I do then? I can't remember clearly. I think I grasped my lapels and ripped them off. I think I banged my head against the wall. I can't, as I say, remember. All I know is that when I got home the lapels were off my coat and there were lumps on top of my head . . ."
Story V -- Everybody Loves My Baby
Dobie, a journalism student, meets a girl who is kind-hearted to a fault. Who would have thought that loving a girl who is too nice could be such a problem?
"One afternoon as I was walking across the campus with my head turned to observe a likely looking girl about ten yards to my left, I ran into the outstretched arm of the statue of William Watts Folwell, first president of the university. I fell to the turf, my head ringing like a great gong. Almost instantly a girl appeared beside me. She fell to her knees, cradled my reverberating head in her lap, stroked my brow, crooned compassionate endearments. I accepted her ministrations happily for several minutes and then opened my eyes. As soon as I could focus, I knew I had found the right one . . ."
Story VI -- Love of Two Chemists
Dobie, who has no interest in anything academic, chooses chemistry as a major in order to win the heart of an idealistic young woman whom he hopes to lead astray.
"Marie broke a carboy that day. Nobody in the long history of the university had ever broken a carboy. Even at Dupont, I understand, where thousands of carboys are handled daily, it is a rare event. It is by no means easy to break a carboy; they stand as high as a man's waist and their glass is like steel. But Marie did it.
Obispo turned white, then red, then purple, then white again. He hopped on one leg, then the other, then both. For upwards of five minutes only strangled sounds came from his throat. Then he found his tongue and with it delivered an oration on Marie's unfitness for chemistry, for college in general, and for the human race as a whole . . ."
Story VII -- The Face Is Familiar But ---
Dobie meets Ms. Right, but he doesn't hear one important thing that she tells him. Now he'll try every trick in the book to get the missing information without revealing his ignorance.
"At 7:30 Saturday night I got into my rented tux and picked up my rented car. At 8:30 I called for my date and was told that she had come down with the measles at 7:30. So I shrugged my rented shoulders, got into my rented car, and went to the dance alone.
I had taken my place in the stag line when Petey Burch rushed up to me, his face flushed with excitement . . ."
Story VIII -- The Mock Governor
A sweet and lovely girl lives with her shady and egotistical uncle who has delusions of becoming the next governor of Minnesota. To have any chance with her, Dobie must win him over as well.
"'But you're not supposed to stand up in a boat.'
'A myth,' she said lightly. 'Indians did it all the time.'
I got up shakily. 'I'll tip over the boat,' I said.
'Nonsense,' said Pearl as I tipped over the boat . . ."
Story IX -- Boy Bites Man
Dobie, an ambitious journalism student, is in his element when he is assigned to work for a couple of weeks in a newspaper office. But it's a less comfortable environment for his sweet but dim girlfriend. When a story he's covering starts looking a bit suspicious, can Dobie prove himself as an investigative reporter and keep Lola out of trouble at the same time?
"Sometimes, I'll confess, I would become a little irritated at Lola. Like the time she locked her keys inside her car for safekeeping. Or the time she tried to buy a ticket for the football game between Minnesota and Open Date . . ."
Story X -- The King's English
Dobie, a sensitive English major, must choose between his love for the spiritual things in life and his love for a calculating coed who lives to cook up money-making schemes.
"I was obviously going to get nowhere with this girl. And even if I did, what was there to look forward to? What kind of romance would we have? What in the world would we talk about? She had a violent antipathy toward art; I was totally indifferent to business and finance. Clearly, the wise thing to do was to let this affair die aborning.
And yet, looking at the body that encased her grubby soul, I could not bring myself to let her go . . ."
Story XI -- You Think You got Trouble?
This is the longest story of the book. Dobie, an Egyptology major, is determined to get to an exam on time, but a comedy of errors ensues involving cars, police, and a well-bred girl who is trying to set her own direction in life.
"At this she burst into a perfect torrent of tears. Now, I am not a man who is reduced to jelly by the sight of a crying woman -- that is, if the crying woman is ugly. I can walk through a whole pavilion of ugly crying women without experiencing any feeling except, perhaps, dampness. But the sight of a lovely woman crying is quite another thing. This makes me limp. This destroys my will, my resolution, my very tissue. Even at the movies this is true. When I see Joan Fontaine or Lana Turner in tears, ushers have to be summoned to assist me from my seat. Many theaters in St. Paul do not admit me to sad pictures . . ."