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Book Review: A Garden of Cucumbers by Poyntz Tyler

August 13, 2015

A Garden of CucumbersA Garden of Cucumbers by Poyntz Tyler

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At 964 5th Avenue today, you will find a dermatology office at the bottom of a large residential tower. The number itself is not to be found, but there are both odd and even numbers along the same side of the street, which faces the east side of Central Park. 8 East 78th Street is around the corner, number also unmarked, a four story building. They appear to have been there well before 1960. On the other side of 78th Street is the James B. Duke Mansion, which since 1958 has been the home of New York University’s School of Fine Arts, so the idea of a mansion at this location in 1960 is not altogether implausible, although there is nothing resembling the mansion shown in the film Fitzwilly, which is based on this novel.

I saw that film prior to 2003, when I moved to New York. I asked the Indianapolis Public Library to buy a copy of the VHS when it came out, which they did, which would have been around late 1990s. I found it in the Critic’s Choice Video catalog not long after buying the early John Williams “Original Motion Picture Score” (which in those days meant that the music was rerecorded for the album rather than the performance used in the film) on a $2 cassette at Meijer that I played until parts of it were worn out (I have since purchased the Film Score Monthly CD).

The book is recognizably the basis for the movie. I did not remember Mr. Buckmaster from the film, although he was played by Cecil Kellaway (I have not had a chance to re-screen the film for writing this review–someone uploaded it to YouTube recently, but it’s very pixelly and nigh-unwatchable). In the novel, Mr. Buckmaster is really the main character. Mr. Fitzwilliam is the romantic lead, but he doesn’t get nearly as much page time as Mr. Buckmaster, although he is one of the novel’s major characters.

The one review of this I found that was written recently found the humor dated, while I found myself laughing aloud at numerous points (no pun intended). There are some references you might have to look up, and the characters have some classical education and make casual references to mythology, but the most dated part of the book is probably the funniest–in order to pull off the the big Macy’s heist (which is Gimbel’s in the film and more directly involves Fitzwilliam) is to trap people in the subway system to distract from their crime by putting tokens in every turnstile slot in the IRT and BMT in Manhattan so that no one can exit. Since no one would expect a free ride, the insertion of their token would keep the turnstile perpetually locked for exit. I have exited a turnstile after someone swiped their Metrocard on the other side. They thought they lost their swipe and were unhappy until they got through, but sure looked at me like a jerk. Perhaps the people who set up the Metrocard system were aware of this book and thought it better to risk this than to have exiting customers crash into entering ones. They get the Boy Scouts from Garland’s troop to do this in the local stations, who think they are making it easier for homeless people to get to family in the suburbs. That the homeless guy mentioned is an alcoholic didn’t bother me so much since before Reagan, most homeless people were alcoholics.

The book has a lot of fascinating characters, who tell tales of interacting with real-life people (hence their inclusion in the character list–I didn’t include simple name drops). The credits list shows Pierre and Garland in the film, too but I didn’t remember them, although I do remember the entire household staff working together as a team. Pierre is a very important character in the novel, and his story is very amusing, especially given my experiences with Occupy’s anarchists and my reading of the Engels/Lafargue correspondence and how anti-socialist laws were always in response to crimes committed by anarchists, rather than socialists.

Mr. Buckmaster is much greedier and less honest than Fitzwilliam in the film, who is presented there as the mastermind, but also tailors his crimes so that only rich people are affected, and any complaints they have would cause them to lose face, since it would involve publicly saying that they didn’t donate to one charity or another. This element is barely hinted at in the book and may originate with screenwriter Isobel Leonart. Buckmaster began his career whining that in the Great Depression that only the poor had money. He comes across as a spoiled right-winger. Unlike Tyler, he is a Republican, and the right-wing element had probably crept quite a bit into the Republican Party by 1960. Republicans today deny it, but the party was originally very far left and opposed private property rights, not just slavery, at the time of its founding. While Fitzwilliam is charmed by Buckmaster’s bible charity, even that resulted from a heist that was supposed to fill the household wine cellars but came from a subservient taking the wrong delivery truck. While in the film, Fitzwilliam is all about allowing Miss Woodhouse (her name in the film, probably because a socialist named Victoria Clafin Woodhull ran for President of the United States under the Equal Rights Party in 1872, and they thought grafting the charity aspect onto the character might offend people) to keep up her charity giving (again only hinted at in the book). Mr. Buckmaster is clearly in it to maintain the lifestyle. He doesn’t mind being a servant in a mansion in which he has a big apartment and everything he could want. Fitzwilliam and Juliet (who is Miss Woodhull’s maid, not secretary, in the novel) want to get out of the racket before they get married, fearing it might encourage their future children to steal. Many chapters are vignettes in which he persuades the well-defined other members of the household staff, or his brother Roderick, who has a front with a Philadelphia thrift shop called Saint Dismas (the penitent thief) to commit crimes, and demonstrating how he is the mastermind by having thought of so many possibilities for the scheme not to work, although sometimes they are still bungled, although, being a comedy, the climactic one with Pierre turns out to be all right in spite of all the complications, and things turn out for the better, anyway. The character was probably untenable as the lead in a mainstream comedy in 1967. Fitzwilliam and Juliet are sort of a Claudio and Hero re: Much Ado About Nothing by comparison to Mr. Buckmaster’s role in the novel.

The book is tempered in its politics apart from its overt references to devotion to the Republican Party. Tyler does not want to politicize the scandal of members of the gentry regularly committing shoplifting, fraud, etc., so it may seem a little soft to contemporary readers who want a skewering of the rich. They may find it disappointing that Victoria Woodhull’s biggest vice is having visited the 21 Club during prohibition. I thought the resolution in the film seemed too abrupt, but the plot about her dictionary for the illiterate (really a bad speller’s dictionary, but the term appears enough times) and how it resolves, as well as the issues with Pierre, tie the novel up really nicely (and comedically), with the usual novelistic jabs at Hollywood schlock, and of course includes the wedding of the juvenile and the ingenue.

I’ve seen that this book is available as a print on demand. I had the fortune of reading a first edition, although the lack of a dust jacket made the plain yellow cover not worth scanning.

Quotes Scott Liked

“Juliet is so beautiful,” Mr. Buckmaster agreed, “that her being a maid is a reflection on capitalism.”
Poyntz Tyler, A Garden of Cucumbers
“To Pierre,” said Mr. Buckmaster, “the Communists are of the Right. The far Right. He refers to them as ‘those goddamned Bourbons.’ Pierre is an anarchist. That’s why he’s so happy in his shoplifting–he feels it helps undermine the state.”
Poyntz Tyler, A Garden of Cucumbers

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