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Who was the first literary schlub?

We were talking about Ted Heller / Sam Lipsyte (also here), whose books feature a similar lovable-loser character, someone who’s basically a good person but has some larceny and lust in his heart and can’t always be relied on to do the right thing. More of a Jerry Seinfeld than a Philip Marlowe or Humphrey Bogart or Clint Eastwood or Jim Rockford, if you know what I mean. (I’d say “more of a Larry David,” except that (a) these schlubs are fat, and Larry David is thin, and (b) these schlubs may be a bit smug, but they’re not in love with themselves in the way that the Larry David character presents himself.)

As I put it the other day, Heller/Lipsyte write about the same character: an physically unattractive, mildly talented, borderline unethical schlub from New Jersey, a guy in his thirties or forties who goes through life powered by a witty resentment toward those who are more successful than him. A character who thinks a lot about his wife and about his friends his age, but never his parents or siblings. (A sort of opposite character from fellow Jerseyite Philip Roth / Nathan Zuckerman, whose characters tended to be attractive, suave, and eternally focused on the families of their childhoods. Indeed, the Heller/Lipsyte character is the sort of irritating pest who Roth/Zuckerman is always trying to shake off.)

Anyway, here’s my question: What’s the original of this character, the template that Heller and Lipsyte are working off?

I’m not sure. The schlub character seems like a trope: when I read those Heller and Lipsyte books—which I very much enjoyed, by the way—the character seemed familiar to me. But now I can’t think of any predecessors. For example, I don’t think of Gordon Comstock as a schlub in this way: for one thing, he’s not from New Jersey, for another, I picture him as being thin—like Orwell himself! Unattractive, unappealing in many ways, sure, but not the Heller/Lipsyte schlub. Yossarian? I picture him as being attractive, dashing, even, in his flight jacket. Saul Bellow’s characters? Sure, they have problems, and some of them are pretty desperate, but I picture them as thin as well.

I think there must be a history of schlub characters, a paper trail of plump protagonists who can’t quite get their act together and who garner some sympathy and dramatic tension from their plights—but right now I can’t think of any of them. Can you?

P.S. Just For Fun: The Universal Genre Savvy Guide

29 Comments

  1. SJ Silverman says:

    Sad comment on our society that we think of fat/thin as a “defining” characteristic.

  2. Owen Davis says:

    At least in the Western/European tradition, I’d venture to say that the literary schlub begins with the novel itself: Don Quixote.

  3. Elliot says:

    For what it’s worth, while reading your post I had in my mind the main guy in Seize the Day. That was before I read you mention Saul Bellow. My memory of the guy is as podgy. Maybe adds up to a decent guess?

  4. jonathan says:

    I think it’s Jewish, at least in American tradition, and it comes through the Philip Roth threading, beginning with Goodbye, Columbus and maybe reaching a high point with Portnoy. I think Roth infused the the notion of the everyman with the classism inherent in being Jewish, so he could play over those lines. This generated a schlub characterization which mirrors over the class/religion/ethnic line. Think Richard Benjamin in the G,C movie inverting over into the goddess Ali McGraw. You see the effect of WWII: the impurity of the Jew who was almost purified out of existence. The last Roth movie made, Indignation, covers the same ground.

    Contrast to Updike, whose everyman lives within a context he made because he fit into it.

    I think I’m fairly good at identifying the main obsessions of American writers, particularly Jewish ones. There are equivalencies: the set is partially, not strictly ordered. Take Henry Miller and add Jewish character and you get a lot of Roth’s obsessions with sex, now also glossed with religious and class distinctions that define disjunctions you see, and which in Roth novels become the focus and often your hero’s downfall. There is a fair similarity between Roth and, of all writers, Naguib Mahfouz, who is similarly cognizant of class and other lines (which he literally enacted by marrying a Copt).

  5. digithead says:

    He’s not the first but he’s certainly most representative of the literary schlub genre: Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole…

  6. Jai says:

    How about the character of Ignatius J. O’Reilly from the novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole? He possesses all those characteristics, although you might reasonably exclude him due to the heightened absurdity of his portrayal, which is marked by extreme delusions.

  7. Kyle C says:

    Folks. It’s Italo Svevo’s protagonists. Considered revolutionary in their day (early 1900s) for their inefficacy.

  8. Mikhail Shubin says:

    Mr. Toad from the The Wind in the Willows?

  9. Kenny says:

    Gogol’s Chichikov seems like a likely antecedent.

  10. Joseph Candelora says:

    Harvey Pekar? The character, but also apparently the man himself. But of course he simply oozes Cleveland

    Maybe some amalgam of Norman Lear characters?

    I guess for me the concept seems firmly rooted in the 70s.

  11. Z says:

    I think you meant George Costanza, not Jerry Seinfeld?

    • Richard Nerland says:

      I agree I think Andrew means George.

      I recall watching “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the version of the play I watched made Nick Bottom seem similar to the archetype you describe. Given how Shakespeare makes a joke out of having someone fall in love with him, I imagine the archetype was known to the audience.

  12. Mark Palko says:

    No claims to being the first but O Henry’s work is rich with lovable larcenous losers. “The Ransom of Red Chief” is the obvious example. Also check out Cabbages and Kings

  13. Asher says:

    Aren’t the pilgrims in the Canterbury tales pretty much all schlubs?

    Replying to jonathan, I think Mahfouz and Roth are opposites. Mahfouz is always trying to find something heroic in his characters. He always seems personally disappointed in them when they fall short. Roth seems to relish the dysfunction of his characters.

  14. Jordan = says:

    The protagonist of Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes is very much of this type; I wouldn’t say Exley portrays his protagonist as “basically good,” but I wouldn’t exactly say that of Lipsyte’s protagonists either. The contemporary version of this, I think, is well-covered by Ben Lerner, especially in Leaving the Atocha Station, and by Matthew Klam in Who is Rich? I think without the tang of authentic self-criticism this kind of novel is very hard to make work.

  15. Adam Sales says:

    Saul Bellow’s Herzog?

  16. Phil says:

    People have come up with some good ones.

    How about Friar Tuck?

    • Andrew says:

      Phil:

      Friar Tuck was fat, but he wasn’t a loser or a schlub.

      • Phil says:

        Maybe it depends on which version of the story you read. Certainly it depends on exactly what you’re looking for when you look for a schlub. I guess it’s true that one wouldn’t call Tuck a loser, so if loserness is part of being the sort of schlub you’re looking for then you’re right, Tuck doesn’t fit.

        But let’s look at the other stuff on the list:

        physically unattractive — check, as usually depicted.

        mildly talented — depends on the story. In some tellings he is the most learned of Robin Hood’s men: he can read and write, he’s an excellent fighter, etc. In others he shows up for comic relief, the kind of guy who turns around to fight one bad guy and accidentally clocks another with his staff.

        borderline unethical schlub (from New Jersey) — well, no, clearly Friar Tuck was not from New Jersey, he’s from the south Bronx. But “borderline unethical”…well, in early tellings of the tale he is more than “borderline” unethical, e.g. he is told to be a lady’s chaplain and he says “Here is a huckle duckle, / An inch above the buckle. / She is a trul of trust, / To serve a frier at his lust.” He is not to be trusted with your daughter, or with the key to your wine cellar.

        a guy in his thirties or forties — check, as usually depicted

        powered by a witty resentment toward those who are more successful than him — I think this fits.

        Perhaps he would have been the kind of schlub you’re talking about, had he not fallen in with the right crowd.

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