For such a celebrated book, James Farrell's Young Lonigan -- the first in a larger series of Lonigan novels -- is oddly hard to find. But having located a copy, I've read it. There's lots to say.
The first is that Farrell's writing is unusually readable: it's clear and direct. And it's very much of that period leading up to the Second World War: Young Lonigan is parts Sherwood Anderson, parts Sinclair Lewis. There's a simplicity of prose which masks a social complexity: young Lonigan -- because he is, after all, quite young -- says more than he knows.
Farrell's novel, though, transcends adolescence. It's an unsettling book about violence, racism, and poverty. Young Lonigan and his friends are born into a world of emotional repression which threatens to consume them. They are violent and demeaning, but also fearful: the Catholicism with which they are raised adds to this volatility.
Young Lonigan takes places over the course of one year: between 1916-1917. The references to Woodrow Wilson and to the war in Europe situate Farrell's characters in an international context. But it's the allusions to racism in the States and to xenophobia in midwest which define them.
Young Lonigan longs for his moment, for strength and agility and freedom. By the end of the novel, however, there's a hint that this quest will forever be frustrated -- because Farrell, in my reading, seems to suggest that fate plays as much of a role in our lives as ambition.
At its core, Young Lonigan anticipates what's to come: this is a book about childhood and adulthood, and about how the latter takes root at a surprisingly early age.