Magazine | November 1, 2010, Issue

The Defenestration of the Shmoo

It has hit me all of a sudden that Rand Paul might have been named after Ayn Rand. I’m too scared to Google him and find out, but just to be on the safe side I have decided to offer up my bona fides to the tea partiers so they won’t come and take me away in the middle of the night. I heard that they let you live if you can attest that reading Ayn Rand for the first time was an experience you’ll never forget. This I can do . . .

It was a hot spring night in 1950 and the segregated public schools of Washington, D.C., were embroiled in controversy. Citing the city’s growing black population, the school board transferred Central High School to the black system and renamed it Cardozo. Immediately, our foremost native Washingtonian and Central alumnus, J. Edgar Hoover, flew into a rage. Other prominent Central alumni entered the fray and the city became what is now known as “racially tense.”

I was slated to go to Central after junior high, so people kept asking me what I thought about it.

“I don’t think about it,” I replied frostily. I was reading The Fountainhead while a race riot brewed. The awkward age is the worst time to read Ayn Rand. She liked people who were tall, slim, and beautiful, and I was slouched, dumpy, and pustular, but I took up Objectivism anyway because I wanted to be like the novel’s porcelain-delicate heroine, Dominique Francon. She pursued the highest ideals so I stopped walking and started striding, taking care to turn my flat feet inward so I would look like an egoist instead of a duck. I kept my eyes locked straight ahead, causing a number of collisions, and forced my jaw into a rational clamp, which broke the rubber bands on my braces and made me dribble down my front.

One night while the city seethed I lay on my bed rereading the scene in which Dominque throws a marble statue out of her window because she cannot bear the thought that unworthy people might gaze upon such perfection. A thrill coursed through my fat-slabbed body. Maybe if I threw something out of my window . . .

I looked around the room. I did not have a marble statue but I did have a Shmoo, an armless blob of a doll that bore a striking resemblance to me. I picked it up and went to the window.

“I do this as an act of scorn,” I intoned, and let fly the Shmoo.

A few minutes later I heard an uproar in the hallway, followed by a violent knocking at our door. Peeking out from my room, I saw our neighbor, Miss Collier, burst in on wings of hysteria and hurl herself into Granny’s arms.

#page# “The colored are dropping bombs!”

A few more minutes later, Mr. Karras, who ran the Greek deli across the street, lumbered in bearing the incriminating Shmoo.

“Say, dissa fell out your winda,” he said, his puzzled eyes going to the distraught Miss Collier. When she saw the Shmoo she let out a scream.

“Don’t touch it, it’ll go off!”

“Hah? Dissa litt’l doll. My kid got one same ding. I see litt’l girl here atta winda. She droppa doll.”

“What!” my mother yelled. “Florence, come here!”

I made the fatal error of trying to explain too much. The sensible thing to have done was to hide behind a semi-lie and say that I had accidentally knocked the Shmoo off the windowsill. Mr. Karras had set it up for me by using “fell” and “drop.” There was no need to mention throwing the Shmoo, and God knows it was no time to go into the philosophy of Ayn Rand. But I panicked and did precisely that.

“I had to do it because Dominique did it! She had to destroy everything she loved in case she felt herself weakening and getting like the others! They were secondhanders but she was an individual! So was Howard Roark! That’s why he refused to build Greek columns!”

“Hah?”

“What is that child talking about?” Granny asked querulously.

“Dominique and Roark are the only two people they’ve ever met who blend exaltation with degradation! She hates him because she loves him!”

Miss Collier was still sobbing, Granny was still patting her, and Mr. Karras was still holding the Shmoo. He turned it over and looked at it as though seeking the key to my free-form book report in its batty smile. We were poised in this tableau when my father walked in.

He chided me gently for frightening Miss Collier and then, being the only other reader in the family, he picked up where I left off. “She was acting out a scene in a novel,” he explained. “It’s about two contrasting views of the self. You see, the egoist and the compromiser — ”

“Don’t you start!” Mama yelled.

. . . Such, such were the joys, as Orwell said in remembrance of school days past. Later on I read The Fountainhead several times and lots of other books as well before writing a few of my own, which is why I am always glad when anybody reads anything at all. However, to tea partiers who have just discovered Ayn Rand, I give warning: You are approaching her backwards.

You are presently hooked on her third and final novel, her tour de force, Atlas Shrugged, because it demolishes socialism and exalts capitalism. The trouble is, it reads like a first novel by a writer who has yet to learn control. It’s much too long, her characters talk too much, and she talks too much, i.e., she commits that most mortal of literary sins: She “tells” instead of “shows.”

Her second novel, The Fountainhead, shows vast improvement, but the characters still talk in philosophical tracts instead of dialogue. For the best of Ayn Rand you must read her first novel, We the Living. Set in early Bolshevik Russia, its narrative thrust is flawlessly timed, the heroine has two lovers, an aristocrat and a Communist cast in the Ashley Wilkes/Rhett Butler mode, and it has a heart-wrenching final scene reminiscent of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s description of Eliza crossing the ice in Uncle Tom’s Cabin — except it’s even better.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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