The Poorhouse Fair

I just read “The Poorhouse Fair,” by John Updike. I think it’s his first novel. This edition has a copyright of 1958 on it. It’s an old paperback – a “Fawcett Crest” edition.

One of the first most striking features of this book is the antique censorship of some obvious and surprising “profane” words. Any instance of the word “fuck” becomes “f.” So you see things like “He’s a f.er”, or “I don’t give a f.” The main character’s name is “John F. Hook,” who is a 90+ year old convalescent living in a public retirement home. Sooooo to make this otherwise boring novel more interesting, I like to imagine that the middle initial is actually a profanity-censor, and everybody actually refers to this thoughtful, biblical minded old man as “John Fucking Hook”.

Other words like “shit,” definitely get the treatment. But then there’s one or two that get the treatment when it’s not immediately obvious what the vulgarity is. It’s a profanity puzzle! C.S.er was pretty easy – just took a moment to figure it out in context: “I’ll kill the C.S.er.” But, the best thing about censored profanity is you can make up your own if you want it to be even more obscene! “Son of a bitch of a cat-killer, brave bastard run your a.h. off.” I prefer to read it as “run your anal hemmerhoids off!” That’ll show ’em!

Being the brave seeker of depravity that I am, my eyes couldn’t help but stutter at the sight of this paragraph. Just the opening phrase is beautiful in it’s ease of misreading, but the paragraph goes on to offer up choice snippets for the ill-minded to relish in. I’ve quoted the paragraph verbatim, with just one of many possible interpretations color coded in red:

Conner stood by two men screwing, with painful slowness, colored bulbs into sockets strung on long cords. They were maneuvering this chore in the dead center of the main walk. Surely they needed at least advice or one of the nimbler men – Gregg, for instance, who had been, come to think of it, an electrician in Newark – to mount the shaky ladder lying on the lawn, stained by dew, when the time came to string the lights on the posts. He asked aloud how they proposed to get them up. The two went on fumbling without reply.

The moral of the story? Even the most boring book about a day in the life of a convalescent home can become an enriching experience with a little censorship and wicked-mindedness. Happy reading!

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