Vincent McHugh’s Caleb Catlum’s America is a weird book. It was published in 1936 and it appears to have been pretty popular for a couple of years before it vanished into obscurity. I only discovered it existed while i was reading William H. Patterson, Jr.’s biography of Robert Heinlein. Heinlein liked this book so much that he used it as a way to tell if he’d like people: if you liked Caleb Catlum’s America, you were okay.
So I read it! And it’s weird, which I realize I already said in the first sentence. Caleb is a 7’2″ immortal redhead whose life is one continuous series of tall tales. He’s always drinking gallons of absinthe at a shot or punching someone into the stratosphere. But this isn’t a children’s book, so he performs equally unlikely feats in the area of, well, sex. At one point, he impregnates seventeen seals. And there’s the time his grandfather teaches him some tricks for loving up the ladies:
We kept sipping away peaceful enough and I begun to get a little bored till all of a sudden I noticed the look Grandpop was giving me. Couldn’t place ‘er till I called to mind the way all them little queens used to ogle me when I was bundling with ’em.
“Well, m’boy,” Grandpop says, cooing like a dove. “Now we come to the most important part o’ your curric’lum. If you’ll just hop over on this bench ‘longside o’ me, I’ll give you a little lesson in the thousand tricks o’ lovemakin’.”
“Rats!” I says. “You can’t teach me nothin’. I read Eric Catlum’s book pretty near all the way through an’ I been doin’ a little investigatin’ on my own hook. I got results to prove it. You ask Pop.”
Grandpop says pish-and-tosh. I was nothing but a cub, but I showed him a trick or two. He come right back with three or four that opened my eyes.
“You know how eagles make love?” he says. “Try that some time. An’ keep your eye on the ant. You got a lot to learn yet, bud.”
He brung seven new holds out of his bag of tricks, capped ’em off with some kissing that had me pop-eyed, and just as he was coming to the point of the matter my Grandmom rolls out the house.
So…first of all, I think his grandfather just made out with him. Right? And I should address the part about Eric Catlum’s book. See, Eric Catlum turns out to be Eric the Red, who helped Ponce de Leon find the Fountain of Youth. And then he spawned a giant family of Catlums, who are all immortal and magical. This conceit lets McHugh drag in Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, and so on. And now they’re all Catlums, as are people like Daniel Boone and Abraham Lincoln. Caleb meets all these people, along with many, many others. Some have fallen out of pop-culture favor (like Uncas, the last of the Mohicans), and some of them don’t really seem like they should be in the same story at all (I think you can have Huck Finn or Sam Clemens, but not both).
Most of the book is a rollicking series of nonsense as Caleb does things like help Lewis and Clark on their expedition. And from time to time, Caleb runs into trouble with the nefarious Traders, who are the capitalistic anti-Catlums. By the end of the book, the Traders have taken over the whole country and all the Catlums (which by this point include almost everyone you’ve ever heard of, up to and including Walt Whitman) walk away to live in a giant cave. It’s a surprisingly sentimental end for a book that seemed like it was just about fun.