“It’s – harrowing.”
The 11-year-old hesitated because he knew the word was unsuitable for a boy his age in a working-class home in Northern Ireland. Too adult, too educated, too emotional, too English.
The book was All Men are Liars, a didactic 400-pager by Joseph Hocking, the Methodist minister and popular author of nearly 100 books (sample titles: The Purple Robe, The Scarlet Woman, And Shall Trelawney Die?) who died age 76 in 1937, two years before I was born.
All Men are Liars stayed with me, nagging for 60 years after affecting me more deeply than any other book when I was a boy. I found a used copy on Amazon for $7 and reread it to find out why.
Even as a boy I read it with a superior attitude; I can’t have been going through one of my “saved” phases because I realized the book was manipulative propaganda, each plot turn telegraphed repeatedly, the outcome a foregone conclusion. But I suffered when the hero Stephen Edgcumbe suffered because I was in love with him, just like the book’s narrator, his best friend Daniel Roberts.
Stephen Edgcumbe was tall, “straight as a rule,” “his eyes were large and black, his forehead broad, and his hair jet-black.” He had “a splendid physique.” “I was in love with him,” the narrator says. “Any boy of seventeen will know what I mean.” We’re not talking about the love that dare not speak its name, too awful to mention even in Hocking’s vision of hell on earth.
Our hero Stephen was an excellent student and a deep thinker, but trusting and, to be honest, a bit thick. Hocking’s characters are good or bad, sadly lacking in complexity, but Stephen is taken in by the villains his friend Daniel identifies as bad apples the minute he sets eyes on them. The influence of the “realistic novels” of writers such as Zola(!), two cynical mentors (“I’ve seen the show, Dan, and discovered the tricks.”), and an unfaithful wife are enough to send Stephen plummeting into Hocking’s hell: “drink, gambling, and – and – worse.” (Even at age 11 I longed for more detail, as explicit as possible.)
Stephen disappears into the lower depths for five years until he is tracked down by Hope Hillyer, the girl he’d rescued from a destiny of life on the streets who now ministers to women who weren’t so lucky. Hope directs Daniel to a gambling den off the Strand where he finds Stephen, now known as the Dook, almost unrecognizable from the years of dissipation. “I’ve waded through cesspools of London, man. Why, I’m the very refuse of life.”
I’d gladly have wallowed in a few cesspools with Stephen, which perhaps explains my lifelong halfhearted attraction to the gutter. (I’ve been mostly careful to hold my nose.) But Hocking is sincere, and despite its literary shortcomings All Men are Liars achieves considerable power towards the end. Stephen’s struggle to stay sober is convincingly prolonged, and there is genuine suspense in the last pages, as the reformed Stephen, now in love with Hope, begs her to be his wife.
Hope loves Stephen but she cannot marry him and share his bed because she knows where he’s been. (“I knew those women – and – don’t! You will kill me!”) A heartbroken Stephen prepares to leave, but on the very last page she calls him back: “A great refining fire began to burn in her heart, a fire from heaven!”
“’Hope!’” Stephen cries, “and it meant everything to him.”