ELMER GANTRY by Sinclair Lewis

For some reason, I often have trouble with novels. A great many of them often seem to take themselves VERY seriously and go on WAY too long. Maybe I’m crazy. However, that is why I just love Elmer Gantry.  It is absolutely hilarious and written with a wonderful flippancy. This is probably why it has been excluded from the canon of great American novels.
Another thing that probably keeps this book from getting respect is its lack of psychological depth. However, we should be aware that Elmer Gantry is a satire in the fullest sense of the word. Psychological dimensions would be totally out of place here. The goal is to expose and mock religious bigotry and extremism. Lewis achieves that goal brilliantly. The novel is a sharp, brutal and chilling satire with a central character who is so contemptible and revolting that it is impossible not to love him. Lewis does give us more than jeers and outrage, however. There are kind and sympathetic characters but they don’t get very far. The contrast between the futility of their true Christianity and the success of Gantry’s false brand is actually more provocative than anything else in the book.
Elmer Gantry is not perfect. The picaresque structure works for a while but finally breaks down near the end. There are also some pretty long dull patches. Still, it is so funny and thought-provoking that these problems are more than worth putting up with. The final few paragraphs will blow you away! This is not what we usually think of as a “great novel” but I think it’s great all the same.
*WARNING* I STRONGLY suggest you don’t watch the hideous 1960 film version. It is a completely bowdlerized Hollywood atrocity. Worst of all, it makes the Reverend Elmer Gantry, one of literature’s most enchanting cads…a nice guy!!! AVOID!!!

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