ALSO KNOWN AS: How To Befriend the Town’s Hobo in 7 Simple Steps
GENRE: Realistic fiction about how much the author misses his childhood.
This particular book is an important landmark of literature for one simple reason: its title forced me to commit my very first crime at the tender age of twelve. Nothing serious, really; a little victimless crime that I’m sure will remain unpunished for all eternity. It just happened that, after reading such an awe-strikingly amazing title as Onion John, whose potential I thought would probably be never fulfilled by its author; I just felt the need to steal it. I know I broke the law but, to be honest, I don’t think anybody ever really cared since nobody really knew we had books on our school, let alone a library.
I was days away from finishing my run in elementary school when I first discovered it. Despite walking right next to it virtually every morning of my young life, I hadn’t the slightest idea we even had one. Of course, it’s hard to acknowledge something as a “library” when it’s nothing but a half-empty bookshelf buried inside a pocket-sized room that remains closed all semester long. The contents of the shelf were limited to eighteen battered books, hidden under a thick pile of dust, a bunch of crooked paper pins and a couple broken broomsticks. That was it. That was our library. That was supposed to cater to the reading needs of the whole student body. Fortunately for the school’s PR department, no one really knew we had such an astonishingly small literary collection at our disposition, simply because kids back then read as much as kids today, which is to say: “squat”. As such, the fact this library exists remains hidden from the public to this very date.
But, even though it had been carefully concealed to me by the renowned technique of “not telling anyone about it”, I managed to discover the nearest thing to a literary paradise we had on campus. All I had to do was wander aimlessly throughout my school’s halls one afternoon until I found myself right in front our janitor’s old broom closet. A slight twist on the door handle was all I needed to reveal the secret to my eyes. The only defense mechanism installed was a continuous leak of murky water originating from beneath the door frame.
As I avoided this trap and approached the cabinet curiously, my hopes of finding something actually interesting were flying lower than the soles of my shoes; just high enough to prevent my steps from faltering but low enough to not get unnecessarily excited.
A couple of inches separated me from the shelf when the title of the only book whose cover faced me directly grabbed my attention by the groin. Onion John. The moment I laid my eyes upon it, they grew twice their size in an instant. My heart was jumping in and out of my throat as my mind conjured three particular words to sum up my feelings: “THAT SOUNDS AWESOME!”
I had never heard anything about it but something had to be done; a book with a title like that just had to be read immediately. As I read its title time and time again, my imagination ran wild, figuring its pages would tell the exciting story of a man that looked like this:
And thus, I performed my very first misdemeanor. Exploiting the fact that I was the only human being alive on campus, I stretched my hand and took Onion John along with the three books next to it. Carefully, I stuffed them inside my backpack, without even noticing the scantily clad spider web sweater that covered their bodies, and got away from the scene of the crime. A slight adrenaline shot ran through my body as I ran through the abandoned halls, maniacally laughing my way out.
However, the books’ excitement of finally being read was short-lived. When I arrived home, I carefully placed them on top of my nightstand, swearing to read them first thing in the morning, where they remained, untouched, collecting a brand new coat of dust for over ten years.
Fast forward to 2010, when I was in dire need to kill a couple of hours while I waited for my cat popsicle to defrost. Just then, I remembered their existence. Without even glancing at what my hand was doing, I grabbed Onion John from my night table by its literal dust jacket. Once I dug out its title from underneath its own layer of dirt, I couldn’t help but feel the same excitement I had when reading those two words for the first time. I was more than ready to dive into the book that chronicled the adventures of a grown mustached-man with an onion for head while he looked for a job to survive on the cold streets of dystopian New York City.
Unfortunately, the story had nothing to do with that character and everything to do with a children’s story about the issues of growing up, friendship, and finding one’s identity. Such a wasted opportunity….
Instead, the title of Onion John refers to a 1950’s version of the guy that wanders past my street every morning, muttering unintelligible conspiracy theories while carrying a huge block of Styrofoam everywhere he goes for no discernible reason. In short, Onion John is nothing short of the village’s crazy guy – and by “village’s crazy guy” I mean “European immigrant who is unable to speak a word of English and who, therefore, is considered an unnecessary asset by the good people of the aptly named conservative small town of Serenity”. To drive the point further home, the guy even lives in a small hut practically made out entirely out of old tubs and eats onions as if they were apples (hence his bodily odor-based nickname).
And, just like good old’ Styrofoam Mark, John limits his social interactions to whenever he is hired to perform important community jobs like mowing a lawn, cleaning an empty pool, taking out the trash, grading multiple choice advanced algebra tests or just keeping as far away as possible from the children’s impressionable little minds.
However, although John’s mere existence rapidly becomes a torrential cavalcade of literary entertainment, he, sadly, cannot be labeled as “the main character of the novel that bears his name as a title.” The one that has to carry the protagonist burden is a random kid named Andy Rusch Jr. only because he decided to be this novel’s narrator by fictionally writing it. Despite this, Andy does manage to deliver one or two pleasant surprises throughout his story, like the fact that he has a somewhat intriguing perspective on life, or being surprisingly content with his current lifestyle.
Unlike the countless array of generic main characters that spend about a quarter of their books wallowing in their own self-pity about how nobody really seems to understand their intricate labyrinth of pure emotions and feelings, this guy starts up by saying life is good. He’s not relentlessly searching for the fame and the fortune that fate has denied him, and he does not seek to be internationally praised. He merely desires to enjoy his time on this Earth. Furthermore, his lifelong dream is to eventually follow in the footsteps of his father and own the family’s hardware emporium. It’s almost as if Andy’s nothing but a regular twelve-year-old kid that wishes to be nothing more.
And, just like any other boy his age, whenever he meets a strange bearded man siding with all existent communism causes that guarantees him the whole world is filled with evil spirits that need to be sprayed with a heavy smokescreen so that rain is allowed to fall from the sky, Andy rushes to bestow upon him the title of “my new best friend forever”. It goes something like this:
ONION JOHN: Mrzzsbouevhov knjb kn ulbn oljkbl n bkjvbovk vkh jjn lhnn.
REMARKABLY UNSARCASTIC ANDY: Oh my god! That’s exactly how I’ve always felt! Let’s hang out together for all eternity and discuss this stuff everyday!
ONION JOHN: Lkjnjklbkl hihnhln bujbl ijnjb oulb!
ANDY’S NAÏVETY: Of course we can, you silly and endearing hobo! Let’s be best friends forever!
ONION JOHN: Juikljnkblb oouubi ouvyvyiv kvbyifi?
UNABLE-TO-ACKNOWLEDGE-WHAT-IS-WRONG-WITH-HIS-ACTIONS ANDY: I love you, too!
Fortunately for my sanity, I have never been in a similar position. However, if my twelve-year-old self ever encountered a homeless man wearing a coat two sizes too large, his identity concealed almost entirely behind a thick green aura of rancid onion smell, I’d be scared stiff, with an ear-shattering scream waiting for the right moment to escape from my vocal chords and strike the oxygen around me. If, thereupon, said creepy dude approached me while spattering nonsense in a tongue that reminded me of how my god-fearing grandma used to describe demon talk, I’m sure I would probably usher said scream and run the hell away from there as fast and as far away as possible, without even glancing back, swearing myself to never ever approach the geographical location where such a specimen had been spotted, and leaving my nightlight on every night for the rest of my life.
As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure not a single commonsensical kid nowadays would ever meet their local variant of Onion John or Styrofoam Mark and think to themselves “This weird adult I have just found today seems like a fine fellow that deserves to be understood and befriended”. If what I know about the outside world is correct, kids nowadays have been trained to consider every stranger out there to be a blood-thirsty maniac lurking the streets in search of the next kid whose organs will be barbequed for their pleasure.
Luckily, for the sake of this plot’s development, Andy is a far less paranoid human being that what my mother made myself into. And everything would turn out to be just as Andy liked if not for the presence of what appears to be the one and only reasonable man in Serenity. Whenever the friendship between Andy and Onion John is about to reach its peak, that’s Andrew Rusch Sr.’s cue to enter the scene and try to make things right. He does this because he knows. According to his own thoughts, Mr. Rusch is sure to be the wisest man alive. He knows what is truly time worthy and sensible; he knows exactly what would be the more convenient course of action every single living creature around him should take. He knows his offspring is destined to become the greatest astronaut this side of Corneria, whether he likes it or not. He knows his kid’s attitude towards life, his idea of not embracing the most extremely ambitious dreams available to men as his, is as foolish as foolish can be.
But, most of all, Mr. Rusch knows for a fact that Onion John is nothing but a rejected European socialist who seeks to revive communism and create a classless, moneyless and stateless socially structured Serenity; something that is bound to affect negatively upon poor little Andy’s fragile mind, decimating the young one’s possibilities of succeeding in life, thus destroying America at its most vulnerable core. Therefore, the logical conclusion Mr. Rusch arrives to is that the only way to improve upon everyone’s life is, clearly, by vehemently destroying John’s character and replacing it with that of a plain, rednecked drone devoid of dreams or personality named simply “John Smith”. How is he going to achieve such a daring and needed soul transformation? By building John a modern household and forcing the poor fellow to enjoy his new way of life, of course! That’s exactly how progress is and should always be achieved in this world of ours.
And that’s precisely the issue Krumgold wanted to talk about in his novel. Onion John is not about the importance of that little something called “independence” who so many human beings aspire to attain to no avail while so many die without even knowing it is a possibility. While many readers enjoy Andy and John’s struggle against a most peculiar conservative town led by Mr. Rusch, where the idea of defending our right to be as extravagant as we please can be found peeking its head from behind every third paragraph, saying “hi”, those people are, sadly and unmistakably, wrong.
Onion John’s main thesis contains no such ideas. It speaks to our most capitalistic hearts, warning us of the dangers of a society that is quickly becoming idle, desperate and aimless, incapable of noticing when the red evils of European socialism are threatening their ways of life. Onion John is about understanding how the people need a leader that is as normal as normal, a leader who can battle this deranged future of classless equality that society is unknowingly imposing upon itself by listening to the unorthodox musings of the first odd man that comes before us. It’s about how we, as a people, as a race, can achieve freedom only when we become a conformist blob constructed by indistinguishably equal individuals with no distinctive personalities of their own.
Take for example the idea that, just because the owner of the only hardware store in town suggests Americanizing someone, all Serenity’s citizens band up together throws a national holiday-sized kermesse to fund Onion John’s transformation and depersonalization. People are, according to this and many, many, many other books, easily manipulated. No need to worry though, it is always for their own good and just a few dare to ask the dreaded “why”.
In short, Onion John is about the bright future that holds being grey and unremarkable; a peaceful future featuring an uneventful and boring, yet long, life.
Despite been written over sixty years ago, Onion John’s themes are still as identifiable and prevalent as they were back then; which is nothing to boast about, but it at least validates the old saying of “history repeats itself”.
Now, while this book is capable of somewhat honoring the “awesome beyond belief” title it publicly exposes, it does have a teeny tiny small flaw: its somewhat slow pacing. There’s a high risk that Onion John can be considered excruciatingly slow by some readers, especially those who fear the act of reading any sentence containing more than seven words inside its grammatical body. For this reason, too many people – especially children, the supposed target audience – will willingly abandon Onion John before even reaching the end of its first half. And, although it’s easy to understand their point of view – mostly because a couple of moments where the plot appears reluctant to move anywhere do exist – it is important to note this book was written in the fifties, when children were a little less stupid. It was written with an audience with a different mindset in mind.
All in all, Onion Johnis a highly unlikely story – even more unlikely in today’s social climate – that uses the presence of an extravagant and oddly sociable hobo as an excuse to discuss the shortcomings of society and the horrors of socialism. Basing my opinion in this text and this text only, Krumgold appears to be a man who knows what he wants to say and how he wants to say it, a man capable of creating characters and interactions that are able to resonate inside anyone who decides to give its pages a chance. Sometimes, it is nice to enjoy a quiet, grounded story with a clear and concise message that challenges the familiar clichés often used to say “do not be afraid to be yourself” and “accept the differences in others”.
And here’s hoping the resurrection of communism, as foretold by both Onion John and Styrofoam Mark, never does arrive.