Of course, if you look carefully at some of the faces of the shoppers, it may appear that all is not joyful abandon in this, the “season of giving.” Some people appear frustrated and stressed out; others — especially parents and grandparents — seem to be experiencing something more akin to anger, guilt and resentment. Could it be that they are reluctant participants in this consumer frenzy? Could it be that their heads are filled not with sugar plums but with visions of mounting debts? Didn’t this tradition once have more to do with love and less to do with spending?
If you count yourself among those who feel that the Christmas season has been taken hostage by uncontrolled commercialism, then it just may be that James Cox , a writer living in Whittier, has written a little novel that reflects your own personal (but unspoken) convictions. Indeed, The Christmas Curmudgeon is a kind of anti-Christmas manifesto.
Cox’s protagonist, Professor Harry Jenkins, teaches English in a small university town (Ashton) nestled in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains. Despite the fact that he has a permanent job, a devoted wife and two sons, Harry seems to be living one of those lives of “quiet desperation” that is so prevalent in academia. Harry spends too much time sequestered in his office, sipping Bacardi rum and dozing in his ergonomic chair while he either fantasizes about erotic encounters with sultry space vixens or broods on the dreaded advent of Christmas.
Although Harry’s intense dislike for the holiday season may appear excessive, his discontent is quickly reduced to the status of a minor grievance when compared to his brother Henry’s “Christmas phobia.” A 300-pound stock market analyst with a penchant for exotic cusine (Olive Garden, Tiramasu and Cabernet), Henry has become an anti-Christmas activist. Enlisting his brother’s reluctant assistance, Henry launches an attack on shopping malls by plastering the walls and corridors of “big box” stores with seditious posters that advocate the “overthrow of Santa.”
As Harry listens to his manic brother’s schemes to strike “at the heart of Christmas,” he begins to sense that their rebellion is inept and irrelevant. Even so, he assists Henry in distributing posters and finances the production of a series of “anti-Christmas” cards. Ironically, both brothers are classic examples of consumerism, and as the holidays approach, they find themselves seduced by the very forces that they war against. The wives of the two brothers shop each day and the bills are mounting: A Casio keyboard, a Mitsubishi 54’ TV, an Apple Power Book, a pro-tech mountain bike. The annual slide into the quagmire of serious debt is seductively easy.
Yet, The Christmas Curmudgeon does provide an alternative. When Henry and Harry go on a Christmas tree expedition, they inadvertently find themselves stranded on a remote mountain road. When they ask the assistance of the Critzers, an “unusual mountain family,” the Jenkins brothers discover that they may have inadvertently found the solution — an escape from a life of mindless consumption. (It is not the purpose of this review to reveal Harry Jenkins’ moment of epiphany in a dilapidated mountain shack. The readers should make this discovery ... and judge its merits themselves!)
The Christmas Curmudgeon is replete with subplots that are woven into the book’s central theme. There is a lovable, huge dog named Tiny that drags the helpless Harry through Ashton’ woods and shrubbery on their morning jaunts. Oh, and there is a winsome secretary, Sally, who manages to feed poor Harry’s lurid sexual fantasies. The wives are attractive and the children are genial and engaging — and all hopelessly entrapped in the world of “getting and spending.”
In conclusion, it seems advisable to comment on one of poor Harry’s greatest fears. As he broods and sips in his office, he nurses the growing suspicions that his wife is having an affair. Since there is nothing to support this suspicion, it appears that Harry perceives himself as “unlovable.” Much of his unhappiness centers on self-doubt and self-loathing. Repulsed by his sedentary life and his flabby physique, he perceives infidelity to be ... logical. In addition, his brother Henry (who appears to be Harry’s alter-ego) is the epitome of gluttony and excess.
In essence, the consequences of Henry’s addiction to food, wine and the good life are prophetic. As Henry is, so Harry will be ... unless he changes his life.
Is this state of affairs the fault of the commercialization of Christmas? The Christmas Curmudgeon (the jolly Henry Jenkins) would say yes. Although it only lasts one month out of the year, the frenzied buying that attends it is merely the loudest and crudest part of the consumer spending that characterizes our daily existence. The only solution to this dilemma is to place yourself and those that you love ... beyond the influence of consumer mania, and beyond the seductive sounds of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Is that possible? I’m just asking.