Today on Project Gutenberg #49

Today on Project Gutenberg, we have…

Motor Matt Makes Good; or, Another Victory for the Motor Boys by Stanley R. Matthews

Way back in the olden days of American publishing, we had these things called five-cent or ten-cent weeklies. An example of the dime novel, weeklies hit the peak of their popularity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The concept was simple: for either a nickel or a dime, you could buy yourself a paperback novella, usually a boys’ adventure story and usually part of an ongoing series. Continuity was fairly loose for most of these series, and the installments could be read as standalone novellas. Though the format of the weekly is long gone, its characters have not. Even today, you might still hear someone make a reference to teenage inventors Tom Swift and Frank Reade Jr, or to hard-boiled private eye Nick Carter.

Motor Matt has not been nearly as lucky.

As far as I can tell, there were a whopping thirty-two Motor Matt stories, all of them published in 1909. If that sounds like a lot of books, consider that the Tom Swift stories number in the hundreds. All the stories were written by a guy named Stanley R. Matthews, and they went for five cents a piece. Today’s story, Motor Matt Makes Good, is the twentieth story in the series.

The plot, as far as I can tell, is as follows. Motor Matt, the so-called “king of the motor boys,” is sailing near the coast of Chile (spelled “Chili”) in his prized submarine ship, the Grampus. With him are his outrageously named comrades, a Canadian named Dick Ferral and a German named — I shit you not — Carl Pretzel. Carl Pretzel. CARL PRETZEL.

So these three idiots are hanging out near a country whose name they can’t spell, and I think they’re trying to deliver the submarine to the American government? But a secret society of Japanese terrorists, called the Sons of the Rising Sun, is having none of that. They keep trying to blow up the Grampus with torpedoes, and Motor Matt has to stop them.

I’m going to be honest, that’s the best summary I can give of this book. Because it’s so bad that my brain couldn’t comprehend most of it. It’s not bad in a dull way, though, like a Frank Frankfort Moore book. No, this is bad in the baffling, horrible way that only pulp novels of this time period can be.

Racism is unfortunately commonplace in books like these, and Motor Matt is no exception. A lot of horrible things are said about the Japanese antagonists, along with a generous helping of racial slurs. But honestly, I think this book just kinda hates everyone. Even the white people.

First, there’s Carl Pretzel. In addition to the horrible indignity of being named Carl Pretzel, all of his dialogue is written out as…well, just look.

“Hoop-a-la!” jubilated Carl, as Glennie punched the motor-room jingler. “Vat do you t’ink oof dot? Modor Matt goes ashore mit himseluf und coaxes der Chaps to shace him mit rifles, schust to ged dem oudt oof der vay so ve can shteal pack der Pom. Vat a feller he iss!”

Page 21

Does this qualify as a microaggression? I feel like this qualifies as a microaggression.

Nor is he the only one who gets his accent spelled out phonetically like this. The protagonists run across a French guy, and he sounds like this:

“Ah, my captain,” broke in Pons, “zis Matt is ze r-ruf-fian, ze villain. He say he no haf ze time to bozzer wiz my little boat, zat he not go hunt for her; now, by gar, we see heem on her deck. He play ze trick wiz me. He do w’at he say he not do. He try steal ze boat, oui, zat is w’at he do. I demand of heem ze satisfaction!”

Page 26

There’s also a Spanish guy, and I think there’s a Black guy? You can guess what they sound like. As far as I can tell, the Japanese characters never have any dialogue, which in hindsight may be a blessing in disguise.

But here’s the kicker. When you manage to scrape off the gaudy coat of cultural insensitivity paint, what do you find? Nothing. Not a damn thing worth mentioning. The plot is barely a plot, and the characters are barely characters. This is a painfully boring story. In other series of this type, you’ll get heroes solving mysteries, building wonderful inventions or traveling to remarkable places. But this is just a boat chasing another boat for thirty pages.

Don’t bother reading this. I doubt you’ll enjoy it if you do. There are some great dime novels out there, as the endurance of certain characters proves, but this is not one of them. I leave you with this simple indictment: Carl Pretzel.

And that’s what we found today on Project Gutenberg! See you next time!

— Dana

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