On August 27th, 1956 William Gaddis sent a registered letter to himself in order to protect his idea for his novel JR against any possible copyright infringement. The idea for JR, he states in the letter, first came to him in the winter of 1956 and he remarks about its plot and themes: “This book is projected as essentially a satire on business and money matters as they occur and are handled here in America today; and on the people who handle them; it is also a morality study of a straightforward boy reared in our culture, of a man with an artist’s conscience, and of the figures who surround them in such a competetive (sic) and material economy as ours.”
The eponymous character of the novel is a clever and enterprising eleven year-old boy who is able to build a multi-million dollar corporate empire because the adults around him don’t supervise him or pay very much attention to him. He starts out by getting in the mail odd, free items he writes away for that are advertised in magazines. Broken clocks, forks, personal business cards, and free banquet meals are among the things he collects. When his social studies teacher takes JR’s class on a field trip to Manhattan in order to understand the stock market and buy a share of a company, JR gets a taste for this “competitive, material economy.” The boy reads enough about the market and corporate and tax laws to acquire a textile company in a small town in upstate New York. He then hatches a plot to take the employees’ retirement funds to buy a brewery and from there he builds his portfolio by acquiring a plethora of corporations and businesses which include, among many things, a magazine, a publishing company, and a group of nursing homes, funeral parlors and a cemetery which he franchises as his “healthcare package.”
JR has a phone booth installed in the hallway of his middle school from which he conducts most of his business. He is smart enough to disguise the fact that he is a child by holding a tattered, dirty handkerchief over the receiver when he is making his business deals or talking to one of his two lawyers. He convinces his former music teacher, a naive and gullible man named Edward Bast, to be his front man. Bast’s dirty, cluttered apartment in the Bronyx becomes the uptown headquarters for the JR family of corporations and a rented room at the Waldorf becomes the downtown headquarters. JR also likes to focus on taking over companies who are losing money so he can write them off as tax breaks. The best and funniest parts of the book are when JR is trying to decide what his next business moves will be and then tries to explain his plans to Bast:
No but see that’s earnings before taxes that’s the whole thing. I mean didn’t you read this part Bast? See because like if you can put it all together and write off all these here losses of Eagle against all these profits of like this here brewery then you get to keep them, I mean like otherwise you get screwed out of everything by these taxes like these two old brothers see they had all these profits which they didn’t collect them on account of this here tax so now when they do collect them they’d have this tremendous tax which is this undistributed profits tax, see? See so now they”re scared if one of them dies the other would really get screwed, but if they just sell the whole thing then all they have to pay is this here capital gains tax which is only like half of a half, I mean don’t you even remember this part hey?
The entire book is written in a dialogue in which speakers are never identified; Gaddis uses em dashes to indicate the change of speaker in a dialogue but sometimes there are several people in a room and the only way to distinguish who is saying what is by the characteristic phrases or verbal ticks that are unique to each person. For instance, JR’s favorite phrases are “these here,” “holy shit” and “hey.” And the adults who work for him, including Mr. Bast and Mr. Davidoff, JR’s public relations manager, start to use the same phrases as their “Boss.” The corporate world is taken by storm and surprised at the overnight success of JR Corporation and everyone is fascinated with the mysterious “man” in charge of the company whom no one, except Bast, has ever met. Davidoff, JR’s public relations man is running the office at the Waldorf and trying to explain to various parties what the “Boss,” whom no one realizes is a 6th grader, wants:
…the Boss saw that piece in Forbes on this collision course we’re running on these mineral interests wants to move fast got this topflight salesman I brought along from Diamond on that Endo divestiture on his way out there with, Hyde….? Haven’t shown up here yet no had them paged down at the bar but…no if you’re driving better leave without them we’ll get them loaded on the company plane with Mister…what? Six cents a mile companywide yes straight from the Boss not his fault if you drive a Cadillac he…time to get rid of what smell in your car..Because this whole Endo shipment’s on its way out there right now, gets there ahead of you and you’ll have them tearing open the crates won’t know a toaster from a hair dryer be lifting the tops of the washing machines to climb on them and…
This type of scattered, disorganized, broken dialogue, especially when characters are on the phone or there are multiple characters in one scene is typical of the novel. It is not an easy, quick read as Gaddis throws a lot of information out at once and therefore demands our complete attention. There are no chapters or smooth transitions from one scene to the next and time passes—sometimes several days—within the same paragraph. The scattered and broken dialogue is fitting for the larger world which Gaddis is ridiculing. All of the adults in the book have messy lives and are dealing with serious issues such as divorces, child custody, alcoholism and suicide. One couple featured in the book has an older man living with them and each thinks that it’s the other one’s parent. No wonder why an eleven year-old boy is able to dupe so many people. And this is what I found to be the saddest commentary in Gaddis’s satire: this type of moralizing, as he puts it, of a boy neglected by everyone around him who falls through the cracks. Even Bast, who helps JR build his corporation, doesn’t truly listen to JR or offer him appropriate guidance or support for someone his age. What I thought especially pathetic is that JR’s mother is a nurse who works crazy shifts so is never around and no father is ever mentioned.
JR’s teacher, who takes him on that pivotal field trip to Manhattan, has the only compassionate and emotional comments about the child: “if we can get in these here bellies he said and I asked him what on earth he was talking about, that bleak liittle Vansant boy and it’s not funny, really. He’s so earnest so, he thinks there’s a millionaire behind everything he sees and that’s all he does see, it’s just so sad really.” Sad, indeed, since no adults in his life give him the appropriate direction a young boy needs. Besides this teacher and Mr. Bast everyone else sees him as a brilliant business man and the contrast between the two descriptions of him—the one by his teacher and the one printed in the newspapers—is astonishing. JR proudly reads to Bast from a newspaper article what corporate America’s perception of him is:
-Okay wait I’ll read it listen. The small closely held company which rose almost overnight from the ruins of a failing upstate textile mill to become the multimillion dollar multiface, facet, faceted JR Corp appears threatened by a credit squeeze whose dramatic repercussions could be felt throughout the corporate and financial world it was reported here today. I mean that was like Tuesday. Attracted by the smell of here it is listen hey, smell of profits and the corporate daring which have characterized the company’s abrupt entry into such diverse areas as pap wait where does it tell about me down here someplace I thought I marked it, reputation both as a ruthless corporate manipulator with a shrewd see this is me hey, a shrewd eye for tax situations, and a man of vision whose almost clair, clair something see this is still me, clairsomething ability to cut through to the heart of a problem and post an answer in profits before the competition has understood the quest continued on where’s the rest of it wait, I even marked it where I have this here bulldog jaw and all might prove there’s more truth than why’d I mark that for it’s, wait no wait this is you hey listen. You listening?
Much has been written about Gaddis’s scathing, satirical rebuke in JR of capitalism, corporate American, the publishing industry and the educational system. But what I find most tragic is that question that comes out of the mouth of what is, essentially, an overlooked and forgotten child: “You listening?”
The book ends when JR Corp faces scrutiny from the SEC and IRS and Bast has to spend the night in a hospital because of double pneumonia. When Bast finally gets back to his messy, disgusting apartment in the Bronx, JR calls him on the phone with more plans. JR’s words are the last in the novel and, fittingly, in a smaller font than the rest of the text:
—for all these here letters and offers I been getting because I mean like remember this here book that time where they wanted me to write about success and like free enterprise and all hey? And like remember where I read you on the train that time where there was this big groundswill about leading this here parade and entering public life and all? So I mean listen I got this neat idea hey, you listening? Hey? You listening…?
The text, the subject matter, the characters, and the humor make this a brilliant book but expect to take it in at a slow pace. I also recommend The Letters of William Gaddis which was published a few years ago by Dalkey Archive and williamgaddis.org which was a very useful tool to help keep track of all of the characters in the book. The site has an extensive dramatis personae which I found to be a necessity.