The Gnarly Man
by L. Sprague de Camp

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Unknown, June 1939

collected in —
The Wheels of If
The Best of L. Sprague de Camp

Years in the Making

December 2008

A long, long perspective

"Let's have lunch at the Natural History Museum. ... What did you — ah — think of their stuff in the Hall of the Age of Man?"

"Pretty good. There's a little mistake in one of those big wall paintings. The second horn on the wooly rhinoceros ought to slant forward more. I thought about writing them a letter. But you know how it is. They say 'Were you there?' and I say 'Uh-huh' and they say 'Another nut.'"

"The Gnarly Man" by L. Sprague de Camp is a good specimen of the distinct category of stories about Neanderthal Man in science fiction (or fantasy if you prefer).

This Gnarly Man fellow is a fortuitous survivor from the old, old days, adaptable and reflective. He's been a lot of places and worked competently at a great variety of jobs over the last fifty millennia; when we meet him, he's getting by as an ape-man act in a sideshow at Coney Island. He passes for current folk well enough in civilization, and skates officialdom by having used a long succession of false identities. At the moment he's going by the name of Clarence, and has papers for it.

The character of Clarence in "The Gnarly Man" is very well sketched in the space of a novelet. He brings to my mind a comparison with the title character, a speaking gorilla, in Daniel Quinn's novel Ishmael. The advantage is all Clarence's, as he is a man however gnarly; whereas poor Ishmael is an ideological mouthpiece in a gorilla suit.

De Camp has fun thinking through some likely practical concerns of someone living so long, vastly longer than Methuselah. How would you deal with broken bones, when medicine was more agony than restoration? What would you do about worn-out teeth?

"The Gnarly Man" is a humorous story, but it may make you think even while you're enjoying it.


© 2008 Robert Wilfred Franson

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