When I got a Newfoundland dog many years ago there was never any doubt that his name would be Lummox. Because that is the name that Heinlein gave to his star beast. When we meet Lummox, he’s living in the backyard of John Thomas Stuart XI. He’s lived there for over a century under the present owner’s father, grandfather and great grandfather. Over the course of his tenure he’s grown from about the size of a chihuahua to something larger than an elephant. He’s equipped with eight legs and an appetite for a menu that ranges from rude neighborhood dogs to a Buick automobile. His personality is friendly, enthusiastic and energetic but his discipline and attention to his master’s orders are decidedly inconsistent. And for a creature with such an imposing size he has the voice of a baby girl.
Johnnie and Lummox are best friends, almost brothers, and even though his mother doesn’t share his feelings for the beast his girlfriend Betty is on their side. So, when Lummox gets into trouble for going off reservation and busting up a lot of stuff, Johnnie and Betty do everything in their power to save Lummie from the clutches of the unsympathetic local sheriff who wants to have Lummox terminated as a public menace.
Heinlein weaves together the two threads of Lummox’s past and present to provide a future that wouldn’t have been guessed at the start of the story. Mixed in with this is the story of Mr. Kiku, the Under Secretary of the Department of Spatial Affairs and his fear of snakes. Heinlein builds up the little constellation of characters in the Department very nicely and gives us his ideas about how the permanent career bureaucrats in a government department interact with the political appointee that supposedly manages them.
And this is a typical Heinlein trait. He likes to build up little self-consistent “worlds,” like Westville, the small town where Lummox lives or the Department of Spatial Affairs. In another book you’ll find that the small-town people act and talk a lot like the people in Westville in this story. I’m guessing that these small towns were like the small towns in Missouri that Heinlein remembers from his childhood. And his descriptions of life on a space ship in several of his books comes from his own experience of shipboard life in the U. S. Navy. Likewise, his ideas of government bureaucracy came from his experience as a government employee.
And throughout we get to know Johnnie and learn about his struggle to weigh loyalty to his friend against fighting insurmountable odds. He is the Heinlein young man character who has been raised to respect authority, is socially conventional, polite and honest. But he runs smack dab into the injustice of the bureaucratic machine. In the ensuing turmoil he discovers that a man sometimes has to break the rules to do what’s morally right and protect his own. And mixed in with this is his relationship with his overprotective and domineering mother and his hyperactive and ambitious girlfriend. This is another part of his growth as he finally asserts himself against these women jockeying for control of his life.
In this book Heinlein creates a few extraterrestrials types. And he provides both sympathetic species and other less friendly from a human perspective. And this lack of empathy allows for a plot device that has since been “borrowed” by the makers of the movie “Men in Black.” See if you notice it when you read the book. But the most interesting extraterrestrial is Lummox and Heinlein’s description of Lummox’s internal point of view is highly entertaining. From my experience as the owner of a Newfoundland I found the beast’s motivations for some of his mistakes extremely familiar and plausible.
I won’t ruin the story by giving away any surprises. They’re too good. I would call this one of Heinlein’s most original novels and definitely highly successful as entertainment. Once again, highly recommended for young and old.