Mantrap (1925) is sandwiched neatly between two of Lewis' better books - Babbit (1922) and Elmer Gantry (1927). When it comes to sterling examples of American literature, students of Lewis's work would be better off with the latter two. But as a good, old-fashioned pulp thriller, Mantrap almost excels.
The book is essentially a story of a man reclaiming his (sweaty) (bare-chested) masculinity. The protagonist is Ralph Prescott, a middle-aged New York lawyer on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Although a fiery lion in the courtroom (supposedly), Prescott is shy - dominated by his mother, bullied by his friends, and generally at the mercy of salesmen, porters, hotel clerks and everyone else around him.
In a fit of madness, Prescott agrees to go travelling in the Canadian wilderness with one of his New York acquaintances, a blustering windbag named Wes Woodbury. The perfect portrayal of the armchair expert, Woodbury steals every scene. Under Woodbury's exhausting tutelage, Prescott's vacation quickly degenerates into a farce.
Throughout these initial weeks of holiday, Prescott tries to grow into the picture-perfect rugged man, but Woodbury keeps knocking his feet out from under him. Woodbury mocks Prescott when he tries to 'man up'. Woodbury equally humiliates Prescott when he tries to relax and enjoy himself, leaving Prescott completely emotionally adrift.
Into this mix comes Joe Easter. A true rugged manly-man, Easter runs a one-man trading company. Canoeing up and down Lewis's mythical wilderness, Easter is the picture of quiet, self-controlled masculinity - in contrast to the vocal (and inept) Woodbury. Prescott abandons Woodbury and follows Easter further into the Canadian outback - to Mantrap - an isolated town populated by a half-dozen white folk and a few hundred irritable Cree natives.
From there (about halfway through this short book), things pick up pace dramatically. Easter introduces Prescott to his wife, a foxy ex-manicurist named Alverna, and the small host of trappers, alcoholics and other scruffy types that make up Mantrap society. Despite his manly-man-manliness, Easter has some problems with his wife. A flighty, big city girl, she's miserable in Mantrap, and shows it by carrying on with between 20-40% of the white, male population. This percentage rises as Prescott, despite his best efforts to be a gentleman, is also ensnared.
The climactic chapters involve forest fires, dramatic gun-point confrontations and even a few carefully-alluded-to sex scenes. At points, Mantrap skirts very close to being a lurid Gold Medal paperback and it is never closer than during the breathless sprints through a burning forest.
The final chapters prove a prolonged, and uninterested, denouement in which Lewis restores everyone (slightly chastened) to their rightful role. The roguish Alverna is duly slappenfuked (verbally, at least) for her infidelity and Prescott receives a few much-needed lessons in what it means to be a 'man'. (Psst. Disney-style, he had it all along!)
As with all of his books, however thin the plot, Lewis's characters are so wonderfully written that you'd happily follow them on shopping trips around the mall. In fact, Prescott's shopping trips are some of the best moments in Mantrap. Prescott, as a protagonist, is a bit pathetic, but he's self-aware, conflicted, and generally tries to do the right thing. So no matter how weak he is, the reader sticks with him and cheers him on. Some of the more minor characters - especially Mantrap's anemic missionary and his carnivorous wife - are laugh-out-loud hilarious - and Woodbury, as mentioned, is a scene-stealer.
As real literature, Mantrap does a good impression of being pulp. A few more lascivious ladies and a little less introspection, and Lewis would've had himself a beautiful bit of genre fiction (Note: It looks like someone tried - look at this cover). Instead, Mantrap will go down as a remote outskirt of literature - a stopping-off point between Lewis's far better novels.