‘The Art of Rube Goldberg,’ selected by Jennifer George

December 27, 2013

Is “Rube Goldberg” still the preferred description for a contraption that is needlessly, outlandishly and ingeniously complicated? It was when I was growing up. So far as I know, nothing has replaced it.

Playing off the kind of drawing an inventor submits to the Patent Office, the great newspaper cartoonist would take the longest possible route to achieving the desired effect, with each stage labeled by a letter of the alphabet. Take, for example, “Our Never-Failing Liquor Tester,” a cartoon from 1925, when Prohibition had caused the perverse effect of confronting the public with suspect alcohol: “Before taking a drink,” Goldberg advises, “pour a good swig into glass (A) and jack it up with jack (B) until glass hits arm (C) and topples over, spilling contents into funnel (D) — liquor runs through pipe (E) into bowl of milk (F) being sipped by cat (G) — if, after finishing contents of bowl, cat does not pounce on mouse (H) it means she does not see mouse as her eyesight has been badly impaired by the liquor — this is your cue to throw bottle away and order a nut sundae.”

The conclusion may seem iffy (wouldn’t the cat’s impaired vision be a good thing — a sign that the bootleg booze hadn’t been watered down?), but what counts in Goldberg’s world is getting there.

Goldberg was also a Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, so beloved by his peers that the annual award for cartoonist of the year is dubbed the Reuben. This collection, put together by the great man’s granddaughter, covers every thing from the supernal machines to Goldberg’s advertising sketches for Berkeley Blades (18 for 25 cents), one of which shows a racehorse grimacing as his jockey leans over at the peak of the race, his unshaven chin irritating the back of the poor beast’s neck.

Drabelle is an editor at The Washington Post Book World.

THE ART OF RUBE GOLDBERG

Selected by Jennifer George

Abrams ComicArts. 193 pp. $60

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