Monday, September 21, 2015

Travis McGee as Traditional Hero

Last week I posted John D MacDonald’s remarks, made after a reading of the paper "Travis McGee as Traditional Hero," at the first John D MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detection in November 1978. Written by Erling B. Holtsmark of the University of Iowa, the paper opined that McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens, eradicates the corruption and corrupt monsters that besiege the community, and wins the treasure. MacDonald eventually wrote a longer and more thought-out response which was published, not in the Journal of Popular Culture as originally intended, but in the inaugural issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection. As before, the author provides lots of interesting details on the genesis of the series and its two main characters.

Though I have had a certain amount of exposure to the classics, I certainly did not try to adapt ancient patterns to my contemporary fellow. It just came out that way. And maybe, for those ancient tellers of tales, it just came out that way too. Maybe we are dealing with a Jungian concept of the symbols mankind must have in his fireside tales of heroism.

I will try to explain as honestly as I can, how the characteristics of the McGee stories, as underlined by Holtsmark, came to be.

During the first few books of the series, there was no Meyer. As I began to work ever harder to try to obviate the need for endless internal monologues on the part of McGee, I began to realize that there had to be some middle ground between achieving all exposition through show rather than tell, and achieving it through all tell. I invented Meyer out of fragments in the vast scrap basket in the back of my head, vowing that I would not have a clown on scene, nor would I have someone dependent upon McGee emotionally, financially or socially.

I worked with Meyer, throwing away paragraphs and pages and chapters until he finally emerged, nodding in hirsute satisfaction, little wise blue eyes gleaming with ironic amusement, amused at himself and at my efforts, proclaiming like the bottle genie that he had been there all along, waiting for someone to perform the magic spell of rubbing the right words together.

Holtsmark tells us that the classical hero is a loner. Be that as it may, it is also a neat solution to the problem of a diversity of plot and situation. If one is enmeshing a hero in but one adventure, then it would not matter were he encumbered by wife, kiddies, tax consultant, bowling team and his very own Siamese twin. But to lug the whole emotional-personal environment along into further events involves more arrangement and manipulation than all that baggage is worth. I added Meyer only because the problems of tugging him along into the ensuing dramas was an effort overbalanced by his usefulness in establishing atmosphere and physical detail through dialogue.

We can find analogies in the television theater. Gunsmoke depicted Marshall Dillon as the classic hero, tough, moral, laconic and fearsome. Even with his retinue --Kitty, Doc, Chester (long ago) etc.-- he was the loner, often roving far. There was always the hint that long ago he had been a more pure loner, unencumbered by town and badge, or by the hints of a liaison with Miss Kitty. There, in a kind of outdoor theater, the world was brought in as evil people, and presented to the classic hero through the words and actions of his retinue, begging violent solution.

That long-departed series The Fugitive is a purer example of the loner as hero, seeking his own absolution, smiting evil along the way.

Without attempting an impertinence, my guess is that those tellers of tales about "Odysseus, Herakles, Philoctetes, Ajax and scores of others" were solving plot problems by making their heroes loners. And when he is a loner, he must have standards of behavior variant from the norms of his culture, otherwise the evil he goes out to correct would have already been taken care of by society.

As to the next characteristic, that of the lack of information about McGee's early years, I must confess that here I was guided by instinct rather than guile. It just did not feel right to me to be specific about McGee's early years, family, education and so on. If I were forced to conjecture about my probable reasons for this reluctance, I would have to say that by giving him a specific background, I would have thus related him in time and space to a very small percentage of the populace. This way, he could have been brought up in your development, gone to your schools, served in your battalion, dated your sister-long before life sent him off at an ever-diverging angle from the rest of us. There are the hints of the war service, the brief pro ball episode as a tight end, death of a brother. If we do not know the specifics in detail, then we can fill in our own. I am careful to also keep the physical image just a bit blurred, so that except for dimension, you can fill in your own ideas of him.

Curiously enough, when Otto Penzler was compiling a collection of biographies of detective heroes written by their creators, I thought about it for a long time and then said I did not want to do it. I suspect he was somewhat miffed, but I feel my instincts were right. Too much depiction would corrode the magic.

The next characteristic, the strong erotic element shared with the ancient heroes, is once again related to making a plot compelling. The constant reader is going to know, subliminally, that no matter how grievously I endanger McGee, he will survive-at least until I do a book with black in the title. The reader does not know whether or not a person for whom McGee has formed a strong attachment will survive. When there is nothing to lose, there is no menace. McGee's emotional attachment must be to someone who can capture the reader's fancy as well as McGee's. The casual roll in the hay, though it would not in our age especially devalue the damsel, would not elevate her to the status of object of great value either.

The hero must always be deeply, emotionally, tragically involved, or the novel of suspense becomes merely a string of set scenes of a meaningless violence. If the hero's motivations in a story are trivial, interest sags. The kind of strong motivation depends on the structure of the series. I have forfeited the chance in the McGee structure to have him struggling to avoid imprisonment for life for something he didn't do, or to regain a lost reputation, or to save his blood relatives from disaster, or to recover his own courage, or to save his own soul. So it must always be a threat of ugly disaster for himself and for those he holds near and dear, close friends or lady loves. The element of sensuality must depend upon the mores of the culture in which the hero appears. In times gone by the same effect might have been attained by his having been given a fragile scarf to tie to his lance before going into combat.

The fifth aspect, which Holtsmark covers in some detail, is the necessity of having a monster handy, a Junior Allen or a Boone Waxwell or a Paul Dissat. Here we deal with one of my own beliefs, that there exists in the world a kind of evil which defies the Freudian explanations of the psychologists, and the environmental explanations of the sociologists. It is an evil existing for the sake of itself, for the sake of the satisfactions of its own exercise. In our real world we have, for example, a two hundred and thirty pound teenager who roams the streets, mugging children for the pleasure of gouging out their eyes. For me it is less satisfying to say that this is the action of a sad, limited, tormented, unbalanced child than it is to see that this is a primordial blackness reaching up again through a dark and vulnerable soul, showing us all the horror that has always been with mankind, frustrating all rational analyses.

I admit to the primitive and superstitious aspects of my belief. But it does make it easier for me to depict a villainy that is without mercy or scruple, that grows strong through its own pursuit of evil, that is as heartstopping as the sudden breaking of the glass of the bedroom window a little before dawn. Blackness for its own sake is ever more difficult to deal with than quirks and neuroses.

This paper intrigued me and will continue to do so, while at the same time it has made me a little bit edgy. I do not want to give McGee the flavor of being contrived within a pattern laid down in pre-history. If he does work some subliminal magic in creating reader response, that is all to the good. But he has become a person. When I try to manipulate him, to take him outside his established patterns of thought and behavior, the book in process falls apart. In the past he has had no specific protest. He has just stood there. From now on, I suppose, he will shake his head and say, "John, that is not the way an ancient hero would act."

Monday, September 14, 2015

On the Background of Travis McGee

Back in 1978 Ed Hirshberg, a University of South Florida English professor and editor of the JDM Bibliophile, arranged the first ever Conference on the Works of John D MacDonald. It took place in November in Tampa and was, primarily, a one day affair preceded by an evening of cocktails and dinner. (Plymouth Gin was served.) Scholarly papers on both the works of JDM as well as other mystery writers were read by their authors and commented on by the guest of honor, none other than John D MacDonald himself. MacDonald’s comments were off-the-cuff, as he had not read or heard the papers prior to their presentation at the conference, and the intention was to have him eventually produce more lengthy and thoughtful responses in writing and have them published, along with the papers themselves, in a future issue of the Journal of  Popular Culture.

One of the papers, titled "Travis McGee as Traditional Hero," and written by Erling B. Holtsmark of the University of Iowa, postulated the idea that McGee was a descendant of a long line of ancient, Indo-European heroic types, a monster slayer who rescues maidens, eradicates the corruption and corrupt monsters that besiege the community, and wins the treasure. The paper was interesting not just for what Holtsmark had written, but for MacDonald’s responses, which reveal how he began the series with a full biography of the hero, how he developed the character of Meyer, and how he turned down a request to publish McGee’s bio in Otto Penzler’s 1977 The Private Lives of Private Eyes: Spies, Crime Fighters and Other Good Guys.

Below are MacDonald’s initial comments made after the reading. Next week I’ll post his long, written response that appeared a year later.

What was to me the most interesting thing about that paper was that it illuminated something to me that had been puzzling me a bit. When I first started the series I had a pretty well organized biography of McGee, from early childhood, family relationships, even to the occupations of his grandparents on both sides, where he grew up, where he went to school; also the emotional and psychic trauma of his early years. I had intended to imbed these biographical facts here and there in the books as the series proceeded.

As I went on, I found a reluctance to do that, which I did not understand. I just didn't know why I felt so reluctant. So I didn't do it. It sort of came to a head last year when Otto Penzler wrote to me and he said that I'm putting together a book; all of these people are going to write a biography of their protagonists. So-and-so is going to do so-and-so, and so on. We want you to do a biography of McGee. I dug out my old records on that and looked them over and I would have had to turn it from outline form into a sort of an essay. I wrote back and I said, "I don't want to do this." He wrote back and said, "Everybody's doing it. Why not? Why the reluctance?" And I said, "I don't know why I'm reluctant, but I don't think it's the right thing to do. I think people should use their own imagination to try to figure out in their minds what the background of this contemporary American character is."

When I read Mr. Holtsmark's paper, it was sort of a justification of my reluctance. Then I began to wonder, "How about these people who were devising initially these classic heroes of the past? I wonder if they had the same reluctance to go into the background of their people?" My classical education is very spotty. I was in the Wharton School of Finance and in Business Administration at Syracuse University and then took a Master's from Harvard Business School. So when I should have been studying classical heroes and monsters I was studying double-entry book-keeping and what insurance companies can do to you and for you. I don't know whether that particular aspect of it has been studied before, but it just intrigued me.

Why should there be a reluctance for me to tell the readers what my knowledge of the background of McGee is? I just don't know. But I begin to see, through that paper, a sort of possible justification for it.

Monday, September 7, 2015

"High Dive to Oblivion"

Out of the hundreds of stories John D MacDonald wrote for the pulp magazines in the early days of his writing career, some were terrific examples of mid-twentieth-century popular fiction, some were so-so, and others were downright awful. There were relatively few in either extreme, leaving a lot of okay-but-not-great tales as JDM’s real pulp legacy. Most of the best of them were collected and published in the early 1980’s in the Good Old Stuff anthologies, leaving the remainder to molder away in the crumbling pages of the surviving issues of Detective Tales, Startling Stories, Doc Savage and the like. Several of the good stories not collected in the MacDonald anthologies appeared in other pulp anthologies over the years, collections like American Pulp, Hard-Boiled Detectives, A Century of Great Suspense Stories, Pulp Masters, and their ilk, and I have written about all of these that I know of.

This leaves the orphans, the stories that have never been reprinted outside of their original publication. There is usually a reason for this, mainly that the tales aren’t really worth reprinting. But for fans of a particular author, every story bears at least one examination, and here on this blog I intend -- eventually -- to write about every story MacDonald ever wrote and had published. Given the size of this task, the frequency that I post, and my age, this is a road I will probably never see the end of, but hey, it’s a goal. So today we come to a randomly selected tale titled “High Dive to Oblivion,” originally published in the April 1948 issue of Dime Detective. It’s a perfect example of these middle-tier JDM tales that bear reading but don’t really stand up with the best of them.

Dime Detective published more JDM stories than any other pulp magazine. Here’s what I wrote about it a few years ago:

“Of all the magazines John D MacDonald published short stories in, Dime Detective holds the record for printing the most. From October 1946 until August 1952, MacDonald's works appeared there 39 times, either under his own name or as one of the "house authors" such as Scott O'Hara. The pulp magazine was one of the earliest to accept his submissions and, beginning with only his second appearance, prominently displayed his name on the covers of nearly every issue his stories appeared in.

“Dime Detective began publication in 1931 and ran until August 1953. It was the premier pulp magazine of Popular Publications, who published other "Dime" fiction magazines such as Dime Sports, Dime Western and Dime Adventure. It was, according to anthologist Stefan R. Dziemianowicz, "the one legitimate rival to Black Mask," publishing many "name" mystery writers such as Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner, Frederick Nebel, and the father of the hard-boiled detective, Caroll John Daly. Chandler appeared there exclusively from 1937 to 1939, and some of his most iconic short fiction was published within its pages, including "Red Wind," "The Lady in the Lake" and "Trouble is My Business." According to Dziemianowicz in the Introduction to Hard-Boiled Detectives, a 1992 anthology of Dime Detective stories, the magazine lured many of these big names away from Black Mask by paying "the princely sum of of four cents per word -- one cent more than Black Mask and quadruple the going pulp fiction rate." Their newsstand price was also a nickel less than Black Mask.

“He goes on to point out that the magazine "made only two stipulations to its authors: there were to be no novel serializations and the characters they created could not appear in competing magazines. Beyond that, they were given relatively free rein to write what they chose." (Chandler obviously cheated by changing the name of his detective John Dalmas to Phillip Marlowe when he harvested his Dime Detective stories for his later novels.) And although the focus, as one might imagine, was on detective stories, Dziemianowicz explains that "in its later years, it also published a good many non-detective crime stories written in the grim noir style that would become the trademark of Jim Thompson, David Goodis and other writers of the paperback originals that helped put the pulps out of business."

“High Dive to Oblivion” was MacDonald’s ninth appearance in Dime Detective and the story was written when the MacDonalds were living in Clinton, New York. As referenced last week, this period was the beginning of JDM’s great science fiction output, but he was still writing plenty of traditional crime stories. The story begins promisingly, with just the right mixture of mystery and uncertainty.

He worked in a bank, in one of those jobs where you've got to lead a clean life or they can't take a chance on you. He was smart enough to know that. I had his schedule figured out pretty well. I worked on it long enough. I gave up my job to work on it, and now that it's over, I think I'll go back to that little out-west town that I came from -- that Clara came from.

The protagonist, speaking in the first person, is named Deven, and his search for a girlfriend he had before the war has led him to the big city. When he returned from overseas Clara had left to work as a stenographer at a big city bank, and it took Deven some time to recover from post-tramatic stress before he left to go look her up. When he asked about her at the bank he was told that she had left her job two months ago, that she didn’t indicate where her new job was, and that all they have is her home address where she lived when she worked there. A check of the residence reveals that she move out of there as well, around the same time. Also around this time, her letters home to her mother ceased.

Deven goes to the police to ask about her, and for reasons the author never clarifies, tells them that he is looking for an old girlfriend named Alice Williams. He tells an inspector the last date he “saw” her and is then shown photos of four dead Jane Doe’s.

Four dead girls, unidentified. I looked at the pictures. A truck had nearly cut one in two. She was too hefty to be Clara, and the face wasn't right. The second one was a swarthy one who had been hauled out of the harbor. Not her. The third one came out of the river too, only she had been there a long, long time. Probably right through the winter. He said the lab gave the natural hair color as auburn. Not Clara. When she was a little kid her hair was as black as the crows in her old man's corn patch. The fourth was a mess. Her face was smashed. She could have been Clara. She was the right size to be Clara. The blood-soaked hair was black.

The fourth woman was the victim of a fall from an eighth floor apartment, her face so badly damaged from her landing in the back of a truck that her features could no longer be determined. The driver of the truck had only a vague idea of where he was when he heard the landing, but when he stopped to look (thinking he had been hit by another car) he saw nothing. It was only when he arrived at his destination that he found the body, dead, nude with no identification.

When Deven asks about any scars or marks found on the body, he is told of an old scar on the neck, a feature he immediately recognizes as one Clara had, but he bluffs his way out of the police interview by telling the inspector that this couldn’t be his “Alice Williams.” He finds his way to the driver of the truck, who remembers only the block he was on when the crash took place, and Deven spends time visiting every one of the cheap apartment buildings that lined the street. Eventually he finds someone who recognizes her picture. She was a “Mrs. Charles Driscoll” and she and her “husband” were there only infrequently, with many midnight departures on the part of Mr. Driscoll. Through more detective work Deven eventually identifies the man, a bank employee named Alexander Warder who is married to another woman. Convinced that Warder and Clara were engaged in an extramarital affair and that Alexander was responsible for Clara’s fall from the apartment window, he sets out the right this wrong on his own…

Story art from the Cavalcade reprint
There is a lot of uncharacteristically sloppy writing and plotting in “High Dive to Oblivion,” some of it so bad as to jump out at the reader like a typo. In order for MacDonald to make his plot work he had to elbow in a lot of unrealistic, insensible and downright ridiculous situations that don’t stand up to the first reading, let alone repeated ones. The detective work Deven does is simplistic enough that it could have been done by the laziest of policemen, so one wonders why is wasn’t done in the first place. Well, I guess MacDonald wouldn’t have had a story otherwise. I’m not sure he has one here: a good idea that he can’t really pull off successfully. Still, a lot of the writing is expertly done, and the haunted mood of the protagonist is especially well handled. “High Dive to Oblivion” is worth reading for that fact alone.

Although this story has never been reprinted as part of an anthology, it was republished in another magazine. It appeared in the July 1949 issue of an Australian men’s magazine called Cavalcade, under its original title, with new artwork and a few editorial changes. (New York changed to Sydney, color to colour, harbor to harbour…). I’m making an educated guess about these changes, since I don’t own the issue of Dime Detective but do have a copy of Cavalcade. I’m also guessing that that “little out-west town” where Deven and Clara came from was originally an “upstate” town, since this reference is repeated later in the story and apparently slipped by the Australian editor. It would certainly make more sense coming from a writer who lived in an upstate town. Perhaps some of the inconsistencies evident in the version I own are the result of other editorial decisions I am not aware of. I’ll have to wait until I can locate a copy of Dime Detective to know for certain. The April 1948 issue seems to be rarer than most.

Monday, August 31, 2015


John D MacDonald’s very first sale to a science fiction pulp took place in late 1947 when his story “Cosmetics” was purchased by John W. Campbell for the February 1948 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It was not MacDonald’s first science fiction sale -- as regular readers of this blog no doubt already know -- for the author had already published three sf or fantasy tales in other types of magazines, ranging from Doc Savage to Liberty to Bluebook. But the real cutting edge of modern science fiction was happening in the sf pulps, where this kind of writing was currently going through what we now refer to as its Golden Age, spearheaded in large part by Campbell and his magazine. Indeed, at the time of “Cosmetics” publication Astounding Science Fiction was probably the premier sf pulp in circulation, with Sam Merwin’s Startling Stories a close second. (Galaxy and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction were yet to come.)

The fact that MacDonald was able to sell a story in a genre he hadn’t really mastered yet to the premier magazine of its type says a lot about his talents as a writer, even this early in his career, before the novels, before the move to Florida, and before Travis McGee. Still, “Cosmetics” is a bit rough around the edges, with lots of pontification and science details which probably appealed to Campbell but doesn’t sit that well in the modern ear. Tellingly, when the author, late in his career, published an anthology of his best sf work -- well, what he thought was his best sf work, a list some, including me, have issues with -- he omitted this early work altogether. Perhaps he thought it too long winded, too didactic, too poorly written and, perhaps, too derivative. He would be guilty to some extent on all of these charges, yet “Cosmetics” is an enjoyable read and a telling view of a future where one of mankind’s greatest desires could finally be fulfilled and, importantly, how that fulfilment changed society.

Set about one hundred years in the future, the Earth of “Cosmetics” seems a beautiful place. And why not? Thanks to a device called the autocosmeton, every man and woman can, through a combination of drugs, hypnosis and machinery, alter their appearance to any physical ideal they wish for. The cities and towns of the world are peopled with men who were “tall and incredibly handsome," and "long-limbed women [who] were the apex of the dream of beauty which had existed through the ages." The process, called autocosmetics, is primarily a “concentration of the psychic process” aided by drugs and mechanics. Every home has a autocosmeton and there is no limit to the number or kinds of appearances one can produce using the device. The first inclination is, naturally, to become a physical ideal, but many people alternate between beautiful and ugly, “frequently shifting to the grotesque, making life a succession of masks -- the lovely and the horrible, a spiced cookery of flesh and outlook.” But it is the beautiful that is chosen and kept most often, leading society to require that everyone carry an identification medallion pinned to their tunic. It’s the only way to keep track of who is who.

The story’s protagonist is one Jason Blood, a man who has joined with a small group of rebels who have decided not to change into the beautiful. As the story opens he is reading a letter from his wife, telling him that she is leaving. She writes:

“Do you remember when we were first married? You had none of these silly scruples about autocosmetics at that time. Our love was freshened by the rhythm of variety. Remember how I'd leave you a note telling you how I wanted you to look? Darling, you were such a wonderful succession of tall, strong men -- and I tried so hard to make myself into all the types of beauty that you wanted to possess... But now these things which you mysteriously label 'principles' have come between us. You have made no change in four years, and you talk about 'solidification of personality' instead of about what you can do to please me. Jason, darling, I don't like the form you selected for yourself four years ago. By retaining it, you are not living up to your responsibilities as my husband. I hate that lean, ascetic face, the thinning hair, the knobbed knuckles, the harsh look in your eyes.”

She goes on to reveal that she is having an affair with “a man who is something like what [Jason] used to be," but promises to return when he decides that he has "been wrong."

Enter Karl Dane, “a big man with pads of flesh around his small eyes, a mountainous belly and fat, freckled hands. He was an atrocity in a city of beauty.” He is the intellectual leader of this peaceful group of “ugly” rebels, and he begins by telling Jason that their group has lost another member. "He got tired of fighting... He turned himself into a pretty boy this morning and now he's out roaming the city, beaming foolishly at the rest of them." Then he proceeds to launch into a lengthy diatribe against autocosmetics and outlines the long history of the process, which began as far back as 1933. He then goes into the unintended effects of this mass process and what it has done to society.

“The best part of the human personality is conditioned by the face we present to the world. Our actions are in part a compensation for this static impression that we give. Thus, in a world where you can have a new face tomorrow and a new figure... there [is] no incentive to force changes on society in compensation for the static impression that you gave to all people... Much of our great art and literature were created by people who were seriously and hopelessly ill-- conscious of their illness and striving for some sort of immortality... We are in an era where the entire ego of the common man -- and woman -- is built around the idea of eternal change in outward appearance. Thus we have achieved a norm in personality that is deadly. There is no sublimation of dissatisfaction into creative channels. No invention, no art, no creative thought. Just maintenance. That's all. The Age of Maintenance."

When Dane is done pontificating he departs to go visit with a possible new recruit, leaving Jason alone. As he sits thinking of his estranged wife, unbenounced to him two figures stealthily enter his apartment…

This story can be split into three parts: the exposition, Dane’s long speech, and the final bit, which I won’t reveal for would-be readers. What is most interesting to students of MacDonald’s work is the middle section. It is a fictional polemic that is nothing less than the genesis of that form which the author used in his final work, Reading for Survival, where Meyer and McGee (primarily Meyer) explore societal problems as great length through the mouth of a fictional character. (This device was also used in the Travis McGee short story, “Terminal Cases.”) Karl Dane even looks a bit like Meyer, and he certainly sounds like him. And while “spindly” Jason Blood is no Travis McGee lookalike, he plays the exact same role that McGee did in both of those later two works. It’s always fascinating to discover just how uniform MacDonald’s work can sometimes be.

John D MacDonald went on to write a lot of science fiction, and from 1948 to 1952 he produced over 45 stories and two full novels (both based on works that first appeared in the pulps.) It could be said that during this period he was a major force in science fiction, as assertion I’m sure a lot of sf fans might argue with. When the author collected what he deemed to be his best work in the field for Other Times Other Worlds in 1978, he wrote an afterword that seemed dismissive of both his work in particular and science fiction in general, and it pissed a lot of people off. But back when he began he was as enthusiastic as the wildest fan, evidenced by a newspaper column he wrote a few months after “Cosmetics” was published, titled “Fantasy, Unlimited,” which you can read on this blog. MacDonald would go on to write better stories than “Cosmetics,” exploring many different “subgenres” of sf, including space opera, time paradox, alien invasion, dying Earth, and lots of social science fiction. For me, I’d rather read a JDM sf story than one by anybody else, but then, I’m extremely biased.

As far as I can tell, “Cosmetics” has never never been anthologized.

Monday, August 24, 2015

"The Taste of Gravy"

John D MacDonald’s first short story to be published in Playboy magazine appeared in the relatively late year of 1967, long after his work had made appearances in nearly every other major (and minor) periodical in the United States. What took him so long is anybody’s guess, but one is tempted to go back to Travis McGee’s infamous 1966 rant in One Fearful Yellow Eye, where he refers to Hugh Hefner’s philosophy as “laborious,” “interminable” and the writer himself as “pseudo-educated.” This would certainly not put the author in Hefner’s good graces, assuming that Hef ever read a McGee novel. But MacDonald’s work was sold through his agent, and the agent worked not with the magazine’s owner, but with its fiction editor, who happened to admire and respect MacDonald’s writing. “Quarrel,” which appeared in the May 1967 issue, began a series of short story appearances that were marked by a more adult sensibility than that which had been on display in, say, his work for This Week or Collier’s, not surprising given the kind of magazine Playboy was. These included the titles “The Annex,” “Dear Old Friend,” and “Double Hannenframmis,” which was published in August 1970. MacDonald then took these stories and, along with three new originals, included them in his anthology S*E*V*E*N, which came out in April 1971.

But MacDonald would write one more story for Playboy, and it appeared in the magazine’s June 1974 issue. Titled “The Taste of Gravy,” it was one of the last short stories MacDonald would ever write. Both its tone and subject matter make it a good companion for his other Playboy works, and it would have fit nicely into S*E*V*E*N (had S*E*V*E*N been E*I*G*H*T), and would have, I believe, made for a better final “chapter” in that thematically organic anthology than the existing title, “The Annex.”

Paul Catlett, the story’s protagonist, is a close cousin to “Woodchuck’s” Aldo Bellinger and to Wyatt Ross in “Double Hennenframmis”: a corporate leader of questionable morals, a man who has built a business empire using any means available, legal or otherwise. In Ross’s case it was outright larceny but here Catlett skated just inside the boundaries, building “something so big there is a lot less there than meets the eye,” and he has done this by “stealing from the wolves.” As the story opens he has just completed months of preparation to unload the company onto another group of unsuspecting “wolves,” and to emerge “with enough golden booty to last [him] forever.” He is sitting in the first class section of an airliner flying from Los Angeles to New York when he is notified by a stewardess that the plane will be forced to land short of Kennedy Airport and is being diverted to Syracuse. It is then that he notices a passenger across the aisle, a “big girl, young, with a strong pale face... her hair... dark blonde, heavy and healthy.” (A MacDonald ideal from as far back as his beginnings as a writer.) As he is heading for the security check point before boarding the replacement flight he again notices the same girl, this time engaged in some sort of dispute with a security guard at the metal detector. She is triggering the device even though she is carrying no metal, and the same thing happens to Catlett. He makes a suggestion that gets them through this delay, but it is not in time and Catlett and the girl watch as their flight takes off without them.

It lifted into the clear windy night, toward a diamond sky. He turned away and suddenly she took hold of his forearm with such shocking strength it made him gasp. He turned back toward her and saw her staring, her eyes wide and mouth slack, sagging open. He thought for an instant she was having some sort of seizure, but then he looked toward [the plane] and saw a long trail of orange flame, a dirty orange that made an arc, a gentle long curve toward the ground. There was a sudden bloom of orange-and-white flame that made him think of those television pictures from the Cape, when the booster separated and it would look for a few moments as if the whole rocket had blown up. The bigger blossom of fire continued along the same arc, while smaller burning pieces fell out of it. It coasted down out of the sky and disappeared behind a distant hill, and then a bigger flare lit up all of the night. Moments later, there was an audible "Whumpf" sound that shook the big window.

Understandably upset by the tragedy, the two would-be passengers comfort each other and head for the airport bar to calm their nerves. Through their conversation they gradually learn about each other. She is Sheila Christopher, a young woman currently having an affair with a married man in New York. She was flying there to embark on a 15-day cruise with him, hoping that when they return the man will have the courage to ask his wife for a divorce. She learns that Catlett is THE Paul Catlett, CEO of CatCo, made recently famous by a day's worth of congressional hearings investigating his shady business practices. He reveals that he is married, to an unfaithful second wife, and that his trip to New York was to put an end to CatCo by putting "gravy on the blade."

"Steal from the wolves and they come after you. There is a primitive way to get rid of wolves. You freeze a very sharp knife, blade up against the ice, with a little frozen gravy on the side of the blade. The wolves lick the blade. It is so cold they can't feel it slicing their tongues. They taste fresh blood, their own, and keep at it until they swoon and freeze. While I am far away, over the icecap and the mountains, and down the other side.”

Sheila becomes philosophical about the near miss and tries to understand its meaning.

“I have the feeling that something... valuable has happened to me. I want to sort of sit back and put it together and see what it says to me. If I go rushing about, inserting myself back into place, right where I was before, then I won't know what this meant…. we’ve got this chance to change things.”

She suggests that they pool their money, hop a flight to Biloxi, "where nobody will know us or give a damn." As Catlett considers the sudden suggestion, "he felt his heart lift for the first time in a year. He felt a hollow excitement in his belly. He reached to grasp her extended, challenging hand…”

Following that ellipsis MacDonald inserts a three-asterisk section break and resumes in a disorienting place. Catlett, with Shelia not far behind him, is walking through a canvas tunnel, boarding an airplane. They are the last two passengers to get on the replacement flight from Syracuse to New York City…

Without revealing anything further for the would-be reader, let me say that this is not fantasy or science fiction. The device is used as a means to an end, which takes up the second half of “The Taste of Gravy.” and is more about Catlett’s state of mind than any airline tragedy. Shelia is not really Shelia, but Sarah, a much more interesting character. It is an extreme example of the unreliable narrator, a literary device used in all of the stories collected in S*E*V*E*N. The big difference between “The Taste of Gravy” and the other stories in that anthology is in its ending, and it is primarily for this reason that I think it would have made a better final story than “The Annex.” Perhaps MacDonald felt that way as well, and wrote “The Taste of Gravy” as a kind of “what-if” ending to his unifying theme. And while “The Annex” was one of the author’s proudest short story achievements, maybe he thought, as I do, that it was out of place in S*E*V*E*N and belonged in a more appropriate collection such as his sf anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, where is was also the final entry.

“The Taste of Gravy” has never been anthologized or reprinted, as far as I have been able to tell. Used copies of Playboy are very easy to find online and prices can be reasonable. And of course, Playboy has made its entire run available digitally in its online archive, for something like eight bucks a month. There you can read “The Taste of Gravy” and MacDonald's other four Playboy short stories, as well as an excerpt from The Lonely Silver Rain, which appeared in the March 1985 issue.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Ceylon Memories

Another busy work week has thwarted my attempts at writing my weekly blog post, so I’m going to punt and post some of John D MacDonald’s own writing.

I’m slowly developing an essay on the next JDM novel in the order I have been covering them. This one requires my normal two readings of the work, in addition to reading the magazine version and, a rarity, watching the film version of the book. It’s Soft Touch and it will take a while before I have anything ready to read. There is an aspect to the novel that was a standard background point in much of MacDonald’s work, especially in his early short stories for the pulps, and that is a character’s military past, stationed in the China Burma India theater during the Second World War. This was, of course, MacDonald’s own past, and he drew on it heavily, even up to the point of the first Travis McGee novel.

MacDonald was stationed first in India and later in Ceylon. He hated India and loved Ceylon. In 1948 he wrote a brief memoir of the island nation (now known as Sri Lanka) in his weekly newspaper column for the Clinton (NY) Courier.

We picked up some students headed down the hill toward the village the other day, and they were talking about various types of summer work and the relative merits thereof.

We were reminded of Ceylon. The army graciously dropped us into that garden spot for a time. It is a fine island. We were particularly intrigued with the type of summer work that many of the students perform.

During the spring monsoon, the heavy rains swell the streams and semi-precious stones are torn out of the mountains and carried down the steep slopes. During the summer months in the vicinity of Ratnapura, in the heart of the gem area, the streams are alive with students picking over the pebbles in search of semi-precious gems. They find topaz, blue and yellow sapphires, cat's eyes and other varieties.

We tried it. The standard technique is to find a place where a stream curves and has thus heaped up a mound of small stones. You make yourself as comfortable as possible and then start picking up likely looking rocks and holding them up toward the sun. You spin the stone in your fingers and, when you get a glint of colored light through it at any point, you stuff it in a bag.

When the day's work is done, you take the stones down to the proper alley in Ratnapura where the grinders work, You have to watch those boys.If you find something good, they are inclined to tell you it is worthless in hopes that you will throw it away where they can pick it up.

We squatted in the blazing sun for about two hours, getting very bored with the whole process of trying to look through pebbles. We must have looked through a thousand of them. Then suddenly one jagged hunk of stone gave forth a little gleam of yellow light when we held it up. We felt like a forty-niner.

Down in that alley in Ratnapura, the boys who do the grinding sit on the ground by a crude looking lathe with a grinding wheel on one end. The motive power is a bow string with rawhide. The rawhide is looped once around the lathe spindle. The bow is shoved back and forth and the grinding wheel is crudely geared so that it spins, of course, in just one direction. The end of the bow is held in the bare toes of the operator leaving both hands free to hold the stone against the wheel.

An ancient citizen took our precious rock, which we were sure was a priceless yellow sapphire, and ground it without ever seeming to look at it. It made us nervous.

Instead of a sapphire, it turned out to be topaz, about fifteen carats. And a darn poor color.

The man charged eight rupees for the grinding operation (About $2.60.) We have our topaz here and it is a thing of beauty and a joy forever -- because we found it.

Had not the army suddenly awakened to the fact that we were in a garden spot and sent along a cruel travel order, we would still be ankle deep in one of those streams near Ratnapura trying to see through pebbles and acquiring a terrific sunburn.

It is our nomination for the perfect kind of summer work.

    *    *    *

Speaking of Ceylon...

Now that we are on the subject, it is a good time to do a sales job.

Go to Ceylon!

India, to the north, is a big, dusty miserable country that gives the impression of being a circus ground the day after the circus left.

But Ceylon is a garden spot. Lord Louis Mountbatten is nobody's fool. When he was the big wheel of the South-East Asia Command, he put his headquarters right smack in Kandy in the Ceylonese Hills.

In India you are expected to at least pick up a smattering of Urdu. In Ceylon it is recognized that Sinhalese is far too difficult to learn and nobody questions some of the British that have lived there twenty years without picking up a word of Sinhalese.

It isn't as hot as India and there are miles of perfect beaches where the white surf comes rolling in and you can, with a little practice, ride a surfboard for a quarter of a mile toward the beach.

For between thirty and fifty dollars a month you can rent a huge "bungalow" on Bambalapitiya Road in Colombo. Another nine dollars will provide a cook, a houseboy and a combination chauffeur-gardener.

For recreation you can play tennis and bridge at the Garden Club, dance at a very svelte nightclub called the Silver Faun, swim at the Hotel Mont Lavinia, shop in the bazaars.

So you see, it's very simple. All you have to do is save up a hundred thousand dollars and invest it at four percent. The income will enable you to live like a little king in Ceylon for the rest of your days, where you will enjoy all the languor of a tropical island plus all the comforts of city living.
I wonder how MacDonald got that topaz home. Did he hide it in the bottom of a wax-filled canteen?