Monday, August 8, 2016

Getting Personal with John D MacDonald

It's looking like August will be a tough month for me as far as free time goes, so I may miss a week or two in posting something new to The Trap of Solid Gold. In lieu of an original piece, I present below a JDM interview conducted by the Sunday newspaper supplement Family Weekly and published in the May 5, 1985 issue, right around the time The Lonely Silver Rain was coming out. I blogged an excerpt from this interview back in 2011; here it is in its entirety.


John D. MacDonald, the suspense writer whose trademark is the Travis McGee series, attributes the popularity of his books to the nature of his stories: "I'm not interested in who but why. It's psychological depth that I'm working toward." In MacDonald's latest novel, The Lonely Silver Rain (Knopf), Travis McGee takes on a job for an old friend, a seemingly simple assignment for a pro like McGee, but the job turns into a nightmare in the treacherous world of south Florida's drug wars. For once, McGee becomes the quarry. MacDonald has published 71 novels, 5 nonfiction works, and more than 500 magazine stories. His books have sold 75 million copies worldwide. MacDonald and his wife live in Sarasota, Fla., where he was interviewed for FAMILY WEEKLY by Mark W. MacNamara.

MacNamara: Why do we love suspense novels?

MacDonald: The reader always wants to know what happens next, whether he's reading The Brothers Karamazov, David Copperfield or Hemingway. If what happens next is purely physical, then you've got Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer shooting his initials in somebody's midsection. If what happens is spiritual, maybe you're reading biblical chapters to find out what happened with Moses and the Red Sea. If it's intellectual, you're reading to find out maybe whether they are going to discover a cure for herpes. What happens next is the thing that keeps people reading, and the more important the next [thing is], then the more important the work is.

Q: Are yours great books?

MacDonald: The people that I know who write who are terribly concerned with their posthumous reputation are the people least likely to have any. I concentrate on trying to entertain the people reading the books, and if I entertain them, if I can take them out of the life they are in and move them into my environment in the novel for a couple or three hours, mission accomplished, good, that's what I want to do. I don't want to patronize them; I don't want to give them some simplistic junk. I want to have them concerned about the people they're reading about and about the world those people live in.

Q: Are you trying to change them in any way?

MacDonald: I have, let's say, certain moral values and standards that cannot help but appear in my books. I am, in a sense, Calvinistic. I think that the worst that any of us can do is hurt someone else unnecessarily, maybe just to prove that we've got the muscle to hurt them, to hurt them emotionally, to hurt their image of themselves. That to me is sin No. 1, and if that shows through in the books, if I seem to be trying to promote that as a way of life, and if a few people could be moved by it, OK.

Q What books do you read?

MacDonald: I would say that probably over half my reading is in non-fiction, but of the fiction I read, there are only a few who are tilling the same soil I am.

Q: Such as?

MacDonald: Elmore Leonard. And Robert Parker and Ross Thomas. Those three I think are the outstanding contemporary suspense novel people.

Q: How about people like Robert Ludlum?

MacDonald: No. Robert Ludlum, I think he's got a tin ear. He doesn't write good prose. John Le Carre writes good prose. Robert Ludlum plods along in the same kind of dreary style as Leon Uris. You can cover half a page and read the top half and tell exactly what the words are going to be on the bottom. There's no surprise, there's no poetry, there's no magic. He's got a great sense of story, and you can keep a work and a career going with a great sense of story, but it doesn't keep you from being guilty of having a tin ear. A tin ear usually results from a person not having read enough during his or her youth.

Q: If you had to commit a white collar crime...

MacDonald: In other words, all my morals fell in tatters around me...

Q: Exactly. . .

MacDonald: I think I would sell imaginary tax shelters to doctors... I'd go up to maybe western Pennsylvania. I'd have to start with a tiny bit of capital, enough to take an option on a defunct kind of coal mine, one of those little one or two-man operations, then I'd get some beautiful literature printed, and then I'd come down and I'd go to Orlando, Fla., and to Miami, and Ft. Pierce and Sarasota, and I would sell my private tax shelter of a great coal mine in western Pennsylvania to a bunch of urologists. It would be the easiest, safest way to run a con that I know of. Doctors are notoriously vulnerable, and doctors also hate to pay taxes on the money they make, so if you take those two things together, it would be like walking into a pasture and shooting sheep.

Q: How do you get your plots?

MacDonald: I get them everywhere. Analogy? You've got a big cauldron in the back of your head, like a big bubbling stew, and everything that's ever happened to you is in there, everything you've read, seen, touched or believed - everything is in that cauldron. When two things can be related, then they sort of, let's say, agglutinate and float up to the top of the stew where you can skim them off, and wow, there's an idea.

Q: How did you get the name Travis McGee?

MacDonald: He originally started as Dallas McGee in 1963, but then Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, so by the time the first book came out in 1964 he was Travis. I had a hell of a time finding something that seemed to me to work as well as Dallas McGee. I thought that was a nice name. Then [author] McKinley Cantor, now dead, he suggested I peruse a list of Air Force bases. He said they had some very nice names. So I found Travis base in California. So Travis McGee he became.

Q: How has your work changed over the years?

MacDonald: I think I'm simplifying. I'm trying to keep myself further out of it. And trying to get further away from the trite, the cliché. The more amateur a writer is, the more he constantly intrudes his presence on the reader's awareness. I'm trying to do clean, tight prose that isn't self-conscious.

Q: Your greatest work is still to come?

MacDonald: I think that everything I've done is sort of like one long novel and I'm just adding pieces on it. I don't think in terms of greatest, or best, or lasting or whatnot. I think in terms of what I'm about to do next and trying to make it as good as I can.

Q: How would you like to be remembered?

MacDonald: As having entertained a lot of people and given them a little different look at the world than they had before.

Monday, August 1, 2016

The Red Hot Typewriter: A Second Edition

On August 26 of this year of the John D MacDonald Centenary, a second edition of the JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter by Hugh Merrill will be re-published by Stark House Press. Stark House is a small, independent California publisher of mainly reprints of long out-of-print mystery and suspense novels from the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s. With used copies of the original hardcover Red Hot Typewriter readily available, and a digital version for sale for a mere $7.99, why should anyone bother with a new paperback version priced at $19.95?

The Stark House edition represents a significant improvement over Merrill’s original work, with additional material added and many of the author’s original errors corrected. I know this because I was involved with the editing of the new edition and made many of the corrections myself, in addition to editing and amending the book’s bibliography. I came late to the project but, thanks to the miracle of this age of computers, was able to get my contributions included just under the wire. This will be a book that everyone interested in the life and works of John D MacDonald should own.

I’ve been acquainted with Stark House for several years now and have been a member of their Crime Club book club since 2010. Their handsome editions -- usually two or three novels per volume -- line the shelves of my office and have introduced me to many of the authors of crime and suspense who were MacDonald’s contemporaries during his stand-alone era. Writers like Gil Brewer, Margaret Millar, Orrie Hitt, Day Keene, Peter Rabe, Frank Kane, Dan J Marlowe, Wade Miller and Harry Whittington were, for the most part, just names to me before I had the opportunity to actually read their works, novels written in the prime of their careers. Thanks to Stark House I now have a greater understanding of the literary world MacDonald grew up in, the kinds of books he was expected to produce, as well as just simply enjoying the hell out of reading many of these forgotten works.

I first became aware of the upcoming publication of The Red Hot Typewriter back in April, when I read about it in the monthly Stark House newsletter. I immediately contacted Stark House publisher Greg Sheppard to inquire if this was going to be a straight reprint or if additional material would be added. He informed me that the new edition would include two essays, one new and one a reprint, as well as a reprint of a JDM interview conducted back in 1984. The new essay would be written by former JDM Bibliophile editor Cal Branche and would attempt to add some literary understanding to MacDonald’s work, an element sadly lacking in the Merrill original. The other essay was Ed Gorman’s 2013 Mystery Scene article titled “My 10 Favorite John D MacDonald Standalone Novels.” The interview was also conducted by Gorman.

I also learned that Merrill, who had approved of the reprint, passed away from a heart attack in December 2015.

Through some back and forth between me and Greg I eventually ended up offering to reread the biography and provide him a list of the many errors that existed in the original text. I also offered some additional material for the bibliography of the novels and, eventually, an extensive listing of MacDonald’s short stories, something that had been completely ignored in the original. Greg was open to all of these suggestions, so I immediately set about preparing this information. Luckily I had a couple of postings for The Trap of Solid Gold already prepared and ready to post, otherwise the amount of time I spent on this project would have meant complete silence here for the past couple of weeks.

Longtime readers of this blog are no doubt aware of my many criticisms of The Red Hot Typewriter. Merrill wrote the book conducting little original research outside of mining the holdings of The John D MacDonald Collection at The University of Florida. He doesn’t seem to have read any of MacDonald’s vast short story output and relatively few of his novels. Which may have been a good thing, for when he does attempt anything close to literary criticism the results range from the superficial to the downright awful. He makes little attempt to understand or communicate the reason MacDonald’s prose was so timeless and unique, and he never bothers to delve into why JDM’s work  holds a special place in the fiction of his time. The many errors that peppered the original reveal a complete ignorance of the finer points of MacDonald’s work, from citing titles incorrectly to discussing plots that have nothing to do with the story he’s talking about. There are Wikepedia-like backgrounds on subjects ranging from the history of pulp magazines, to the early history of Sarasota, to the American thriller, to the 1952 congressional hearings on pornography in paperbacks and comic books. Most of these are several pages long and bring the narrative to a dead halt, illuminating little about John D MacDonald.

On the other hand, The Red Hot Typewriter offers the most complete, exhaustive and detailed story of the life of MacDonald, his family, his business contemporaries and friends to be found anywhere outside of a university library. Much of this story is brought to life through the thousands of letters MacDonald wrote and received throughout his lifetime, revealing his inner thoughts, hopes, ambitions and fears, so the reader gets to hear this through JDM himself. Many periods of his life, which beforehand were presented in a necessarily cursory fashion, are fleshed out and brought to life by Merrill’s research. This includes his early life, his time in the military, his sometimes-touchy relationships with family members (his sister’s story is a real tragedy), and a mid-sixties fatal attraction that may or may not have happened. My own knowledge of MacDonald’s life and background was pretty extensive after 40 years of fandom, but I learned much about the man by reading and re-reading The Red Hot Typewriter.

I wrote in my 2009 piece on the biography that, despite its shortcomings, The Red Hot Typewriter was “the single most complete story of [MacDonald’s] life and, as such, belongs in every MacDonald fan’s library.” I’ll repeat that claim here and double down on it thanks to the additional material Stark House has added. While the two Ed Gorman entries are both readily available to anyone with an internet connection, the excellent essay by Cal Branche and the additional bibliographic material, not to mention the correction of the errors found in the original, all make this an edition that really should be on every MacDonald fan’s bookshelf.

The Red Hot Typewriter can be purchased, on or after August 26, through the publisher’s website, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and even at your local well-stocked bookstore (they still have those, don’t they?).

Monday, July 25, 2016

Exit Laughing: How To Catch Snook!

Writer, humorist and fishing enthusiast Ed Zern (1910 - 1994) began writing a column for Field & Stream in 1958, a gig that would last for the next 35 years. It almost always appeared on the magazine's last page and was read by millions over the years. In the March 1985 issue Zern recalled a letter he received years before from fellow writer and sometimes-correspondent John D MacDonald. The title of this particular column was "How To Catch Snook!" and I've transcribed it in its entirety below. It reveals a favorite JDM passtime he enjoyed in the afternoons after a day of writing.

On my way down to San Antonio last December to attend the annual meeting of the Winchester Irregulars, I picked up the in flight magazine of American Airlines and on page 21 read an interesting but presumptuous piece by Isaac Asimov on deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the incredible molecule whose structure controls the physical characteristics of all living things. In the opening paragraph I found this statement: "Since every living thing is at least slightly different from every other living thing, and in some cases very different (you may be slightly different in appearance from your father but you are very different in appearance from an oak tree), this must come about because the DNA molecule is different in structure in different living things."

Hoo boy! This Asimov, without ever having laid eyes on me, says I look very different from an oak tree! Well the fact is, buster, I look amazingly like an oak tree, On several occasions I have been attacked by woodsmen with double-bitted axes. Twice, I have been inadvertently sprayed for tent caterpillars. I have had several severe attacks of oak gall. Young lovers keep trying to carve their initials into me. The mere glimpse of a lumberyard depresses me for hours. Birds often to to build nests on me, and Boy Scouts frequently look at my lower portion to see where the moss grows, and find north.. Termites terrify me. When I suffer from hives, it's because bees have mistaken me for a bee tree. So much for science writers.


Annoyed, I switched to reading a fairly recent Travis McGee novel by my favorite murder-mystery writer, John D. MacDonald, and was reminded by a McGee reference to sailfishing that John lived in Sarasota during the 1950’s and was a devout snook fisherman when not at his typewriter. He wrote to me one time, during that decade to tell me that his wife routinely asked, "What did you catch?" when he came back from the inlet, and that he was almost always obliged to say, "One snook," or "Two snook," or "Five snook," and kept hoping that some other make of fish would ingest his lure, as he felt sure his wife was getting awfully bored hearing the same old reply day after day.


Then recently, he wrote, he was fishing a feathered leadhead jig with a light spinning rod and when the monofilament snarled on the reel the jig sank and caught fast on the bottom. He said he pulled cautiously on the 6-pound line and finally managed to beach a barnacle-covered piece of pottery which appeared to be a chamber pot. A few minutes after he had unhooked the crockery and resumed fishing, he made a long, high cast and a low-flying pelican flew into the monofilament, which wrapped around its wing and brought it plunging into the water. It took him 10 minutes to play the bird onto the beach and get it calmed down sufficiently to untangle the line and release it. While he was so engaged, a pod of commercial fishermen came by and one of them said to John, "Watch this." He took the pelican's beak in his hand and walked it up and down the beach for about 2 minutes, holding the beak pointed skyward. When another of the group said, "He's about done," the bird was turned loose. Instead of flying away, John wrote, the pelican put the point of his beak into the sand and stood staring at the ground for about 5 minutes. When one of the fishermen walked over and booted it gently in the fuselage, it looked up with a hey-where-am-I look of amazement, then flew off.


While this was going on an elderly onlooker came over and asked John what he was fishing for. When John said snook, the oldtimer said, "You'll never get no big snook on that little-bitty outfit. There's some real big snook in here, but you'd never hold 'em on line that light." John tried to explain that with a spinning reel (at that time still fairly newfangled) it would be awfully difficult for even a 30-pound snook to break off if properly handled, and when the geezer scoffed, John bet him a quarter he couldn't break the 6-pound line. "Take that jig," John said, “and make like you're a big snook. You've got 5 minutes to break off, any way except running out all the line." The oldtimer agreed, and for five minutes ran up and down the beach yanking and hauling on the line while John played him carefully. When the time was up the guy paid him the two bits and John went back to his apartment. When he walked in the door his wife said, "What did you catch?", and John was happy to be able to answer, "An old man, a pelican, and. a chamber pot." He said it was one of the best days he ever had, and that he was tempted to enter all three catches in the local fishing-rodeo under the unusual-species category, but had neglected to weigh and measure them.



On arriving at Stan Studer's ranch on the South Fork of the Frio I enthusiastically fell in with evil companions including not only the Studers pere et fils but wildlife painter Guy Coheleach, rancher Herb Toombs, publisher and pistoleer Steve Ferber, sporting-art collector George Coe, big-game hunter Jim Midcap, defrocked tennis pro Jimmy Moses, Gamecoin founder Harry Tennison, and sundry other Irregulars, and not long thereafter somehow found myself tramping with several accomplices across a stubble field stiff with bobwhite quail, just behind a nifty brace of well-trained Brittanys and just ahead of a safari truck carrying an eight-piece mariachi band which struck up "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (I think it was) each time the dogs went on point, which was frequently. I missed one going-away bobwhite, but ascribed it to the E string of the bass fiddle being slightly flat.


The annual meeting was dull. As chairman of the Genealogical Committee, I proposed doing an analysis of Steve Ferber's ancestry, to be titled "Ferber's Forebears" (or, if pursued in sufficient depth, "Ferber's Fur-Bearing Forebears"), but a motion by pecan magnate Bob Leonard to disband the Committee was seconded and passed before I could rise to a point of order.

Monday, July 18, 2016

John D & Me: Elmore Leonard

This coming Sunday will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of John D MacDonald. A big celebration is planned for the preceding Saturday at the Selby County Library in Sarasota, sponsored by One Book One Community and featuring the dedication of a plaque in Five Points Park, dramatic readings from JDM’s writings, Cal and Nola Branche reading the wartime letters of John and Dorothy, a speech by the Sarasota mayor, and a JDM Tribute Committee that includes authors John Jakes, Tim Dorsey, Craig Pittman, and two of MacDonald’s grandchildren.

For those of us who live outside Florida and who won’t be able to make it to the big shebang (that includes me, alas), the first six months of this centenary year have been a godsend of JDM delights in the form of a weekly guest column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune titled John D and Me, featuring (primarily) contemporary authors big and small, all writing about the important influence MacDonald had on their own writing. Everyone from Jakes and Stephen King to Randy Wayne White and PJ Parrish, they have been, almost uniformly, delightful reminiscences of both personal encounters with JDM and recollections of how picking up a John D MacDonald novel changed their lives. It will be sad to see the series end on July 24.

One author who probably would have been happy to write a column about JDM is Elmore Leonard, who passed away in 2013. In lieu of that never-to-be-written piece, I thought it would be fun to present a substitute, one that reads almost like it might have been written for the John D and Me series. It comes from an interview the author gave on the NPR program All Things Considered back in December of 1986 on the occasion of MacDonald’s passing.

All Things Considered: Novelist John D MacDonald talked with us four years ago about his craft -- about leaving much of the story to the imagination of the reader. This is what he said:

“I had the feeling that if I can describe a typical scene like say I have my guys in Texas and they’re in a motel room and all I have to describe is the clattery, bangety-bang old air conditioner and maybe a big stain that’s run down the wall from the air conditioner like the shape of the bottom half of the map of Texas, and the reader, having been in those kinds of motel rooms, will create the rest of it for himself even to the odors thereof.”

John D MacDonald died over the weekend of complications after heart surgery. Elmore Leonard joins us now from Birmingham, Michigan. Leonard is a crime writer who studied MacDonald’s work. He says he knew MacDonald was in poor health.

Elmore Leonard: I was looking through my correspondence. John and I have been corresponding since ‘82 and I have a letter where it says here, “September 1, 1986,” and he says “I’m winding up this and that in preparation for a trip to a veritable garden spot -- Milwaukee -- where a Doctor Dudley Johnson is going to do bypass surgery. There seems to be a lot of it going around. [Author James] Michener just had one. I wouldn’t want to feel left out.” That’s the last line.

ATC: How sad! John D MacDonald seemed to a reader -- I had never met him -- seemed to be having a great deal of fun being the sort of writer that he was. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Do you think that’s true?

EL: I’m sure he had a good time because I think his attitude came through in his novels, certainly in the Travis McGee books, without being really too intrusive. They’re a part of the story which made the characters more lifelike -- made them alive. He said in one of his letters back in 1982 “The college-age people look at me with incredulity when I tell them I’m still trying to make the stuff better. If there was such a thing as total objectivity, there would be no bad books written or published and no bad plays produced. I tell them I am trying to make the author ever more invisible and keep the words and sentences shorter without triteness.”

ATC: I bet he would get insulted when people would insinuate simply because he sold almost one hundred million books that it was somehow easy writing what he did.

EL: Yeah, that happened. The same thing happened with John O’Hara. The fact that he was so prolific, that he wrote so many short stories and books that means that perhaps he shouldn’t be taken seriously. And O’Hara said, “Well, that’s what I do. I’m a writer.” And that’s exactly what MacDonald did. The fact that he did what? Five hundred short stories and 70 novels -- it’s unbelievable. But he stayed at it. That’s what he did. He didn’t talk about it.

ATC: There’s a quotation in the New York Times today from Professor Robin Winks of Yale with these phrases about MacDonald’s work. “He wrote books that contained the near randomness of honesty, and also the persistence of evil. The books would remind you of how bad things could be if you ventured past a certain line and also how good people could be when under pressure.”

EL: That’s what I think attracted me to him back in the ‘50’s. When I worked I studied him, among other writers. But I studied him in particular in that he was writing crime stories. But I was also attracted to the fact that he used people who were real. They were everyday sorts of people who find themselves in some sort of a deadly situation. They were so life-like. His bad guys were not all bad and his good people were not all good and I think that was quite an influence on my work.

ATC: Elmore Leonard, talking about writer John D MacDonald who died Sunday in Milwaukee at the age of 70...

Monday, July 11, 2016

"Labor Supply"

John D MacDonald’s relatively brief interest in writing science fiction began and ended in the earliest years of his career. If we focus on the stories that appeared in the science fiction pulps and digests of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s we can spot his entry point in February of 1948 (“Cosmetics”) followed by nine more stories that year. The following two years saw the publication of 30 science fiction tales before tailing off in 1951 (seven) and 1952 (two). By 1953 he could manage only one story, his last in the digests, before ending the relationship altogether. And although he continued to write science fiction sporadically throughout the balance of his career, he never returned to the magazines that concentrated on this form of fiction.

Ironically, his last story, “Labor Supply,” was his first to appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a relatively new title that had published its first issue in 1949. The brainchild of editors J Francis McComas and Anthony Boucher, F&SF (as it is typically referred to) sought to raise the bar on the literary quality of science fiction. As Brian Stableford put it in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), “It’s editors abandoned the standards of pulp fiction and asked for sf and fantasy that was well-written and stylish, up to the literary standards of the slick magazines which had shaped American short-story writing between the wars.” Toward this end they abandoned story art and double columns, and concentrated on the short story as opposed to the novellas and serialized novels that were the standard fare of the pulps. Some truly great science fiction and fantasy appeared on the pages of F&SF over the years, including early versions of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, published in the magazine as “Starship Soldier”. The issue where “Labor Supply” was published (May 1953) included two short story classics: Boucher’s “Snelbug” (a reprint) and Ward Moore’s “Lot,” which, along with its sequel “Lot’s Daughter” served as the uncredited inspiration for the 1962 cult film Panic in the Year Zero.

Another trait of the magazine was its frequent use of “light and humorous material,” and one can certainly classify “Labor Supply” as one of those types of stories. More fantasy than science fiction, its subject matter includes dreams, psychology, telepathy and, quite possibly, life in another dimension, written in a breezy and  informal style the author employed frequently when he was being only half-serious.

"Labor Supply" opens in the psychiatric offices of a Dr. Vrees, who is seeing a pair of patients with an unusual problem. Robert Smith and Ruth Jones are engaged to be married. Both are specimens of good health: Robert is six-foot-four, "muscled like a stereotype picture of a Viking," well off financially with above average intelligence. His fiancee Ruth is equally robust, beautiful and "built on the same heroic scale... at least six feet tall, and proud of it, moving like a ship under a full head of sail." They are here because, every night, they have been dreaming the same dream. But not just any dream.

"There doesn't seem to be any pattern to them, exactly" [explains Ruth.] "And they aren't all really alike, Just the place is alike every time, So very hot, you know. And have you ever looked in one of those mirrors where you can duplicate yourself, so you see a whole line, and they're all you?... That's the way it is. There are just hundreds and thousands of me, and of Robert too. And working so terribly hard. All naked and toiling. And crying, sometimes. There are corridors, and you have to walk down them all bent over. But the new corridors are better. You can stand up in those. We're making them.[We use tools] like gold pencils with two little clocks on one side. They cut the stone and the stone is all blue. Really blue. Cobalt, I guess. And the stones have to be put in baskets. Those baskets hang in the air and when you load them up they sink almost to the floor. When you pull the first one, all the others follow it like... animals. And we have to dump them down a dark place. You never hear them hit bottom."

When pressed about the people who are forcing all these Roberts and Ruths to labor endlessly, she explains matter-of-factually "They're... gnomes. You know. Little gnarly men with squatty legs and lumpy red faces and hats that come to peaks and they wear soft green... They make a funny sound... Sort of whoop, whoop."

Dr. Vrees, who has a long-standing predilection for tall women and is half-smitten by Ruth, suggests a possible sexual connotation, positing that the couple's "sublimation" of their normal instincts toward each other (refraining from sex, in 1950's-talk) might be causing the dual dreams. After stating bluntly that she and Robert are not "sublimating anything," she explains what happens when the workday is done in the dreamland.

"... they herd us into a sleeping place. There's a feeding place, where we eat something wet and gray, and then there's a sleeping place. And in the sleeping place all those thousands of Roberts and the thousands of me, we all..." She covered her eyes, sat with her head bowed.

Dr. Vrees goes through a litany of possible explanations, all rooted in the popular psychiatric fads of the day, even postulating a possible "channel" between her and Robert's minds. When Ruth tells him that in the most recent dreams all of the other Ruths are pregnant, he pounces on this fact as latent jealousy Robert might have had in childhood toward his many siblings and promises that a few months of psychoanalysis should fix things.

But nothing does work, and it is months later when Dr. Vrees, while chatting with a physicist at his club, hears another possible explanation that is more incredible than even mind channeling…

“Labor Supply” is an enjoyable story with a neat ending that is far from predictable. It reads like a lot of other semi-serious JDM pieces: think of “Hole in None,” “But Not to Dream” and most of his early This Week stories. A fitting way to walk off the science fiction stage.

The Anthony Boucher-John D MacDonald connection, of course, didn’t begin with “Labor Supply.” Boucher’s science fiction career began in 1941 with the publication of “Snulbug” in the science fiction pulp Universe and a year later he landed a gig with the San Francisco Chronicle writing reviews of science fiction novels. As such he certainly knew of MacDonald and likely had read most of his science fiction output in the pulps and digests. In fact, one of the earliest book reviews MacDonald ever received in a major newspaper was written by Boucher, writing under his pseudonym H.H. Holmes in the New York Herald Tribune, a mainly favorable one for Wine of the Dreamers in 1951. (The name “Anthony Boucher” was itself a pseudonym: his real name was William Anthony Parker White.) Boucher was also a huge fan of mystery fiction and a writer of the same. His early novels, predating “Snulbug,” are all mysteries and by the time “Labor Supply” hit the newsstands he was reviewing mystery novels in a weekly column in the Sunday New York Times. His first review of a JDM mystery was for Dead Low Tide, and thereafter he rarely missed including any JDM paperback original in “Criminals at Large.” He had a huge impact in spreading the word on MacDonald’s work and it’s a safe assertion to make that he was JDM’s biggest and most influential literary cheerleader in the 1950’s.

“Labor Supply” has been reprinted only once, in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. That collection is out of print and is not available (yet) as an eBook. Thankfully, used copies of the paperback original are easy to find.


Monday, July 4, 2016

"Salute to Courage"

I do not hunt. We do not kill snakes. Dorothy carries housebound bugs into the great outdoors for release but is pure hell on a clothes moth. We trap whitefoot mice in our Adirondack camp and hate doing it. We both enjoy sports fishing. And we are both aficionados of the bull ring. Were the horses unpadded, we wouldn’t be. I am not interested in arguing these inconsistencies with anyone.

-- John D MacDonald, The House Guests, 1965

John D MacDonald’s long love affair with the sacrificial ritual of bullfighting began with the family’s first stay in Mexico, starting in late 1948 and ending in the summer of 1949. And while this period of his life was likely the first chance he had to witness the spectacle first hand, he probably  held romantic notions toward it through his adulation of the works of Ernest Hemingway, whose Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises both reveal that particular author’s own respect for the sport. While living in Cuernavaca during those early years of his writing career MacDonald and wife Dorothy traveled to Mexico City several times to witness toreo in the newly built Plaza de Toros, then (and still) the largest bullring in the world. One of the books in JDM’s personal library was Rex Smith’s 1957 study Biography of the Bulls: An Anthology of Spanish Bullfighting, which ended up as part of the author’s estate sale. A bullfighter is a peripheral character in his 1952 novel The Damned and several of his other novels contain references to the special qualities of the matador, including The Empty Trap, A Tan and Sandy Silence, A Deadly Shade of Gold and Bright Orange for the Shroud.

MacDonald wrote at least two short stories about bullfighting. The first was titled “Tank-Town Matador” and it appeared in the July 1949 issue of Argosy. The second appeared in one of the sports pulps, the April 1951 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories. MacDonald called it “The Lonely Journey,” but the FSS editors changed the title to “Salute to Courage.”

Those not familiar with the standard fare of the sports pulps may think nothing of a story about bullfighting appearing in the pages of one of these periodicals, but it was in fact a great rarity. In John Dinan’s excellent 1998 book on sports pulps (Sports in the Pulp Magazines), he categorizes the kinds of sports written about in one of the seminal sports titles, Street and Smith’s Sport Story Magazine. He tabulated 478 stories about baseball over the magazine’s 20-year run, 363 with boxing as background, 259 about football and 117 about tennis. There are multiple instances of sports such as car racing, bowling, swimming, bicycle racing, lacrosse and even ski jumping serving as the subject matter for the contents of this pulp, but not one story about bullfighting. In a check of my own modest collection of sports pulps, bullfighting also comes up a blank. After all, it is questionable that most of the readership for these kinds of pulps would have had any interest in the unique, specialized artform of the corrida de toros. In fact, most latinos don’t consider it a sport, but more of an artform, an aesthetic and emotional experience that, when conducted by a superior matador, is a transformative experience. In 1932 Hemingway wrote, “Bullfighting is not a sport. It was never supposed to be. It is a tragedy. A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull. It is played in three definite acts.”

MacDonald certainly felt this way, and it explains how an author with strong interests in conservation and ecology could embrace the form.

“Salute to Courage” is a coming-of-age story, more interesting in its observations of  the details of a young man’s first bullfight than it is in narrative or characterization. Its plot is obvious and its conclusion foregone, but mood and a sense of anticipation and fear are well imagined and executed. And it comes close to relaying a sense of the torero and the capture it has on its audience.

Seventeen year old Augustin Galvez lives with his family in an adobe hut near a small village eleven miles outside the city of Oaxaca. He awakens one Sunday morning and finds the hut is empty, his sister Rosalinda down at a nearby stream, his parents and three other siblings at early Mass. He begins to run toward his sister but quickly slows his pace as he remembers that this is a special day, one requiring great dignity. As he walks he sees the rest of his family approaching up the dirt road, his younger brothers and sisters oddly shy toward him. "Yesterday Augustin had been a familiar one with whom they could romp and play. Today all had changed. Today Augustin Galvez would enter the bullring at Oaxaca."

Augustin’s father had once been a matador, fighting under the name Banderillero, and he fought alongside the immortal Ramon Gaona before being gored in the leg by a great black Miura bull. As the family reaches Augustin he father takes him aside.

"It has been many years, eh? Perhaps it is all a selfishness on my part. To have a son do what I could not do. I had a certain skill with the banderillas, no more. My son, you have fought well the calves at the tientas. You have grace. I do not know if you have courage. I have taught you how to know the bulls, how to watch for their faults and virtues. But knowledge is nothing without courage. Today we will learn."

Father and son take the bus to to the city and are met by the Señor  Pimental, whose son Peralta is also fighting today, a young prodigy who has developed a following after killing three bulls in previous matches. There is a third matador on the bill, Vizcainas, another young novillero (novice) who Señor Pimental refers to as "a clown." Augustin is told that everyone coming today are here to see his son, but there is a small contingent of fans from Augustin’s village as well.

Vizcainas is the first to fight and Pimental’s description of him is borne out. The novillero’s passes are fluid but he works too far from the bull to elicit any excitement from the crowd. When the final portion of the fight, the faena, begins, it is apparent just how bad Vizcainas is.

It was a miserable faena, combining an inept torero with an unstable animal. All he could do was chop the beast to the left and to right with the small cape, without grace, without great danger, without any poetry. He went in soon to kill and he tried to thrust the sword and run away at the same time. He killed miserably in the fifth attempt and left the ring with an enormous chorus of whistles and catcalls.

Then it is Peralta’s turn, and Augustin sees why he has become popular with the crowd so quickly.

He was a puro fanatico, with passes that were too fast, too jerky, too unpractical -- yet working close to the animal every second, gaining tremendous emotion through the almost visible flare of his dedicated personality. It was only in the kill that he had grace... The sword sank cleanly. The animal went three paces and dropped.

Now it is Augustin’s turn and he feels what little courage he may have had quickly escaping him.

[He] wished that at that moment he could drop dead. He wanted some grotesque force to reverse the plaza clock so that the hands would begin to turn backward. He could not see the animal clearly as it came out. It seemed supernaturally fast.

Augustin’s performance makes Vizcainas look like a pro, as he seems unable to control his feet, stepping away from the charging bull with every pass. His eyes filled with tears at his inability to control his fear, and the crowd is merciless.

[They] screamed at him, calling clown and coward. The feet danced blithely, endlessly, gayly, always taking him back from the horns as the animal charged. Seat cushions rained down on him. One struck him in the small of the back, almost thrusting him forward on to the horns, and the crowd chanted a sardonic, "Olé!"

His kill is equally inept, chasing the veering bull around the ring until the creature is too exhausted to move.

Augustin leaves the ring and goes to his father, whose face is “the color of wax” and whose effort to smile reassuringly painful.

"The next one will be better, Augustin, my son."

"Papa, can I not go home? Can I not let someone take my second bull?"

This does not please his father and it is up to Augustin to do better the second time around.

As one can read from the excerpts above, MacDonald employs an almost affected style for “Salute to Courage,” a third person limited narration that has the sound of a Spanish translation. A common device, MacDonald has a special talent for employing this narrative technique for all of his people, and it works especially well in the multi-character books such as The Damned and Please Write for Details, both of which have sections inside the heads of Spanish speaking individuals.

There are a couple of very nice passages in other JDM novels containing references to the special qualities of the matador. In The Empty Trap Lloyd Wescott, while recuperating in the isolated Mexican village where he has been nursed him back to health, ruminates on the special qualities of the Mexican people, made unique by the combinations of the blood of the European Spanish and the American Aztecs.

Two bloods, and a code of blood. The sand of Mexico had quickly soaked up the steaming blood of honor for many years. A land of pride and of quick violence without mercy. Also a land of sullenness and the glorification of death. A land where they ate candy skulls, where brass marched in the funerals of children, where fireworks exploded under church pews on Christmas morning, a land where a baker from Monterrey, a bullfighter of neither nerve, grace nor talent, can finally achieve his goal of performing in the Plaza Mexico and filling its fifty-five thousand seats by a public proclamation of his intention to permit his first bull to kill him.

And Travis McGee, contemplating the possible life of an aging kept man with super-rich widow Jillian Brent-Archer in A Tan and Sandy Silence, engages in an imaginary conversation with Papa Hemingway and realizes that his time on this planet could quickly come to an end.

If I don't grasp the opportunity, somebody will find some quick and dirty way to let the sea air through my skull.

I'm overdue. That's what Meyer says, and that's what my gut says in a slow cold coil of tingling viscera. Overdue, and scared, and not ready for the end of it yet. The old bullfighters who have known the famous rings and famous breeds despise the little country corridas, because they know that if they do not quit, that is where they will die -- and the bull that hooks their steaming guts out onto the sand will be a poor animal without class or distinction or style.

“Salute to Courage” has, to the best of my knowledge, been reprinted only once, in the October 1952 issue of the Australian men’s magazine Cavalcade. That is the version I own and must assume that it is identical to the original in Fifteen Sports Stories.

Illustration from the Cavalcade reprint