Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Dear Old Friend"

John D MacDonald had five short stories published in Playboy magazine, the first in 1967 and the last in 1974. Four of these five stories are included in his second anthology, S*E*V*E*N (1971). Interestingly, a year before that first story was published, MacDonald -- speaking through his most famous character Travis McGee in One Fearful Yellow Eye -- had some insightful and not very complimentary things to say about Hugh Hefner, the magazine and the Playboy Philosophy:

... the Hefner Empire seems to represent some sort of acme of sophistication, based as it is upon fantastic centerfold mammalians for the pimpled self-lovers, upon a chain of bunny-warrens styled to make the middle-class sales manager feel like a member of an in-group, and upon a laborious philosophical discourse which runs interminably in the ad-happy magazine and in the polysyllabic style of the pseudo-educated, carrying the deathless message that it is healthy to screw and run if everybody is terrible sincere about it.

One wonders if he had a change of heart once the checks started rolling in... (and Playboy paid top-dollar for fiction back in the day).

"Dear Old Friend" (1970) is the third of these stories to have appeared among the pages of the "centerfold mammalians," and it is a nifty little tale, clocking in at a mere 1,800 words. It is told in the form of a Dictaphone transcription and the attempts of the speaker to fashion an acceptable letter to an old friend and business partner who has turned up after an absence of seven years. The tape is complete with the narrator's instructions to his secretary, and the fourth (and final) draft is printed in actual letter form. With an astonishing degree of economy, MacDonald draws a portrait of an old friendship and how that friendship broke, at first warmly reminiscent (in the first draft), then progressively more defensive and bitter, until the final letter is as cold and as official as a legal document. It's all about money, of course.

MacDonald shows off his financial knowledge here.. he did, after all, attend the Wharton Business School and had a Harvard MBA, yet he does so understandably, as making sense of the transaction being requested is key to comprehending the plot. Yet what's amazing here is how JDM so beautifully crafts character and background in a story of less than 2,000 words, and does so within the restrictive structure of the form he chose. His ability at storytelling is breathtaking, and by 1970 he was at the top of his game.

S*E*V*E*N is out of print, but can be found through nearly any online used bookseller.

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