Friday, November 20, 2009

"Looie Follows Me"

When John D MacDonald decided, relatively late in life, to write fiction for a living, he took the approach that it was a real job, requiring discipline and hard work. Writing short stories exclusively, he worked "14 hours a day, seven days a week, lost 20 pounds, and collected almost 1,000 rejection slips."(Shine) Over 800,000 unsellable words. MacDonald once characterized this output sarcastically as "wonderful stuff about dying blind musicians," and as soon as he began selling stories to the pulps, he took these unsold manuscripts out into the back yard and burned them all. That MacDonald began his writing career attempting to produce "serious" mainstream fiction is not surprising. After all, his first piece that sold was not a mystery or science fiction tale, but a work that was purchased by Story Magazine ("Interlude In India"). When he began making sales to the Pulps he wrote almost exclusively for those types of magazines.

Almost.

His earliest stories were published in a cheap literary magazine (The American Courier) and, scattered among the numerous sales to magazines like Doc Savage, The Shadow and Dime Detective, he made sales to mainstream "slicks" like Liberty, Esquire and Cosmopolitan. So it's not surprising to see a story like "Looie Follows Me," a tale completely devoid of mystery, murder or private detectives, appear in a mainstream magazine like Collier's in August 1947. It's a wonderfully evocative tale of childhood, and of a particular summer when a young guest came to stay.

Jimmy Baker is about to turn 11 and lives with his parents and five-year old sister Looie in a large house in the country, about twelve miles from town. After being told that he won't be going to camp this summer, and resigning himself to a season of having Looie follow him around everywhere he goes, his parents tell him they have a surprise for him. That surprise shows up in the form of 12-year old Johnny Wotnack, a tough, inner-city kid who has come to the country as part of the Fresh Air Kids program, and who is scheduled to be a guest in the house for a couple of weeks. MacDonald's description of him could have come from one of his crime stories:

"[T]here was an air of cold disdain about him, a superior condescension. He was almost thin, and his face had a seamed grayish look, like that of a midget I saw once at the sideshow. His hands were huge, with big blocky knuckles... There were two deep scars on the back of his right hand, and one finger was crooked. To me he was a perfect example of urbanity and sophistication."

The language MacDonald puts in Johnny's mouth seems, at first , to be almost comically tough. When Mrs. Baker looks behind one of Johnny's ears for dirt after he first arrives, he flinches and barks, "What's the gag?" When asked why he won't drink his milk, he responds, "Never could get used to the taste of the stuff." And when little Looie first addresses him by his preferred name -- Stoney -- he replies "That's right, doll." On his first day as guest he immediately goes out behind the big barn and lights up a cigarette, asking "What's to do around this dump, Jim?" The first time I read "Looie Follows Me" it immediately called to mind an old Little Rascals short titled Free Eats, where the gang helps capture a couple of midget gangsters who spout off such classic Thirties tough-guy lines like "Beat it, sister!", "Aw, go chase yourself!" and "Say, flatfoot! Call your shots!"

After asking to read a crime-oriented comic book and being told that Jimmy's parents only allow cowboy stories, Stoney reacts disdainfully, "Them big fairies in the pink shirts give me the itch."

Stoney's is supremely bored in the country, until he goes into the barn and rigs up a makeshift punching bag. He tells Jimmy "Little workout's a good thing... Another couple years and I try the geegees... Golden Gloves, kid. That's the life... better than lugging a shine box around in front a the Forty-Second Street Library." He spends a couple hours every day punching the bag, then morosely slips back into his silent shell, walking around the place with Looie following him.

There are a couple of bully neighbor boys who live in the place next door on the other side of an orchard. The first time they come bounding over the hill to the Baker place, neighing loudly like horses, Stoney looks up from his chores and said "one short word under his breath. I saw that word once, chalked on a fence. I had wondered how to say it"

The rest of the story is, well, predictable, yet well written, touching and deeply satisfying. It's one of MacDonald's best.


When "Looie Follows Me" was sold to Collier's in 1947, the MacDonalds had moved to Mexico to live, as their precarious finances required an affordable locale. In his forward to End of the Tiger and Other Stories, MacDonald recalls that the payment for "Looie" was the largest he had received up to that time. "It was the first check I had received with four figures to the left of the decimal point. It seemed incredible to be paid so well for something I so enjoyed doing, and which gave me so much satisfaction when the words went especially well together. I still have that feeling, but on that day it was wonderfully enhanced."

I've often wondered how much of "Looie Follows Me" is autobiographical. MacDonald grew up in a "cocoon of middle-class respectability," according to his biographer Hugh Merrill, and the family unit was identical to the Bakers: Father, Mother, and younger sister. The locale of the story could be the MacDonalds' house in Sharon, Pennsylvania, their summer home in Orangeville, Ohio, or their home in Utica, New York, where the family moved to when John was nine. Like Jimmy Baker, John was the victim of bullies, including, most memorably, "Ralph," who once forced a nine-year old MacDonald to assist him in the killing of a cat. Whether autobiographical or not, the story rings with nostalgia for the simple days of youth.

It is odd, therefore, that Merrill, while citing the story specifically in his The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D MacDonald, makes it clear that he didn't bother to read it. He calls it "a story about big-city gangsters," and even misspells the title as "Louie Follows Me." He then goes on to quote MacDonald's tale of the four-figure check. The book is otherwise well researched (although apparently no primary research of any kind was done) and worth seeking out... I can only chalk it up to an editorial oversight.

Outside of its original appearance in Collier's, "Looie Follows Me" has only been anthologized once (as far as I can determine), in MacDonald's End of the Tiger.

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