Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Red Hot Typewriter

There was great anticipation in the world of MacDonald fandom toward the end of the last century when it was learned that a new, full-scale biography of JDM was being written. Up to that point the life of our favorite writer had been given rather short shrift, despite the fact that his meticulously-kept records were all housed by the University of Florida and available for study by any reviewer. The few biographical works that had been produced before 2000 were cursory and lacked depth. Walter and Jean Shine's 1980 Bibliography/Biography was little more than an outline, with the narrative portions of MacDonald's life taking up a mere six pages of that 209-page work. In 1982 David Geherin, an English professor at Eastern Michigan University, published John D. MacDonald, a 194-page work of mostly plot synopses and brief literary analysis; the biographical portion of the book filled a single 10-page chapter. In 1985, a highly-anticipated biography written by the editor of the JDM Bibliophile, Ed Hirshberg, was released. Despite the fact that Professor Hirshberg had direct access to the subject and to the Collection, the book he produced was a major disappointment, containing nothing new about MacDonald that wasn't already known to the readers of the BIB. It was filled with dull plot discussions and paid surprisingly little attention to MacDonald's short story output.

In 2000 Thomas Dunne Books published The Red Hot Typewriter: The Life and Times of John D. MacDonald, written by Hugh Merrill, a Journalism professor at Georgia State University. This was the book we had been waiting for... only it wasn't.

Make no mistake, this is far and away the best, most complete and meticulously researched biography ever produced about JDM, although it has little competition in that department. Merrill, who had previously authored a history of the early days of Esquire magazine, made full use of the JDM Collection. Unfortunately, that seems to have been about it. He did no original research for this book, in that he quotes voluminously from letters, manuscripts and previous sources, but has interviewed no one connected to MacDonald's life, and offers little insight into why MacDonald was a popular author. One would think that MacDonald's son Maynard would have at least been contacted, but that does not appear to be the case. The book reads to me like the work of a team of researchers hired by a would-be biographer to provide a starting point for the real work of writing a biography.

There are some errors that seem to indicate Merrill never read some of the more important of JDM's stories. "Looie Follows Me," famously referred to in the introduction of End of the Tiger and Other Stories, is misspelled and the description provided has nothing to do with the actual story. "Interlude In India," MacDonald's famous first story sold to Story magazine, is listed in the Bibliography under "Articles." Weep For Me doesn't appear to have actually been read, although he singles it out, and he seems to be unaware that Wine of the Dreamers originally appeared in a magazine as a novella, or that it was MacDonald's very first hardcover publication. The two Good Old Stuff anthologies are missing from the list of "Works by John D. MacDonald" in the bibliography, yet The Lethal Sex is included. The bulk of MacDonald's pre-1957 novels (from Dead Low Tide to Soft Touch -- 19 books) are reduced to a single paragraph on page 91, and he later states that the film version of Darker Than Amber was released as Dress Her In Amber. Where did he get that?!

He repeats the canard that "John D, MacDonald couldn't write a sex scene," which, to me, is the same thing as saying that Ernst Lubitsch couldn't film a sex scene. We're talking about a gifted writer here, not Harold Robbins. Again, did Merrill even read any of the early books?

Still, this is the best we have and there is a lot of new information here that MacDonald fans should be grateful for. The biggest revelation is the discovery of a letter from MacDonald's wife Dorothy to an unhappy and discouraged John when he was overseas in the military during World War II, encouraging him to write fiction. "If you just wrote it down and sent it home," she wrote, "... I could save it for you, because it might be useful to you later." As Merrill correctly points out, MacDonald always claimed he wrote "Interlude in India" because "censorship wouldn't allow him to communicate anything else." It's a major revelation.

He relates the details of a perceived affair -- apparently one-sided-- between MacDonald and the wife of author Bordon Deal that I had never heard of. It is entertaining reading and reveals a side of MacDonald I didn't know existed. It reads like a fatal attraction story, and "the affair" appears to have never been consummated.

The final years of MacDonald's life are nicely covered, in good detail, including the death of MacDonald's sister Doris, from alcoholism. JDM's son Maynard is fleshed out for the first time ever.

The book includes only a single photograph, a headshot of MacDonald as a frontispiece, despite the fact that the family left tens of thousands of photographs with the University of Florida. This is probably something to blame the publisher for, not Merrill.

The great John D MacDonald biography is still waiting to be written. I've heard mention of just such a work, supposedly to be released this year, but I can find nothing official about it. The Red Hot Typewriter, with all its shortcomings, will do until something better comes along. For now, it is the single most complete story of the man's life and, as such, belongs in every MacDonald fan's library. It's no longer in print but readily available from used booksellers.

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