Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Damned


If you were to ask the casual John D MacDonald reader which of his 77 books had sold the most copies, they could be forgiven for choosing a Travis McGee title. The McGee series has become MacDonald's primary legacy and it would only seem logical that one of the later, hardcover bestsellers like The Dreadful Lemon Sky, or The Green Ripper would have surpassed his earlier, more obscure efforts in sales totals. Perhaps they might choose 1977's hugely successful disaster novel Condominium. They would be wrong on both counts, for that honor is held by one of JDM's earliest books, his seventh published novel, The Damned.

Helped immeasurably by the shouting approval of Mickey Spillane on the cover, The Damned has sold nearly 2.3 million copies over 19 separate printings since 1952, and all of them paperback. The next closest book in sales is Condominium, which was a hardcover that sat on the bestseller lists for six months, received major reviews in nearly every periodical that reviewed books, and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. Poor little The Damned never received a single review when it was published, because nobody reviewed paperbacks back then. So how important was Mickey Spillane's envious recommendation? Very. Was it deserved? Most emphatically yes.

The Damned is a major leap forward for MacDonald, not just in sales and notoriety, but in style, character, focus and confidence. Compared to his previous novel, Ballroom of the Skies, it almost reads like the work of a different author. The plot is beautifully constructed, the characters finely detailed, the long interior monologues breathtaking in their complexity, the violence frighteningly real, and the dialogue is believable. The characters are hardboiled and haunted, deeply flawed and deeply emotional, and many of them are, indeed, damned.
MacDonald and his young family lived in Cuernavaca for a year while he was trying to establish himself as a professional writer, and reportedly the first draft for The Damned was written there. MacDonald based the novel's locale on a real place, a ferry crossing on the Rio Conchos, about 85 miles south of the US-Mexican border near the town of San Fernando. A new ferry boat has just replaced an older one, with one small problem: the water level has receded and the new vessel is too big for the river. Laborers must dig out a channel in the mud in order for the ferry to get close enough to the shore for the cars to board. The shore opposite San Fernando contains but two small stores and is filling up with cars quickly. Most of them are Americans, heading north to Texas, but they will have to wait while the heavy labor is done.

"I wrote The Damned," MacDonald said in a 1986 interview, "because I knew the locale and I was interested in what would happen if a lot of people got jammed up at the crossing. A lot of things would happen to them, and that is the definition of a story." The author creates many different characters with no prior connections, gathers them into a single location and weaves their destinies into a unified story. This type of plot construction -- called by some a portmanteau style, or more recognizably, the "Grand Hotel Motif," -- is a favorite of MacDonald's and he used it several more times later in his career, notably in Cry Hard, Cry Fast, and Condominium. It's best current usage is in the television series Lost, where past and present meet in each episode. The book begins with a prologue, where we meet Manuel Forno, a laborer whose job it is to pull the ferry back and forth across the river. He arrives at work, sees a lot of commotion, and is handed a shovel by his supervisor. It's going to be a bad day.

The first paragraph of Chapter One practically sings with MacDonald's hardboiled, descriptive prose, and right away the reader can recognize that "voice," the author's singular talent to describe, to create, to construct beautifully crafted sentences that transport us into his world:

"The ice-blue Cadillac with Texas plates boomed across the wasteland. Darby Garon held it at ninety, brown hands lightly on the wheel. Enchiladas and beer in Victoria had been a mistake at midday. The meal was a sodden, unmoving weight in his stomach. Both side vents were turned to slam the superheated air in against him and the girl who sat beside him, her eyes closed. The girl had been the same sort of mistake as the meal; the difference existed only in degree. She too was highly spiced, completely indigestible. ... [He] glanced over at her. The skirt of the yellow dress was bunched high, and her heavy thighs were slackly spread. Having eaten, the animal slept."

There are eight main characters in The Damned (if you count a pair of twins as a single character):

Darby Garon, a middle-aged oil company executive, long married with two adult children and a "fine home in Houston". In a classic pique of male menopause, he has propositioned a buxom, cheap-looking blonde off of the streets of San Antonio and taken her to Mexico City for two weeks of debauchery. "With driving, unthinking blindness, with his insatiable need for her, the days went by and the miles went by ... He used her with deadly persistency, and the times in-between were merely nothingness, a waiting." But then, "one morning, he awoke and it was as though he had walked out of a movie, stood blinking on the sidewalk, trying to remember which way to go." They are heading back to Texas, Darby silent and morose.

His companion is Betty Mooney, 23-years old and "precariously overripe. In another year or two the firm body would spread and soften, the heavy features begin to sag... [but] at the moment the physical impact of her was as real as a fist blow against [the] mouth." Not exactly a streetwalker, she is a goodtime girl who has spent time with many Darby Garons, some nicer, some meaner, some downright scary. Still, she had a blast (as usual) and is heading back to Texas with a trunk-full of expensive new clothing.

Linda Gerrold, a newlywed returning from her honeymoon. A former New York model, she is described lovingly: "White hair falling thick and sleek -- not precisely white, but with a faint glistening creaminess. Her brows were black and her face was oval, the brandied eyes spaced gravely, the lips wide and warm with instinctive wisdom, the throat and shoulders golden and fragile above the strapless material of the pale tan linen dress." AKA: The Ideal MacDonald Heroine. She is warm, and instinctive, and wise, and is reveling in her sexual awakening (this was 1952, after all). However she has a gnawing unease about her new husband, who seems withdrawn and reserved, and not at all open to the new sexual discoveries she has delighted in. Could that be because her mother-in-law has accompanied them on their honeymoon?

Her husband, John Carter Gerrold, has definitely got problems. He is introduced to the reader while he is enjoying a reverie from his youth, where he masturbated over the cold white statue of Venus that stood in his uncle's garden. He remembers "he cried, with his teeth against the grass, wishing [the statue] would fall and smash him utterly." He feels shamed after sex, and prefers to remember Linda as he first saw her: "standing, virginal, in billowing whiteness, her face lifted to a shaft of light that came down from an operatic sky." As I said, John has problems.

Del Bennicke, a short, tough, opportunistic user who is on the run after killing a famous Mexico City matador when he was discovered in flagrante with the bullfighter's girlfriend. For Del, the the stalled ferry is a real danger, for once the killing is discovered he knows the entire country will be mobilized and his escape from Mexico impossible.

Bill Danton, a tall, deeply tanned rancher, on his way to Houston to purchase some farm equipment. Bill is a Texan who was raised in Mexico after his father married an Hispanic girl following the death of his wife. Bill is accompanied by his Mexican friend Pepe, and everyone at the ferry assumes Bill is also Mexican, until he opens his mouth and speaks perfect English. Bill has a deep love for Mexico and its people, and has no intention of ever returning to live in the States.

Phil Decker, an aging burlesque comic, the leader of the stage act The Triple Deckers. Phil, along with stage-girl twins Riki and Niki, perform in dingy clubs and theaters, where the anachronistic, derivative Phil has gradually convinced the relatively innocent twins to perform a strip tease along with other risqué burlesque-era acts. Phil is constantly thinking, dreaming up new routines. He used to be one half of a fairly successful act and was paid well, but that all went to hell when his wife discovered him in bed with a chorus girl. The act broke up and things have never been the same. But there's this new thing called television, and Phil is planning for the big time. Riki and Nicki, however, are planning to split and return home, although they haven't told Phil yet.

These people, along with dozens of other unnamed travelers, are forced to sit for hours in the hot sun, while Manuel and his fellow laborers try to dig a passable channel for the ferry. Darby and Betty aren't speaking to each other; newlyweds Linda and John sneak off for an afternoon tryst, while momma waits in the back seat of their car; Del spots Betty, recognizes her type and starts scheming a plan to use her to get out of the country; Bill's heart almost flips the minute he lays eyes on Linda, and the twins decide to lower the boom on poor old Phil.

Then the mother-in-law has a stroke, and a self-important local politico and his entourage arrives, with deadly results.

As masterfully as the plot is constructed, weaving character with character, the real meat of this novel is in the background stories of the characters. Robin Smiley, Publisher of the magazine Firsts: The Book Collector's Magazine, wrote in the November 2002 issue that one of those background stories "might stand alone as a short story. [A character] catches a stray bullet in the belly. MacDonald follows his interior monologue from the time he discovers he has been shot through his various stages of awareness until he dies. In another passage, MacDonald writes about a woman's decision to team up with a man although she knows he will abuse her. It is a sympathetic and utterly convincing presentation of a battered woman's mentality." I would argue that all of the background stories could stand as short stories. Indeed, MacDonald's strength as a writer of short fiction allowed him to put together such a novel, but it is his nascent ability to weave these stories together that shows his real talent as a novelist.

As good a novel as The Damned is, it would not have been as successful without that cover recommendation from writer Mickey Spillane. The value of his approval is proven by the fact that his name appears in larger print than the author of the book! Spillane was at the height of his popularity and power when The Damned was published, and one wonders why he would go out of his way to help an author he didn't know and had never met. According to a 1981 interview with Dick Lupoff (quoted in the Shine's Rave or Rage), it was an accident, followed by some quick thinking on the part of a Fawcett editor. MacDonald recalls:

The book has a cover band which says: "I wish I had written this book -- Mickey Spillane." I didn't know the Mick at the time. Ralph Daigh, who was editorial director at Fawcett ... loaned Spillane a set of galleys --- and Mickey brought them back in and he said casually, "That's a good book. I wish I had written it." Ralph wrote it out on a card and said, "Here, Mick, sign it." Mick said, "Yes, I'll sign it." ... When the book came out, Spillane's editors and lawyers and agents descended like a cloud of locusts on Ralph saying, "You can't do this. Spillane never gives a blurb." He said, "Gentlemen, I have it in writing and signed by Mr. Spillane and I have it dated. Now what do you want to do?"

That little trick probably helped make MacDonald a successful author a lot earlier than he might have without it. A testimony to its strength in selling books can be seen in the following three or four MacDonald novels, where Spillane's name keeps appearing. Dead Low Tide's cover featured a picture of The Damned, reminding would-be readers that this was the same author that Spillane had liked so much. The Neon Jungle features the reminder on its back cover: "Mickey Spillane: 'I wish I had written this book'. Mickey was talking about John D. MacDonald's The Damned. Well... here's an even greater novel, The Neon Jungle, by the same author." All These Condemned, written two years after The Damned, still featured Spillane's blurb on the back cover.

Finally, in 1955 actor Bob Cummings bought the film rights to The Damned, intending to produce and star in it (probably as Bill Danton). According to Walter Shine (in JDM Bibliophine #27), the project never got off the ground, but gossip had it that oil executive Darby Garon would have been played by Ronald Reagan, and his wife Moira (unseen in the novel, but referred to ) was to have been played by Nancy Davis! Now that would have been interesting! I'm sure it would have been easier to sit through than Hellcats of the Navy!

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