Monday, December 14, 2009

"End of the Tiger"

When John D MacDonald gathered 15 of his short stories together for his first anthology, he chose to name the collection after one of those stories. "End of the Tiger" was written and published in 1963, only three years before the collection was released, and it originally appeared in a periodical that boasted the largest circulation, by far, of any other he had written for. It is possible that "End of the Tiger" found its way into ten million homes, and many of the subscribers never even knew it.

This Week was a popular newspaper supplement that was "personalized" for the various different newspapers that included it -- on Sundays -- and it featured news, photos, recipes and, yes, fiction. Fiction in a newspaper... imagine that.

Referred to in the industry as a "rotogravure magazine" (after the printing method used to produce it), This Week came inside the Sunday editions of dozens of different newspapers throughout the country, including the Los Angeles Times and the Baltimore Sun. I remember it well, as it was included in the Washington Star, a newspaper I delivered back in 1964 and '65. This Week began publication in 1935 and lasted until the late 1960's, leaving it's chief rival, Parade, the dominant Sunday supplement. It's circulation peaked in 1957 with almost 12 million issues per week, and MacDonald enjoyed publication in the magazine for most of his short story career.

The first story of his to appear within its pages -- in 1950 -- was called "I Love You (Occasionally)," and was typical of the kind of material he would submit to the magazine. There was no crime, no violence, no aliens or murder in the story. It was more like something you would expect to read in a "family" newspaper, and it would not have seemed out of place in an issue of Reader's Digest. It was also -- at 2,400 words -- relatively short.

MacDonald would go on to publish 27 different stories within the pages of This Week, and "End of the Tiger" is far and away the best. A tale of childhood remembrance, he draws on personal experience, both in the depiction of a seemingly-insensitive grandfather, as well as a family's pet goose. The "tiger" of the story is Tiger Shaw, a high school athlete who is dating the older sister of the narrator. Tiger is a "beautiful young man" of exceptional talent on the football field, but as the story opens, he is seen years later as an adult, "in a narrow street in town, unloading a truck into a warehouse, tattoos on his big meaty arms, his belly grown big as a sack of cement, all of him looking sour and surly and dispirited." The near-encounter causes the narrator to remember an incident that took place when he was young, when Tiger was responsible for an act of insensitive cruelty toward the family's pet goose, Gretchen. The pain of the memory was caused less by Tiger's act than by his grandfather's seeming enjoyment of it.

The writing in "End of the Tiger" is as crystalline-pure as any MacDonald ever produced. In a few sentences he has created in Tiger Shaw a character as recognizable and as predictable as any one of a similar type we may have known ourselves. In a single sentence he evokes the pain of remembering a member of the family who is no longer alive, and the scenes of a youthful summer are so wonderfully created that they nearly jump off the page. Whenever I finish reading this story, as I have done dozens of times over the years, my reaction is the same: a lump in the throat and a renewed respect for MacDonald's talent. When he was good, he was the best.

JDM wrote lots of "mainstream" works over the years, much more than one might imagine. He didn't consider it an aberration, as he was never one to classify himself as a writer of any particular genre. He wrote about his approach to this kind of fiction in the Introduction to his anthology:

"I have enjoyed and still enjoy telling stories for the mass circulation magazines when I am able to find some theme or approach which does not require me to affirm one of the sentimental myths of our culture. For example, were I to attempt a story based on the magical joy and happiness of the adolescent years, to paraphrase Miss Parker, tonstant writer would fwow up. Conversely, it is not sensible to try to refute one of the myths. One cannot slander Lincoln's doctor's dog, nor write tenderly of the problems of a lavender scoutmaster and expect to carry away any of the funds contributed in large part by national advertisers.... You will see in the content of these tales that I am sufficiently sly and nimble to find little areas between the myths where there is room to edge through without having to jettison a little burden of honest intent."

OK, that line about "lavender scoutmasters" doesn't cut the muster anymore, but you get the idea. MacDonald could, like many great writers, create sentiment without being sentimental.
Gretchen the goose was based on a real-life member of the MacDonald household. 

MacDonald's son Maynard and daughter-in-law Anne adopted a couple of geese they found up at the family summer lake house; one died and the other became a family pet they named Knees. MacDonald writes about Knees in the final chapters of his 1965 book The House Guests, using much of the same language he had used in his story a few years before. And the character of the grandfather may have been based on MacDonald's own grandparent. He wrote about him in a piece published in the JDM Bibliophile (#29, 1982) titled "Birthday Time," where a similar act of unthinking insensitivity takes place, later echoed in "Tiger." To say more would ruin the story for someone who hasn't yet read it.

The fact that these This Week stories originally appeared in daily newspapers has turned into a very good thing for those of us who like to collect MacDonald stories. The computer age has brought about the digitization of many major market newspapers, available to the public over the Internet. It is possible, for about $30, to download every story MacDonald ever published in This Week by accessing the archives of one of the newspapers that carried it. Both newspapers mentioned above offer these stories, although the Times ceased carrying This Week in mid-1964. The Sun has, I believe, the full run. These are tales that have, for the most part, never been anthologized and probably never will. "The Straw Witch," "Blurred View," "The Loveliest Girl in the World" and "Tiger" all appeared in End of the Tiger, leaving 24 stories you have probably never read.

A nice, new anthology, if you like.


  1. "The near-encounter causes the narrator to remember an incident that took place when he was young, when Tiger was responsible for an act of insensitive cruelty toward the family's pet goose, Gretchen. The pain of the memory was caused less by Tiger's act than by his grandfather's seeming enjoyment of it." I read that story when it first came out (I be an old dude)and I have never forgotten the goose episode. It comes to mind frequently, even after 60 years. And the wise grandfather's silent but meaningful reaction. When I read your article here I sped through it looking to see if you were referring to the same story. Yes, and I thank you!

    1. Thanks for the comment! Now you need to get yourself a copy of the anthology and re-read it.