Wednesday, January 13, 2010


John D MacDonald wrote short fiction primarily for publication in magazines, mostly pulp fiction periodicals but also for mainstream "slicks." On very rare occasion he wrote original stories for publication in anthologies, such as Future Tense in 1951 and Who Done It? in 1980. In 1971 he published his own anthology -- the second -- and called it S*E*V*E*N, complete with the asterisks between the letters. In addition to reprinting four of the five stories he had sold to Playboy in the late Sixties, it contained three originals that had never before seen print. The paperback appeared with little fanfare and contained no introduction. It turned out to be the only John D MacDonald book to be published that year.

The stories are of the mainstream variety, with the exception of "The Annex," -- JDM's last effort at science fiction -- and they are surprisingly adult, especially "Woodchuck," one of the three originals. That story concerns a successful middle-aged businessman who treats women like hunted prey and trophies, although not in the literal sense, thank goodness. The woodchuck of the title is the focal point of a childhood memory he has, a metaphor for his need for sexual conquest and one that he feels can explain his motivation.

Aldo Bellinger is a successful real estate developer, long divorced and in charge of his own small company. He is involved in a sporadic sexual relationship with his personal secretary Anne Faxton, who has been in his employ for seven years, and his bedmate for four. As the story begins Aldo is recalling their first sexual encounter, a magical "Metro-Goldwin-Mayer prefabricated romance," that turned into an intense sexual experience:

"He had found himself tapping an entirely unexpected store of sexual energy, and vitality in that narrow, brunette, small-breasted body. Wiry, limber and demanding. Strong demands create strong responses. So it had been a lot better than very good."

Aldo has come to rely on Anne, both for her precise, unsentimental business sense as well as for her physical companionship. But not enough to stop something that Anne can see coming a mile away. Aldo's other employee is Lee Roundtree, a young man in charge of marketing Aldo's new real estate venture and who is married to a very attractive young woman. As we get to know Aldo the reader comes to realize that he is, at first, not a very nice guy and, later, a genius at manipulative psychology. Without even admitting it to himself, he has planned a trip for Lee that will leave his wife Liz alone in the hotel where they and Aldo and Anne are staying. But Anne can sense it and begs him to leave off, not for the sake of their relationship, but for the happiness of Lee and Liz. She begins to fret that Aldo lacks mercy, so to prove to himself whether or not he is capable of this virtue, Anne suggests he should, once he knows he is able to bed Liz, to walk away. He says he'll consider it.

He does, for about ten seconds before going ahead with what he had planned in the first place. Afterward he worries how Anne will react. He feels he could get her to understand if he could tell her the story of his grandfather and the woodchuck, an incident that happened to him when he was seven years old.

MacDonald does an expert job of developing the character of Aldo Bellinger, slowly revealing pieces about him as the story progresses. While not exactly an unreliable narrator (the story is told in the third person) we do end the story with a far different picture of the character than when we started, and Aldo's justifications for his actions slowly peel away that unreliable picture until the real person is revealed. He clings to the woodchuck incident as both motivation and justification for who he is, and he longs to tell Anne, who he really believes he has feelings for.

The sex in "Woodchuck," while tame even by the standards of 1971, is fairly graphic for MacDonald. In a story about a man who uses sex as a weapon, I guess it needed to be, although I wonder how comfortable the author was in writing it. The fact that this story was never published in a periodical (even Playboy!) might say something about that. Still, it wouldn't even get an "R" Rating today.

The woodchuck story flashback was, apparently, based on a real-life incident in MacDonald's childhood, and the description of the grandfather -- barring the missing hand -- is a perfect physical match for Pa Dann. According to Walter Shine in the JDM Bibliophile 22, MacDonald recounted the real-life tale to a fellow author in a 1959 letter, and it was "in essence exactly the way it later appeared" in the story.

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