Monday, February 8, 2010

"The Bear Trap"

As his writing career progressed and matured, John D MacDonald began receiving awards for his work. In the later years of his life he received honorary degrees from both the University of South Florida and Hobart & William Smith Colleges in New York. In 1972 he received the "Edgar" Award from the Mystery Writers of America for "the entire body of his works in the mystery field," and in 1964 he was awarded Grand Prix de Litterature Policiere for the French edition of his novel A Key to the Suite. His earliest award of note came as far back as 1950, when he received third prize for his short story "The Homesick Buick" given by Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. Yet arguably the most notable of his awards was granted in 1956 for his mainstream story "The Bear Trap." The work was published in the May 1955 issue of Cosmopolitan and went on to receive the Benjamin Franklin Magazine Award for short fiction the following year. MacDonald received $500 and a scroll.

The Benjamin Franklin Magazine Awards, you ask? Yeah, me too. I had long read about this "prestigious" award but actually knew very little about it. It was begun in 1953 as a kind of Pulitzer Prize for magazines, and was sponsored and administrated by the University of Illinois. There were to be seven categories considered, including such ominous-sounding disciplines as "Original Reporting Under Adverse Circumstances," "Best Reporting on Foreign Soil," and "Best Article or Series of Articles Depicting Life, Culture, or Institutions in the United States." In addition, each year a single gold medal would be awarded for "the magazine that had performed the most distinguished and meritorious public service." Oh, and a single award for Best Fiction in a magazine. The awards would be issued at an annual dinner where there would be pomp and grand speeches.

The first year's recipients included reporters John Bartlow Martin and William H . Whyte -- I know, "who?" -- Adlai Stevenson (who did not attend the awards ceremony) for a series of articles he wrote for Holiday, and Ray Bradbury for his short story "Sun and Shadow." The magazine award, for "the most distinguished and meritorious public service during the year," went to Ladies Home Journal. Like I've been saying, magazines were a lot different back then. The awards dinner took place at the Plaza Hotel in New York and was reported by the New York Times.

The following year the ceremony took place in Washington, DC and was attended by none other than Vice President Richard Milhous Nixon, who even then was loathed by most of the press corps. The winner of the fiction award that year was John Cheever for his New Yorker short story "The Five-Forty-Eight."

MacDonald won the following year and attended the awards ceremony, which had moved back up to New York. He wrote a few sentences about it in the Introduction to End of the Tiger and Other Stories:

"I remember the banquet at the Plaza in New York [the New York Times reports it took place at the Palace Hotel] when I was waiting to receive a prize for "The Bear Trap," given the Ben Franklin Award that year as the best short story in a large circulation magazine. As I waited, some earnest fellow, in accepting one of the prior awards for some sort of magazine article, gave a ringing little speech of acceptance in which he said that it was a source of satisfaction and pride to everyone in the magazine business to see fiction being replaced by serious, educational non-fiction."

Whoever said that -- it could have been Theodore White, Robert Bendiner, John Bartlow Martin or Roland Berg -- was unfortunately prescient, as fiction was beginning to disappear from the big slicks, even before 1955. It's too bad MacDonald doesn't report what he said during his own acceptance speech. One hopes that he had a few good belts in him and got up there and excoriated the guy. At least he did it in the Tiger Introduction:

"With rare exception, the breathless, declamatory pap which purports to educate the magazine audiences by feeding them simplified, poorly-researched, high-pitched non-fiction serves a smaller purpose than does fiction. With no humility at all, I suspect "The Trap of Solid Gold" says a little more, and in a more lasting way, about the bind junior executives find themselves in, than would a series of articles about the same thing, peppered with statistics and gee whizzes."

So, out of all of JDM's short works up to that point, is "The Bear Trap" worth it? Is it really that much better than some of his other excellent writing, his mystery stories or his science fiction? Does it hold up?

Oh, yes.

"The Bear Trap" is a 3,300-word masterpiece, a work of art so beautifully composed and realized that it should rank among the best works by any American author. Gracefully written, its lyrical crystalline prose rings like music from the page. The plot is little more than a recollection, sparked by an observation, yet it is meticulously laid out and revealed with amazing understatement and compression. The more we learn and the deeper we get into the mind and emotions of the protagonist, the more we become ensnared by his own longings and profound sense of loss. And the horrible climax -- nothing really, just a few idle words spoken -- can evoke real discomfort in a sympathetic reader. One is left at the end feeling that same combination of nostalgia and emptiness that only loss can create. And the guy seemed like a normal Joe in the beginning...

His name is Hal -- no last name is given -- and we meet him as he is driving through the desert on vacation with his wife and three children. They stop at a gas station for a fill-up and to stretch their legs. Wife Betty goes off to use the facilities and the kids enjoy a Coke, wandering over to the side of the building where a couple of coyotes are caged. When Hal sees his daughter Janet begin to stick her fingers into the cage, "an old fear came strongly into my mind, vivid and sickening." He yanks Janet's arm from behind, startling her and causing tears. When Betty returns to the car she demands to know what happened. "Daddy hurt my arm," Janet sniffles, and Betty is not amused.

MacDonald reveals Betty with a few expertly placed remarks and first-person observations from Hal, all models of the author's skill at characterization. The look on her face as she returns from the restroom -- before she even encounters her crying daughter -- begins to reveal the kind of wife she is. "I sensed from the way she walked and the expression around her mouth that her fastidiousness had been offended by the facilities. And I also knew that this stopping place, though at first agreeable to her, would become my fault -- hence both reprehensible and punishable." When Hal explains why he yanked Janet away from the cage, Betty demands "Couldn't you have just spoken to her?"

Hal remains silent for a few miles, then apologizes to his daughter. He tells her that when he was young he had a friend named Judy Hoover, who once got too close to a bear cage and was killed. He was afraid something like that might have happened to Janet. Betty immediately reacts with disdain. "'Why,' she said icily, 'do you make up such ridiculous things to tell them? What do you expect to gain?'" Hal calmly insists that it really happened, then realizes that he has never told Betty about Judy Hoover and the bear. He has never told anyone "all of it." It begins his long recollection, one he "had not examined for a long time," and one that shamed him. It is told matter-of-factly at first, then gradually becomes a kind of reverie to a lost love, told with a minimum of sentiment yet is deeply affecting.

Judy and he were classmates, Hal in the fifth grade and Judy a year younger. He began as her math tutor, and they gradually became friends. Judy was an only child and her father didn't much like her having a male friend, but Judy "had a firm line of jaw" and the situation was grudgingly accepted. The kids had the same likes and dislikes, read the same kinds of books, and hung around together in an unselfconscious way. But when Hal turned fifteen and Judy began attending the same high school, it all changed:

"I can even remember the very moment when she stopped being Judy my friend and became Judy my girl. I was walking along the second floor corridor of the high school building toward the drinking fountain. Adolescence had filled me with curious imaginings and lurid dreams. With my new awareness of the flesh, I watched a blonde girl walking ahead of me, watched her good legs and the swing of her skirt and the feminine shoulders. She turned, and I saw with amazement that it was Judy, and saw that she had somehow become pretty. It was never the same again."

Then, in four brief paragraphs, MacDonald recalls the young love they experienced, told nostalgically through the narration of Hal. They were inseparable, to the point that Judy's father considered moving away. "I said if that happened, we would run away together. She said it was the only possible thing we could do." They could see their entire lives spread out before them, together forever, inevitable and inescapable.

But, as we know, it wasn't inevitable. A horrible, random and almost comic accident removes Judy from Hal's life, and it took him years to recover. Then he recalls the shameful part of the memory, one so simple yet recognizable that the reader squirms. The final two brief paragraphs of this beautiful story are as lyrical and as moving as anything MacDonald ever wrote.

Like all good works of art, "The Bear Trap" can be analyzed but not explained. You can take it apart, examine every sentence and paragraph to try and detect how the author managed it, but you can never really determine how the sum of the parts hold such power. I've read the story probably two dozen times in my life and still come away nearly breathless at its artistry. It is filled with all sorts of subtext that never draws attention to itself and leaves the reader wondering afterword. Why is it titled "The Bear Trap"? Judy's female friend, with her when the accident occurs, is named Martha Baer, so what does that imply? And, is it possible that Betty's impatience with her husband may be the result of Hal subconsciously living with the memory of dead Judy all these years? MacDonald grabbed lightning with this one, something he would do again often, but never with such transcendence.

I've read some complain in the past that the story is overly sentimental, a charge that is sometimes leveled at the entire body of JDM's mainstream work. MacDonald's first biographer David Geherin dismisses these works on page 4 of his 1982 book, claiming that they are "frequently marred by heavy doses of sentimentality," and never bothers discussing them again. This tells me that he either has a different definition of sentimentality than I do, or that he never bothered reading the bulk of these fine stories. Like most critics of the time, he thought that MacDonald began and ended with Travis McGee, one of the very notions I seek to dispel with these postings, and the rest of his book is crippled by this prejudice. Yes, if you approach MacDonald as a tough-guy crime writer and think that Travis McGee is his alter ego, you will certainly be surprised that he has a sensitive side, one that could look into the hearts of his characters with real empathy and understanding. If that's sentimental, then I'm a sentimentalist, and so was JDM.

It's astonishing to me that this fine work of American short fiction has only been anthologized twice. It first appeared in an obscure 1961 collection titled The Best From Cosmopolitan, edited by Richard Gehman, then again five years later in MacDonald's own anthology End of the Tiger and Other Stories. The fact that neither book is still in print is even more discouraging. This is a story that deserves to be read and, perhaps, studied. It's not going to change the world or change your life, but I'll bet it will stay with you for a long, long time. MacDonald said it best in that Tiger Introduction:

"If you can take readers into another world, make them want to know what happens next, involve them emotionally with people who become real on the printed page, I suspect that when the journey you take them on has been honest, there can be no more direct way of deepening awareness, of broadening experience, of making the reader a better traveler on his own private journey through time after the side trip into one of my worlds is over."

Words to read by.


  1. Thanks for alerting me to The Bear Trap.

    Thanks again.


  2. My pleasure, Rich. It's my favorite non-mystery JDM.

  3. This is a great review of this wonderful short story which I read only recently. The final sentences in particular are absolutely haunting.

    1. Indeed they are, Chris. I've always wondered if MacDonald realized what a masterpiece he had written.

  4. Bravura essay, worthy of any great story, I'm chomping at the bit to read it now. Thank you.

    - Sam