Wednesday, March 31, 2010

JDM on Tomcats

It's going to be a while before I get around to discussing John D MacDonald's five non-fiction works. Since I'm taking the books in the order they were published, and since MacDonald's first non-fiction book wasn't published until 1965, it means I have over 30 books to go through before getting to The House Guests. That's a shame, because there is some great writing in these volumes, some vivid recollections, sharp observations and many humorous passages.The five non-fiction books are:

The House Guests (1964)
No Deadly Drug (1968)
Nothing Can Go Wrong (1981)
A Friendship: The letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald - 1967-1974 (1986)
Reading for Survival (1987)

In addition there are hundreds of columns, articles, remembrances and letters out there, many with something worth talking about and bringing to light once again. I'm going to go ahead, perhaps once a week, and do a posting featuring something from some of the non-fiction stuff I have lying around. The books are the richest source -- The House Guests alone contains dozens of quotable passages -- but there's lots of other stuff that I will dig out which may be of some interest to somebody. And since I am getting to the last third of my short story collection, it will keep me posting for a little while longer.

Here is MacDonald's great little paragraph on the subject of tomcats, taken from the beginning of Chapter Three of The House Guests. I remember reading this back in 1975 and thinking "this could be a description of a JDM villain." Re-reading it today reveals a beautifully descriptive bit of writing that still holds up:

"The tomcat is a damned nuisance. He pursues his specialty to the almost complete exclusion of other interests. His is a nocturnal existence so rigorous, he spends his days flaked out, stirring once in a while to go see if anybody has put anything in his dish. He shreds upholstery in the serious business of keeping his claws and shoulder muscles in fighting trim. He develops a voice which will shatter glassware at twenty paces. His eerie howls of challenge disturb the neighborhood. He roams far and is sometimes gone for days in a row, returning sated, surly, smug and bearing the wounds of love and combat. He stakes out his territory with extraordinarily pungent little driblets of urine, and will occasionally stake out the house where he lives, either just for the hell of it or because another animal has been there during his absence. Owning a tomcat is curiously akin to working in some menial capacity for one of the notorious Lotharios of show business."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

"The Unsuitable Girl"

"The Unsuitable Girl" is a John D MacDonald short story that appeared in the February 3, 1956 issue of Collier's. Listed in the table of contents as "The Short Short Story" (evidentially a running feature in the magazine), it comes in at a brief 1,450 words and takes up all of a single page, plus illustration. It's another in a series of MacDonald homily pieces about the struggles of parenthood, particularly when faced with a willful teenager discovering the opposite sex. These were the kinds of brief set pieces that JDM usually sold to This Week and include "Too Young to Marry," "Who Stopped the Clock," and "The Night Jamie Grew Up." In "Too Young to Marry" the problem is a teenage child who wants to marry. In "The Unsuitable Girl," it's "an older woman."

Tommy Winslow is seventeen. He's begun dating a twenty-year old girl named Pamela. She's the type who drives up to the house and blows the horn rather than come in and talk to the parents like a respectable girl would. You know the kind. This grates especially on Tommy's mother Marian, who constantly harangues her husband Thomas to "do something."

"... she isn't even the proper sort of girl... [Tommy] isn't himself. He positively slinks about the house. He's almost surly. He's just a high-school boy. That woman could ruin his life!"
Thomas feels there's nothing to get excited about. Tommy would grow out of it. "Once a child had been raised in a sound emotional climate, all you could do was wait and hope and pray he would make an equivalently good emotional relationship." Also, Thomas recalls his own teenage infatuation, one he thankfully grew out of:

"The girl had been a clerk at a perfume counter. The day's labor had always clung to her with its myriad musks and fragrances. It had taken many weeks for him to become disconcertedly aware of the little things about her -- the slightly grubby knuckles, the hearty chomp on the cud of gum, the run-over heels. Yet, before the magic had faded..."
Well, if her husband wasn't going to do anything, Marian certainly would. She hatches a plan to invite Pamela to dinner with the family at their club, knowing full well that "she'll be too sly to come. I know that type." The following day Tommy reveals that Pamela has declined the invitation, and this leads to five "glum" days in the Winslow house. On the evening of the sixth day Thomas returns home to a triumphant Marian, who announces that Tommy and Pamela have broken up and that he's going out with "that nice little Rogers girl tomorrow night." She gloats:

"You didn't want to do anything. But that girl cut her own throat by turning down the invitation."
Thomas isn't so sure and knocks on Tommy's bedroom door. With Dave Brubeck playing in the background Thomas learns that the real story is completely different, and he leaves feeling "desperately old..."

"The Unsuitable Girl" follows the the same pattern and framework as the other JDM tales of this ilk: Properly-raised teenager does something out of the ordinary, parents react with consternation, one of them (usually the father) has the sense to let things work out for themselves, eventually kid comes to his/her senses. The story is sufficiently interesting, the writing professional, the economy of words admirable. It all comes down to something you'd be happy to read while waiting in a dentist's office. MacDonald's own child Johnny was seventeen when this particular story was published, and one naturally wonders how much of its "plot" was borrowed from real life. At least MacDonald was consistent in his belief -- evidenced in countless stories -- that child-rearing was a gamble that usually paid off if you stacked the odds by raising them responsibly.

Incidentally, MacDonald may have felt some special pride with the publication of "The Unsuitable Girl" in an issue of Collier's during the 1950's. One of his literary idols -- and an author he was occasionally compared to -- had a running column in the magazine and they appeared together in the February 3 edition. John O'Hara's Appointment with O'Hara was printed at the beginning of each bi-monthly issue and featured the author's rambling thoughts on just about everything, full of all of his trademark wit, vindictiveness, and bellicosity. In a typical display of his self-importance, this particular issue features a few paragraphs on Orson Welles, who O'Hara bemoans as a great talent who was reviled and kept out of work because of his making Citizen Kane. He immediately devolves into a rant on how O'Hara himself suffered the same shameful treatment because he praised the film! Ah, John... you were a one-of-a-kind. Elsewhere in the column he manages to drop a mention that he attended Columbia University (a life-long sore point with the author), slams War and Peace, reveals that he was once a neighbor of both Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein, and complains of would-be authors sending him unsolicited material for publication and advice. "I don't read the stuff," he snarls. "If I seem a little ungracious -- I am."

Why is it that I detect a little bit of another John in the sound of that last remark? Read some of MacDonald's later interviews and you can hear the same tone of belligerence when he is crossed. MacDonald once responded to an interviewer's question with the reply: "Here again, we have a typical asinine amateur question..." Like O'Hara, JDM's literary reputation depends on who you are talking to.

"The Unsuitable Girl" was published just once and has never been anthologized.

Monday, March 29, 2010

"Mr. Killer"

I've written in a previous posting about Cavalier magazine, and about how surprised I was to learn that it began as a fiction magazine before morphing into a second-tier version of Playboy. Cavalier was published by Fawcett and was produced to showcase the works of the authors the publisher had under book contract. You probably didn't know that Cavalier had a "sister" magazine, called Today's Women, also published by Fawcett, that began life in November 1945 and which lasted nearly ten years before folding. It was the publisher's attempt to join the ranks of the woman's slicks and they did a fairly good job of it while they were around. By 1952 they had over a million readers each month.

Today's Woman did all of the things that the other woman's glossies did, but their focus was fiction, primarily the fiction of new authors. From 1947 to 1951 they published more short stories that later found their way to the Best American Short Stories list than any other popular woman's magazine. And while most of their authors were first-time female writers, males were allowed on board, especially males who were under book contract with Fawcett. John D MacDonald, who began his Fawcett association with his first novel in 1950, published two stories in Today's Women: the first in 1949 and the second -- "Mr. Killer" -- in January 1952.

"Mr. Killer" is an odd little tale that begins like one of MacDonald's domestic-misunderstanding-in-suburbia stories and ends up in the land of Alfred Hitchcock. With many echoes of that director's 1941 film Suspicion, it's a story of an isolated housewife who inadvertently discovers that her husband means to do her harm. Told in the third person from the woman's point of view, "Mr. Killer" slowly builds from discovery to doubt to investigation to explosive climax in the well-written space of 7,500 words.

Fan Lowndes is a young suburban housewife, a sensitive, emotional, some-would-say odd little woman, somewhat guileless and not at all self-aware. She is married to Jamie, a big, gruff, serious man who runs a car dealership in town. Fan's father has passed on and has left her enough money to live the rest of her life without ever having to work, and she is smart enough to know how to manage her finances without the help of her husband. When she and Jamie married he insisted that they move to another town, "because he didn't want to be around a lot of people who knew about the money." 
Also, he didn't like any of her friends and refuses to let her even write to them. Jamie always thinks "too much about the money," and Fan has used some of it to purchase his dealership for him. It's a money-losing operation but it keeps him busy and Fan secretly pumps additional funds into its accounts to keep it afloat.

Fan loves Jamie and respects him as a husband, but the sexual side of the marriage has never really been good for her. She started out afraid and for a long time there was no pleasure in it for her, but because she loved him "she had changed." But "she thought there would be tenderness and gentleness, and there wasn't..."

As the story opens Fan is paying an insurance bill and can't find her policy number to write on the check. The policy is locked away in Jamie's little tin box, and Jamie is at work, so Fan thinks nothing of opening it with a bent paperclip in order to obtain the number. Inside the box she finds the insurance paperwork along with a large manila folder simply labeled "Fan." She looks inside and discovers page after page of Jamie's "tight little writing," all in "funny outline form." It's a series of diary-like entries, all recounting episodes in the couple's marriage depicting Fan in a strange light. The first recalls their honeymoon when Fan insisted on wearing an old sweatshirt with a big O on it, something she likes to put on "when she feels like nothing at all." It has never been laundered because Fan felt it would wash all of the luck out of it. The next entry recalls Fan inspecting a neighbor's new fur coat by taking off her shoes and stockings and walking on it barefoot. The most recent entry describes an episode a few nights ago where Jamie was sharpening the kitchen knives, and Fan took the sharpened carving knife and "held it so tightly that her knuckles were white, [saying] 'This is my pet. I call this one Mr. Killer.'"

The journal ends with this ominous summation:

"Since I married this woman I have grown increasingly convinced that she is dangerously unstable. I have attempted in every way to get at the roots of her instability, hoping thereby to help her achieve integration. But it would appear that there is a deep-rooted cause that will defeat any amateur efforts. Therefore I am submitting this report to the institution in the hope that it will enable..."

The last few words were crossed out. It had to be a joke, Fan reasons. That evening when Jamie comes home she suddenly sees all sorts of seemingly-odd behavior, things she never noticed before, things that make her worried. Genuinely uncertain of her own sanity, she makes an appointment with a psychiatrist the following day and brings along the journal. She explains that "she does a lot of dumb things" but that Jamie has it all wrong about her. When she asks how an individual becomes institutionalized, the doctor explains that a "health officer" makes the decision, and that he just happens to be such an official. Fan then shows him the journal and the doctor becomes serious. He orders his secretary to cancel the rest of his appointments for the day and tells Fan, "You need help, Mrs. Lowndes."

MacDonald does a masterful job of scattering clues throughout the story, dropping conflicting and opposing hints about the true nature of Fan's mental health. Is she really nuts? Is her husband another version of Johnnie Aysgarth, out to take over her fortune? Or is the psychiatrist part of a plot to lock Fan up forever? Well, the title -- MacDonald's own, for once -- probably gives away the ending. Still, it's an engaging read featuring a nicely-realized heroine, a suspenseful plot and a violent ending, complete with a surprise straight out of left field. If you read it a second time, however, you come to realize that nothing comes out of left field, that the author sets up everything for the reader to see and never plays games or tricks. I find that this is true of all of JDM's mysteries, that he always plays fair yet demands your full attention.

"Mr. Killer" has never been anthologized and copies of the magazine are quite rare. As you can see below, it featured a terrific illustration by Al Moore, an artist known mainly for his pin-up work.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Contrary Pleasure

Contrary Pleasure was John D MacDonald's second attempt at mainstream acceptance. Coming on the heels of 1953's Cancel All Our Vows, it was published in hardcover by Appleton-Century-Crofts in September 1954 and enjoyed only a single printing before its Popular Library paperback release a year later. Like his previous attempt at "serious fiction" it deals with business professionals living in upstate New York, their "hidden lusts, furtive pleasures and twisted dreams," and contains no real crime, no gangsters, few police and no great love story. It was MacDonald's thirteenth novel, his fourth hardcover release and his last association with Appleton. It was also the last time he would see a first edition hardcover until The Executioners in 1958.

MacDonald did his best to keep Contrary Pleasure away from Appleton. Apparently unhappy with their handling of Cancel All Our Vows, he sent the finished manuscript to 22 other publishers, and it was rejected by every one of them. He finally gave up and submitted it to Appleton, who agreed to the single run. Unlike their efforts with the first novel -- they purchased fairly impressive advertising in the New York Times -- Contrary Pleasure came and went like a thief in the night, with no support, few reviews and a miniscule single run. Just as the author had feared, it barely made a ripple in the literary pond and was even ignored by the Times. In fact, the only contemporary reviews written were in a couple of hometown newspapers: the Clearwater Sun and the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

The novel takes place in a town obviously meant to be Utica -- MacDonald called it Stockton -- and centers around a textile mill owned by the Delevan family. Although Utica was once the nation's textile capital, with dozens of large mills employing thousands, by 1954 that industry had largely left for the American South and was replaced by tool and dye manufacturers (see JDM's Area of Suspicion) and General Electric's radio factory. 

MacDonald uses that industry demographic in depicting the Stockton Knitting Company as the last of a dying breed, an old, barely-surviving mill that stayed in town far too long. Its ownership is still in the hands of the grandchildren of the man who founded it, and it is run by the eldest male, Benjamin Delevan. He is a gruff, hardworking man in his early fifties who works long hours in an almost single-handed effort to keep the business afloat. His half-brother Quinn also works in the mill, although it is obvious early on that Quinn is there because he is a stockholder, not because he is qualified. Their other two siblings are co-owners but otherwise have no involvement with the business. Half-sister Alice is married to a local home builder and youngest sibling Robbie works in Mexico.

Contrary Pleasure is told in the third person and is one of MacDonald's multiple-perspective character studies. What little plot there is here revolves around two recent events: an outside bid to acquire the mill -- an offer known only to Ben -- and the imminent arrival of brother Robbie and his new bride. The action of the book takes place in the short span of a few days, but as with all of JDM's similarly-structured novels, we enjoy vast stretches of time inside the heads of the various protagonists, learning their personalities, their secrets and their pasts. This method creates a rich and multi-dimensioned tale that maintains the reader's interest when, effectively, nothing much is really happening. As I've pointed out in discussing his earlier novels, it is a technique uniquely advantageous to the short story writer, as the characters' back stories read like little, self-contained tales that could stand on their own outside the pages of the novel they are written for.

The four Delevan siblings -- Ben is the only child of his father's first wife -- all own residential property next to each other, high on a hill overlooking the city. "They were rambling houses, pleasant to live in, hellish to heat, cool in the summer, designed for maximum privacy." Alice's husband George built the homes for each of them except Robbie, whose plot is still undeveloped, and as the novel opens they have all gathered excitedly in Ben's front yard as he returns home from work. The news that brother Robbie has married and is returning to Stockton to introduce his bride is greeted with excitement and anticipation by everyone but Ben, who manages to hide his unease that Robbie may intend on asking for a job at the mill. The last thing the Stockton Knitting Company needs is another dead weight family member taking up space and collecting a large salary. When Ben goes to work the next day he is met by an unannounced visitor, a kind of a corporate raider who represents a rival mill down south that needs immediate production capacity. The offer is made to buy out the Delevan family business completely, leaving Ben with only one additional year of transitional employment and effectively making Quinn unemployed. He is given only a few days to make the decision.

Meanwhile we meet the various other members of the Delevan family, and a troubled lot they are, each with their own contrary pleasure.

Ben's son Brock is home from college -- for good. He was caught stealing money from another student in order to pay the rent for his townie girlfriend, a married tramp named Elsie Berris. He was immediately expelled and is home attempting to gain entry into another college. Brock's tale of romantic entanglement is the novel's first real self-contained back story and it is fascinating, captivating reading as MacDonald essays yet another of his singular stories of sexual obsession. Needless to say, Brock's relationship with his father has suffered greatly as a result of his malfeasance, and when we first meet them they are barely speaking. Brock eventually rousts himself from the darkness of his bedroom and meets a new-girl-in-town at his tennis club, a person who turns out to be just as damaged as Brock.

Brock's younger sister Ellen -- still in high school -- seems to have it all together, and for the most part she does, but she's dating a lout and palling around with a girl who is sleeping with another boy. Ellen gets pressured into going up to a lakeside cabin with the other three while lying to her mother about where she is going. She's nearly raped by her boyfriend and the parents eventually discover her mendacity, but Ellen is a good girl and manages to convince her parents that she intended no harm.

Quinn is a mess, a lethargic, lazy, drifting man of little color and less ability. He spends much of his work day shuffling papers and flipping through trade magazines. His boredom reaches the point where he begins an affair with a mill girl, a beautifully-realized character named Bonita "Bonny" Doyle, and their assignations take place in her shabby apartment in downtown Stockton. Quinn is married to Bess, a "breasty and vivid... warm and husky" woman who is full of life and energy, and much too exhausting for Quinn. Bess has her own interesting back story, involving a previous marriage at age seventeen that produced a child, the deeply troubled son David. Bess's marriage to Quinn has produced no offspring and the now-teenaged David, "strange [and] full of ancient despair" was raised by Quinn as his own. David is disturbed to the point that he is unable to attend school and requires a tutor. He spends his days in a specially-built cottage in back of Quinn's house, where he sits alone building model airplanes.

Sister Alice is Quinn's twin, and like her brother she is reserved, aloof and has married an extroverted opposite. Her husband George Furman is a large, meaty, florid home builder who is fearless, gregarious and, more and more, a friend of the bottle. He and Alice have produced three children, a set of male twins who are off at camp and don't appear in the novel, and a ten-year old daughter Sandy. Alice is "restrained and antiseptic," and, we later learn, "frigid," although she has managed to fake it for fifteen years. George has let his business decay to the point that he now builds homes with cheap materials and shoddy workmanship, cutting corners all in an effort to make more money.

Finally, there is Robbie, gone for two years working on something for the State Department in Mexico City. The brief bits of time we are allowed to spend with him in the early parts of the novel reveal Ben's fears to be valid. He seems to be a person who could easily become another Quinn, but is blessed with a hardnosed and realistic new bride who will make sure that never happens. Suzy is an identifiable MacDonald "type," a young, attractive, hardworking, intelligent young woman who is smarter than her mate but loves him enough to never let him know that. Her blonde hair and gray eyes don't hurt matters, either.

Most of this background is spelled out for the reader in the first chapter of the book. As the days go by we are given a personal introduction of sorts to each of these family members as they confront their own crises and personal demons, some for weal, some for woe. First up is Brock, and his story reads like a page out of Clemmie, or "The Random Noise of Love," or any number of other JDM pieces that deal with obsession. Like other MacDonald protagonists who aren't completely undone by their weakness, Brock sits wondering "how could I have done it?"

"The trouble started in April... he went into a campus beer joint, a cellar place with steins and mottos and sawdust... He could tell that she wasn't one of the coeds... she looked a bit older... She wore her black hair long, and it swung forward as she leaned over the table and every once in a while she would comb it back with her fingers. She was small and trim and dark and she looked blue. He watched her, with that inevitability and excitement growing inside him... She looked up unsmiling, and he saw that she was not quite as good looking up close. Her cheeks were a bit roughened and pitted with scars of adolescent acne, and her pallor had that faintly waxy look of Latin women. He guessed she was maybe twenty-five. Her name was Elise..."

It doesn't take long for them to hook up and begin a torrid affair, with Brock forgetting all else, including school, friends and scruples. Elise is married but her husband is seaman on an oceangoing tug and is away for long periods of time. She milks Brock for rent money and he is only too happy to oblige, but when the money runs out and he has no more friends to borrow from, he resorts to stealing. He is caught, and his father Ben comes to school to bring him home. 

We meet Quinn as he his having dinner at home with Bess. Quinn is anxious to get away and into the arms of his lover Bonny, but he is trapped at the table with the ebullient wife:

"She talked at him. She directed herself at him, talking of trivialities with such a dreadful energy that the very burst and flow and torrent of her in that constricted space, under the bright light, seemed to shrink him, dwindle him, dry him to a dusty husk. She was a movie where you had to sit too far forward. The whites of her eyes were blued with the health of her, and her white teeth chewed, and the red membranes of her mouth were busy, and he would get a dazed dizziness by looking at her, so that her head would seem to be the size of a bushel basket, all glistening and bobbing and chomping and making loud sounds at him that he could not quite understand. The torrents of her washed and buffeted him."

On the way to meet Bonny, Quinn fondly recalls the day he first saw her working in the mill:

"There was a slimness about her. A daintiness and the wilted look of physical tiredness. He walked slowly. She did not see him. She stretched then as he came near her, and she yawned, fists next to her ears, feet planted wide, arching her back so that as he watched her the shirt she wore pulled free from her slacks and he saw in the shop lights the smooth miracle of her young waist, the snowy spinal crease at the small of her back, and there was about her, poised there, the breathtaking perfection of ancient statues, of sun-warmed marble."

For nearly thirty pages we read the story of Quinn and Bonny, how he connived to drive her home in the rain one evening, how he pushed himself on this shy and timid young girl, and how she had eventually come to accept and even love him. Bonny has come from a resort area upstate where her family ran a restaurant. After her mother died the place was sold, her brother moved west and Bonny came to the big city, alone, to work in the mill. She has no other friends or acquaintances and is smart enough to know that what she is doing is both wrong and foolish, but lonely enough to accept it. Quinn comes by after dinner most nights, telling Bess that he has important city government people to schmooze, and in his mind he relishes the superiority of Bonny over Bess:

"It had taken [Bonny] a long time to overcome her modesty... He knew [looking at her unclothed] made her uncomfortable. And the fact of her discomfort increased his pleasure in looking at her merely because it was such a strange contrast with Bess, who from the very first, had padded around with all the naked and sexless poise of a men's shower room. Moreover, this girl could sense his mood and adjust quickly to it. Bess crashed blindly through his moods like a movie he had once seen of an elephant eating its way through a cane field, munching in heavy pleasure as the feet came down on the green shoots."

Things are great between Quinn and Bonny, but he realizes that each time they see each other a little of the magic wears off, and he is greatly relieved to know that she has no intention of asking Quinn to divorce Bess.

Alice's introductory chapter is one of MacDonald's overly glib portraits of a "damaged female," another "type" that appears frequently in his work. Her problem is sex, or more accurately, her inability to enjoy it. A virgin on her wedding night, she panicked in the middle of "the act," tried to overcome her fear, then finally faked it, trapping her forever into a relationship with a very virile husband.

"...their days and nights seemed to be filled with this meaningless action which pleased him, full of her stylized response, so that she felt physically beaten, dazed, too worn and weary to recapture even those moments of incomplete pleasure she had been able to achieve, whereas George appeared to gain in strength... in need."

Like her twin, Alice seems to sleepwalk through life, cold, aloof, unable to feel anything, but Alice is more self-aware than Quinn and understands her problem while being unable to do anything about it. She takes a walk over the hill one afternoon and strolls through a neighboring farm. There she witnesses, unseen, a private act between farmer and his wife, right out in the open in the middle of a field of grass! It's a turning point in her life and, unfortunately, it's MacDonald at his weakest:

"She felt hollow. She had never seen anything remotely like what had happened. She felt on the verge of some strange, wide truth. It was not that there was a coarseness or a casualness about what they had done. It was the inevitability of it, a peculiar rightness to it, so that it touched her deeply... She wanted to cry... She stood outside some warm place and looked through glass... It made Alice feel silly and shallow and decadent, a neurotic ghost of a woman without loins or breasts or truth."

Alice begins walking home, throws up, and decides that life is going to be different. That evening she drinks a bit too much in an effort to talk frankly about her problem with her utterly perplexed husband. George is aghast that she has never once had an orgasm or even enjoyed sex with him, but she is willing to try again. They go upstairs and, after much crying, trying and fraying of nerves, "... all the rising shuddering tension went out of her unmistakably, and she made a strange cry that he had never heard from her before. And thanked him and thanked him in a dull, blurred voice making him feel embarrassed..." 

Actually, it's the reader who should feel embarrassed after reading that!

But George reacts positively to Alice's awakening. He vows to cut back on the booze, be more attentive to his wife, and to try and restore his faltering construction business by producing a product he can once again be proud of. Not bad for a chance encounter with a randy farm couple! There's even a touching, almost throwaway scene late in the novel at Robbie's reunion where Ben glances over and sees George give Alice

"a quick caress that was furtive and direct and anything but subtle. He half expected Alice to bash him with a plate of d'oeuvres, and when she didn't, he thought that what he had seen had been imagined. Then he saw Alice's face and throat darken and saw her touch her cheek against George's shoulder for the barest fraction of a second...He marveled that he had been so wrong about them for so long."

The book's turning point comes in the seventh chapter, when Ben calls Quinn into his office to reveal the buyout offer. When Quinn acts like he's being asked for his advice, Ben reacts with impatience, then anger. In a withering four pages he lets loose on his younger brother, pouring out years of pent-up frustration and unmentioned criticism. It's MacDonald at his best, at home in a world of business and the nearly unmanageable pressures placed on the leaders of industry. In a few great paragraphs, MacDonald separates the Industry men from the boys:

"You've been in the place for sixteen... nearly seventeen years, now. You still don't know what the hell it's all about. There's no responsible job I can trust you in. Oh, you know all the technical words and you can use them in the way a parrot would use them. You have routine duties that should take you no more than an hour a day. You make them last all day. About once a month you come to me with what you call an idea. Most of those ideas of yours give away the fact that you don't know the first thing about our operations. I don't know what you would have been suited for. It certainly wasn't this business. This business seems to bore you. You're lazy. Family firms always seem to have one or two around like you. You put on the big-executive act. Outside the gates you're a big wheel. Maybe you even believe it yourself. I doubt that you do, somehow... You are dead weight... You are one of the luxuries the firm supports....

"My God, just because it's gone along so far, you think it goes on forever or something. Three fair-sized bad guesses in any fiscal year and this thing comes down out of the sky like a bucket of boiled rice. Because you can't kick the building down with your bare foot, you think it's here for eternity. Does the big sign on top of the plant comfort you or something? Damn it, man!"

It's a bit much for Quinn, although Ben doesn't realize it at the time. Quinn becomes more and more withdrawn, until an act of near-sleepwalking violence changes everything forever. His unhinging gives the author an excuse to write some of his most poetically weird verse ever:

"When he was on the highway, after the shrieking, wrenching turn around the square, after the truck that filled his vision and fell away to one side, after the tree that swung across in front of him, he took his foot from the gas pedal. It took a long time for the car to slow down almost to a stop. Then with delicacy he used his foot which was now carved of finest wood, to touch the gas pedal and bring the needle up to thirty-five. The needle did not waver. Dry-leaf hands and wood-dried and carved and polished. Clockwork heart and silver loins. Steel-dry teeth and cordovan tongue. Jeweled eyes and paper lungs. Function, balance, precision. Intersection of lines. Roll of bearings. Predictable rotation of stone planet."

Contrary Pleasure is MacDonald's first great "business novel," that unique subset of his literary output that feature the executive men of American Industry as protagonists. He deals with them obliquely in Cancel All Our Vows, then more directly in All These Condemned and the pulpy Area of Suspicion. These "heroes" are Men of Industry, men with ideas, with drive and ambition, who want to succeed and who enjoy long hours of hard work. That viewpoint would gradually give way to a more jaundiced view as time went by, with a less-than-ambitious Craig Fitz in Clemmie, a beaten Carl Garrett in The Deceivers, and ultimately a defeated Ben Weldon in "The Trap of Solid Gold," who realizes that all the ability and hard work in the world can't overcome circumstance created by an unrealistic business model. But back in 1954 Ben Delevan is able to beat the modern machinery of the corporate world, keep the family together and maintain a locally-run business as a part of an organic community, all through the sheer force of his will.

Biographer Ed Hirshberg summed up the novel's primary moral dilemma succinctly, and he remains the only student of MacDonald who has given this book more than a passing sentence:

"Implicit in Ben's dilemma are several choices that involve his capabilities as a businessman as well as his moral conscience: Does he have the right to risk the family fortunes by refusing to sell out for the sake of security? Or is he obligated to keep the business going for the sake of the employees, who are dependent on its functioning under his management? And will he be true to himself and retain his integrity as a self-respecting man if he gives in?"

The two aforementioned contemporaneous reviews of Contrary Pleasure were both favorable to their hometown boy (surprise!), with the Clearwater Sun calling the novel ".. a better yarn than the hard-boiled Cancel All Our Vows." (I wonder exactly which version of that novel he read!) The Utica Observer-Dispatch, under a headline of "Former Uticans Write Novels," said Contrary Pleasure was "... head and shoulders above the author's previous work. It's dramatic, sprightly, and exceedingly well written and you care about what happens to each and every one..."

The novel's first paperback edition in 1955 garnered no reviews at all, and it wasn't until the book's third appearance in 1969 that it received any real notice. The Toledo Blade said Contrary Pleasure "...was a pleasure to read," and Clarence Petersen in the Chicago Tribune called it "an oldie but a goodie." So much for serious literary criticism. Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller referred to the novel in their 1986 bibliography 1001 Midnights: The Aficionado's Guide to Mystery and Detective Fiction, calling it a "boring small-town drama," which I guess it is if you're looking for mystery or detective fiction.

As we've seen, the hardcover original of Contrary Pleasure came and went with little notice: as MacDonald said in 1983, they "didn't do a heck of a lot with it." The number of copies produced in its first-and-only run is unknown, but it was probably small, and used copies of the book remain rare and costly. It featured a simple dust jacket designed by a now-forgotten illustrator and was unavailable to Walter Shine when he published his Potpourri in 1988. The first Popular Library paperback edition, published in October 1955, features a depiction of Quinn looking in through a window at his lover Bonny, illustrated by another artist whose name is lost to time. Incidentally, this would be MacDonald's second book published by Popular Library, his first being the paperback original Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which came out in July of that year.

After that the subsequent covers are strange indeed. The 1969 Fawcett reprint, only the third printing the novel enjoyed, featured a filtered and fuzzy photograph of a blonde bombshell giving the reader a come-hither look. She could not have been intended to be any female from the story -- certainly not working-class Bonny, and certainly not bovine Bess -- but remains the book's most recognizable cover as it survived seven subsequent editions in one form or another. The tenth edition, published in January 1979, featured artwork by William Schmidt, but again, what scene or character from the novel it was intending to depict is uncertain. It's an illustration of a traffic sign, a man shooting a pistol and a girl in obvious distress, none of which have anything to do with the book. Perhaps it was an unused cover for MacDonald's The Crossroads or even Cry Hard, Cry Fast.

I've been unable to locate copies of the covers the eleventh through fifteenth editions, two equally curious additions to the Contrary Pleasure cover mystery. The first, from the eleventh and twelfth editions and illustrated by Robert McGinnis, depicts a wooden case of bottle-opening tools, with three empty beer cans hanging from strings in the background. The final three printings -- by McGinnis again -- show a bloody hand in front of a half-filled wine glass. Perhaps there just wasn't anything exciting enough in Contrary Pleasure for the paperback market of the day, although the Popular Library illustration at least made an attempt.

The novel was MacDonald's third to feature a dedication: "For Margie and Dad." Margie (pronounced with a hard "g") was Marguerite Dann, MacDonald's mother. It also featured an epigraph, a section from a Samuel Johnson poem titled "The Princess Nakayah Rasselas." The book's title was derived from the line, "Flatter not yourself with contrarieties of pleasure." That title was MacDonald's original and was not changed by the publishers. 

Contrary Pleasure is also one of the few JDM novels that was never translated into a foreign edition.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

"The Willow Pool"

"The Willow Pool" is the third entry in John D MacDonald's 1971 short story collection S*E*V*E*N, and like the other tales in that anthology the author uses the device of imperfect perspective to tell his story. In this particular entry -- written especially for the anthology and the longest in the book -- it's a case of multiple perspectives that depict a protagonist without a voice of her own. Constructed as a mystery, "The Willow Pool" works on a number of levels: it's a character study, a detective story, a commentary on the times, an experiment in story construction and, ultimately, the sad tale of a damaged and disturbed young woman. It's a superior example of writing by an author who began experimenting with this kind of storytelling as far back as 1954 with All These Condemned. "The Willow Pool" is full of compassion, insight and a palpable feeling of regret about the plight of a victim unable to annunciate her own cry for help.

The story is told by seven secondary characters, all people connected in some way to Norrie Ames. Each character has their own section of the story, told in first person and all beginning with "My name is .... " First up is Mable Turner, an elderly farmer's wife who begins by relating how, two years ago, a young college girl arrived at her remote New York apple farm and asked about renting a small cabin, located in a far corner of the property, private and remote and next to a small pond surrounded by willow trees. Mable is a bit uneasy about renting to a single girl, but agrees when told by Norrie that she's there to catch up on some missed school work and is preparing for exams in a month. Things are fine for a while until one day Mable, an upright, God-fearing woman, accidentally discovers Norrie with a boy in her cabin, caught in flagrante, and orders her off the property. It doesn't help matters that "the young boy wore his hair as long as a girl."

Next we hear from Dr, Wyndam Hargier, a physician who works at the college attended by Norrie. He recalls how he was called in two years ago when, after disappearing for ten days following a party, Norrie was dropped off in front of her dormitory by a car that sped away. She was "semiconscious and uncommunicative," and badly bruised as "the result of strenuous copulation with a male either very muscular or of sadistic tendencies." Dr. Hargier recommends sending her home to Philadelphia to recuperate.

Norrie's mother recalls when she was called by the college and how she found it "most irritating that [she] could not speak to [Norrie] on the telephone." Amelia Ames is one of MacDonald's classic and most perfectly realized self-absorbed parent, a typically affluent and distracted person who has little time or inclination to raise a child. When told of her daughter's condition, she is upset, because both she and her husband "had engagements [they] could not easily break." She's also not happy with the college, who she feels could have "kept better track of my daughter." Norrie comes home to a house where her father has just been caught in the middle of an affair and there is little effort to deal with her recovery. Her parents hire a doctor to look after her, "the very top talent available," but Norrie disappears in the middle of her treatment and later notifies them that she is up at the cabin, preparing to return to school.

Norrie's boyfriend Michael relates how he stumbled upon the cabin while hiking one day, became acquainted with Norrie and then fell in love with her. They lived together in the cabin for several weeks in a kind of idyllic fog, but after they were caught by Mrs. Turner they drove across the country living a nomadic life, until they eventually ended up at a hippy commune in Arizona. After three weeks of that lifestyle they tired of it, and tired of each other and split. Michael went on to college and Norrie returned home, where she eventually married, then took her new husband on a honeymoon to a special place... a small cabin by a willow pool.

The final character in the story is William Mass, a criminologist who was asked by police to look into the sudden and mysterious murder of one Paul Warcroft, who was killed on a remote apple farm upstate, and who was Norrie's husband.

"The Willow Pool" is a beautifully written and inexpressibly sad story that covers a lot of ground in it's 42 pages. MacDonald deals with issues of self-worth, psychosis, repression, the sixties youth movement, and even environmental issues, parroting a rant on DDT taken directly from a letter he wrote to friend Dan Rowan. Norrie's problems began long before her ten-day disappearance, evidenced by her preoccupied mother, and is described by her boyfriend Michael as a person who "hated the way she looked, hated her body, hated her build [and] felt as if she was a scrawny, ugly, sickening mess." The unifying theme with all of the narrators -- excepting her mother -- is a profound sense of regret and guilt that they were unable to help her when they had the opportunity. And while it's never made clear until the very end exactly what happened to cause these people to reminisce about this poor girl, it's obvious that it was something terrible and avoidable.

As I mentioned in an earlier posting, the only short story MacDonald published the year S*E*V*E*N was issued was a piece in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine titled "He Was Always a Nice Boy." That tale is a kind of mirror image of "The Willow Pool," both in style and substance, as we are told about another troubled child -- a boy -- who was raised by preoccupied, affluent parents and who eventually went off the deep end. There's only a single narrator in "He Was Always a Nice Boy," but his voice could have come directly out of "The Willow Pool;" he is as bemused and as clueless as to how something like "that" could happen as some of the characters in that story are.

As I mentioned in the beginning, the antecedent to this particular style of storytelling is MacDonald's 1954 novel All These Condemned. There we have a story told by several different-yet-connected characters, all talking in first-person about an off-screen character who never speaks for herself. At that point in his career MacDonald felt the need to separate the current with the past by giving each character two chapters, a before and after, where by the time he wrote "The Willow Pool" he was accomplished and talented enough to condense past and present into a single character narrative. Both stories are whodunits featuring a female lead character, but in the novel that character is dead, and in the short story, well...

MacDonald's use of the willow tree as both imagery and symbol is interesting as well, with its echoes of Shakespeare and two of his doomed women. The soon-to-die Desdemona sings a "Willow Song" before being murdered in Othello, and in Hamlet the driven-mad Ophelia drowns herself in a stream overhung by a willow tree, but not before making a crown for herself from its branches. MacDonald never makes any direct references to these plays, thank goodness, but the imagery of the icy pond -- overhung by three willow trees and always in the shade -- paints a sufficiently ominous picture early in the story.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Death Quotient"

"Death Quotient" is a John D MacDonald science fiction novella that was originally published in the April 1949 issue of Super Science Stories. It appeared alongside two other MacDonald stories, "All Our Yesterdays" and "Delusion Drive" and as was the custom at the time, the latter two tales were printed under "house names." God forbid that someone should see JDM's name more than once in the same issue. It was simpler, I suppose, to trick the reader.

Thanks to the recent eBook publication of Death Quotient and Other Stories, all three are available again for the first time in 60 years.

The setting for "Death Quotient" is near-future Earth, probably the late 1950's or early Sixties. It's year three of World War III and the two sides are at a kind of stalemate, although "the invader" has managed to secure a beachhead on American soil. MacDonald sets the background nicely in a few brief, early paragraphs:

"The atomic bomb had proven to be an almost perfect weapon during the first two weeks of the war. Millions had died. But human courage and resources had rendered obsolete the vast, white flare, the mushroom cloud.

"In the first weeks of war, every center of industrial production in the United States had been wiped out, along with an estimated forty-five million people.But from the secret launching stations that were undamaged, the retaliatory rockets had smashed the vast resources of the potential invader.

"There followed a lull of almost a year, while each participant licked wounds, decentralized, made a national inventory of tools and resources, and established new production facilities in deep places in the earth.

"Having suffered the least damage, the invader was able to equip a fleet and, after almost crippling losses, establish a beachhead on the New England coast. Six months later the expanded beachhead reached to within eighteen miles of where the city of Albany had once stood, and north to the eastern shore of Hudson Bay.

"And for a year and a half the lines had remained practically static. It was vicious war, without principal, without mercy. Due to the decentralization of facilities and the use of vast underground defensive networks, the usefulness of the atomic bomb had become much like that of a sledge hammer for driving a tack...

"For a year and a half it had been a war of knife and pistol and bare hands...

"In the end, both sides had learned that the weapon which would win would be brave men, armed with portable weapons, who could kill other brave men at close quarters."

Second Lieutenant Martin Rhode, stationed somewhere in the Chemung Valley, is the hero of this tale. He's been detached from his usual job of conducting surreptitious raids behind enemy lines in order to lead a truck convoy of much needed supplies to a point near the town of Oneonta. But halfway down Route 17 in the dead of night, the convoy is stopped by "a perfectly straight bolt of lightning, thicker than any lightning flash ... ever seen, driving straight down from the cloudless heavens to bury itself in the earth with a thick, chunking noise that seemed to shake the road." With the huge hole directly in the middle of the road, Martin orders the convoy to go around it while he investigates. The hole is two hundred feet in diameter and the cut along the side looks as if it were sliced cleanly with a knife. He climbs down to find that the path takes a sharp right turn parallel with the ground surface. Then, toward the end of the tunnel, he sees light.

Meanwhile, outside troops have arrived and have discovered an invisible wall surrounding the hole, reaching up into the sky as high as any of their aircraft can climb. It is invulnerable to any attempt to penetrate it. A weird, hypersonic noise emanates from the area causing severe depression to anyone within earshot. The military believes the hole is the work of some new enemy weapon and begins working to try and penetrate the wall. Rhode is assumed to be dead.

But the enemy is just as perplexed. They have sent ten missiles to try and destroy it, but all of them have crashed into the towering, invisible wall and have been obliterated.

And of course Rhode is not dead. Trapped beneath the surface he discovers a huge metallic thing and two alien beings who immobilize him and who communicate telepathically. Their appearance causes a deep-seated fear in him:

"The thing on the floor was a vast, pulpy, obscene caricature of a man. Naked and gray. Eyes with faceted prisms protruding from the face, a tiny furred orifice below the eyes, and a wide lemon-yellow gash that was a mouth. Ten feet tall if standing, he guessed. The arms were oddly jointed and there was something horribly wrong about the hands and fingers, the fingers curling to the outside of where the wrists should be, rather than in toward the body."

They are members of a warrior race, far advanced, who have been fighting the members of another planet for thousands of years. Their ship has crashed on Earth and they are going to use their misfortune to advantage: they plan to lure a number of enemy ships to their location and then destroy them... by blowing up the planet!

Of course there is an obligatory paragraph making all of the necessary comparisons to the violence of humanity:

"In the beginning tribe fights tribe, then city fights city, then nation fights nation, then continent fights continent. That is your present stage. Should you survive this stage, you will find planet fighting planet, then solar system fighting foreign solar system, and at last galaxy warring with galaxy. Who can tell? Possibly beyond that is universe making war with universe, or dimension against dimension. In each step there is always the possibility of mutual extermination, and with that, the peace that living things can find. Only in death is there peace, and death is the final step."

In the end Rhode figures out a way to warn humanity of this collective threat, and mankind reacts accordingly.

Whenever I come across a JDM science fiction story that the author elected not to include in his 1978 anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, I am immediately curious as to why. With "Death Quotient" it's pretty obvious. It's a basic pulp tale, lacking in much depth or sub-text, and the ending is a variation on an old s-f device that probably had whiskers on it even back in 1949. It's been used many times since, most notably (and imaginatively) in the 1963 Outer Limits episode "The Architects of Fear." MacDonald had nothing to be ashamed of in "Death Quotient," and it is an enjoyable read, but he adds little to the vocabulary of science fiction here and the story possesses none of the characteristic JDM "voice."

It's nice to have it available again, but be warned that the eBook version is marred by numerous spelling mistakes, typographical errors and formatting problems. The errors are at times infuriating, especially the lack of the author's characteristic double-spaced scene shifts that cause the reader to have to stop dead in their tracks in order to get their bearings. Had such a sloppy product been released in JDM's lifetime it likely would have been the last eBook he ever authorized.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

"Built for Speed"

John D MacDonald was a great admirer of Ernest Hemingway, of both the man and his writing. A lot of his early work owes much to Hemmingway's spare and Spartan prose, and MacDonald's love of sports in general and fishing in particular is a reflection of the older man's passions. Biographer Ed Hirshberg draws a particular comparison between Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea and an obscure JDM short story published in a 1949 called "Blue Water Fury." It was later included in MacDonald's first short story anthology under it's original title -- "The Big Blue" -- and while it is doubtful Hemingway ever read MacDonald's story, the overtones are apparent. JDM's admiration for the man was no less direct. He roughly took friend Dan Rowan to task in 1967 when Rowan repeated a rumor that Papa was "a bad shot and a coward." I've often wondered if MacDonald's love of bullfighting -- an odd passion for an environmentalist to have -- might have been a nod in Hemingway's direction.

So it must have thrilled MacDonald to no end when in 1954 his story "Built for Speed" was published in the June issue of Argosy. It appeared alongside a Hemingway non-fiction piece called "Green Hills of Africa," and even though it was a "condensation" of his identically-titled 1935 book, MacDonald was probably no less proud to see their names together in the same table of contents. He may have been especially proud because "Built for Speed" was one of his superior efforts at short fiction.

It's a simple piece that builds slowly over its 3,750 words to an odd and compelling climax. Joe Rutland runs a small boatyard on the west coast of Florida, a business he has owned for several years. Before moving to the Sunshine State he was an M.I.T. grad and a designer of marine diesels and had a Navy engineering rating. But a "high-pressure job and ... a high-pressure, double-dealing wife" made him decide to ditch everything and move south, and he emerged from his divorce with enough cash to buy into the boatyard. He sleeps in a small apartment in the back of the main shop and realizes that he is "having a fine time and doing what [he] should have done in the first place."

It's the middle of a hot, quiet Florida summer and he's sitting on the dock of a neighboring marina talking with the dockmaster Russ when a "strange boat" approaches, "fast, with good lines, sparkling in the sun."

"A girl stood spread-legged on the bow, the coiled line in her hand. She wore a scanty, yellow two-piece sun suit, and she took tan like an Indian, a deep red-bronze. The sun had bleached her hair almost white. .. Something about her, a sort of insolence in the way she stood there, with her long, smooth legs, made me conscious of my ragged, faded khaki shorts, my bare feet, the grease on my hands."
The vessel is the Go Girl out of New Orleans and is owned by a gruff, obnoxious man by the name of Barrow. He appears to be about forty, is short, dark, with "plenty of shoulders" and a square, sun-darkened face. The girl, who looks to be maybe twenty, is Ginny. He treats her with the same rudeness and contempt he treats the two men on the dock, ordering her around with loud sarcasm. But Barrow has a problem with one of his engines, and Russ tells him that he need look no further than the man with grease on his hands. Rutland offers to take a look at it tomorrow but Barrow tells him he'll pay him double to fix it immediately.
They take the Go Girl over to Rutland's boatyard, where Rutland quickly determines the problem and has it repaired in no time. On the way back to the marina Barrow almost swamps a couple of kids fishing in a dinghy, which nearly causes a fist fight between the owner and Rutland. Instead of fighting, Barrow lets out a "whoop of laughter."

"The girl was sitting in a Buddha pose on the bow. She turned and looked back with an expression of surprise. I guess it wasn't a sound she heard often."
Back at the marina Rutland has a rare moment alone with Ginny, who reveals offhandedly that Barrow is her husband.

"I didn't like to hear her say husband. I'd been doing some ridiculous daydreaming. I wanted him to be boss, father, big-brother -- anything but husband. My first impression of her, the impression of arrogance, had been wrong. She was a big, shy blonde girl with something terribly subdued about her."
The longer the two talk, the more nervous Ginny seems, casting sidelong glances in the direction of her husband.

"It was obvious that she wanted me to go away. Her eyebrows were pale-bleached against her heavy tan. Sometimes it is too easy to be a damn fool. She wanted me to go and I didn't want to go. I wanted to know more about these people and this marriage. I guess I was getting a White Knight complex or something. I had nominated her princess, and I didn't like her being married to him, and I didn't think she liked it very much, either.

"There are some couples you see and the idea of sex between them is slightly unbelievable. But with other couples they seem to represent maleness and femaleness, and you can sense somehow that their relationship is predominantly physical. She was young and beautifully constructed and she had an indicative ripeness. And he was male as a clenched fist. The boat began to make me oddly uncomfortable. It was the flavor of them, I guess, a sensing of a relationship that was not good."
Later that evening Rutland is amused to find himself shaving, showering and dressing in nice clothes to have dinner at the marina's club. On this evening he wished to appear "the young man of distinction... for some ungodly reason." At the club he finds Barrow sitting alone with a half-emptied brandy bottle, drunk but sentient. "With the courage of gin," Rutland leaves and heads down to the marina, toward the Go Girl. It's dark and hard to see, but there on the top deck sits Ginny Barrow in a pale dress...

Like most of JDM's works of short fiction, "Built for Speed" is an utterly forgotten story, known to his fans as little more than a title on a list of John D MacDonald stories -- if that. Yet the piece is a little gem, a model of storytelling and character told with a sense of economy that would have made Hemingway proud. It's engrossing, with a sense of mystery and violence just beneath the surface, and it rings more than just a little bit with the sound of Travis McGee. There are scores of these little forgotten mini-masterpieces among the hundreds of uncollected JDM short stories, just waiting to be either rediscovered or forgotten for all eternity.