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.

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