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.


  1. This is the place for MacDonald scholarship! What a thorough and informative review. Thank you.

  2. I just read this book, I have read all Travis and about 25 non-Travis JDM books. I really enjoyed this one a lot. I appreciate your note about the reader being embarrassed and I imagine I often feel that way reading JDM, but the good moments far outnumber those painful ones. JDM is no Updike, but I still think is a much better read than people apparently give it credit for. The Brock story is terrific, as are his insights into Bess’s understanding of her son. The Quinn character is well arced and the Ben/Quinn verbal beatdown is brutal. It’s just a thoroughly engaging read.