Wednesday, March 17, 2010

"The Trouble with Erica"

I've never been sure exactly how to take "The Trouble with Erica." This 6,000-word John D MacDonald short story from the September 1953 issue of Cosmopolitan can be approached on a number of different levels and reveals, I think, a lot about MacDonald the Moralist. It's a troubling tale with an extremely disagreeable protagonist whose manipulation of friends and co-workers destroy a happy and promising relationship. The fact that he has subsequent doubts about his actions does little to assuage the bitter feeling the reader is left with, especially because one gets the sense that MacDonald enjoyed this ugly little trick almost as much as the protagonist did.

Mack Landers and his younger partner Quent Dale run a growing business that demands long hours and their full attention. But for the past six weeks Quent hasn't been "pulling full weight." He's met a girl and he's in love. Erica Holmes works in the city library and has just returned to town, homesick, after living for several years back east. Quent met her by chance and they began dating. Now, after only a month and a half, he wants to ask her to marry him.

This does not sit well with his partner. Landers, who is eight years Quent's senior and constantly refers to him as "kid," senses that this relationship will divert Quent's attention from work, and his dreams of growing their firm to mega-status will soon be replaced with just getting by. A double-date is arranged along with Mack's girl Marie and the story opens as they are dropping Erica back home. Mack, who is as obnoxious a character as any MacDonald had created up to that point, was surprised when he first saw Erica. He was expecting a "bloodless and bifocaled thing with elfin mannerisms," and instead he encountered a beautiful and alluring woman.

"... Erica had been a thing to stir the blood. Every time, during the evening, when she had been close to [Landers], the backs of [his] hands had tingled. She was a grave brunette, her hair so dark it looked almost blue under lights. She had tilted gray eyes, that husky voice, and a body suitable for a calendar in any repair shop. But it was more than that, he knew. It was a certain aura, an invisible emanation of desirability that could be felt ten feet away from her and increased in geometric proportion as he got closer..."
Mack suspects Erica is a woman with a past and worries that young, idealistic Quent has stars in his eyes and can't see that. Mack has been married, divorced, and seems to know a lot about certain "types" of women. When Quent reveals to Mack that he wants to ask Erica to marry him, Mack swings into action. He makes an unannounced mid-day visit to the library and confronts Erica obliquely ("... I just wanted to see you in your natural habitat...and maybe see how natural it is."), and fails to do anything but get her angry and defensive. He then comes up with an idea to go on another double date, this time a Sunday morning picnic. He arranges a last minute flat tire that allows him to drive to the picnic site with Erica, while Quent has to drive a bit later with the noxious Marie. Alone in the woods, Mack makes a play for Erica, who resists, or tries to, but like the scorpion riding on the back of the frog, cannot: it's her nature.

"He kissed her and then looked calmly at her face, looked at the glazed scimitar eyes, at the broken mouth. He laughed somewhere deep in his throat and took her in his arms again."

There are times when MacDonald's moralizing gets to be too much, never more so than when he is dealing with "fallen" or sexually active women. And although he has often treated them with extreme sympathy -- see Barbara Heddon in Judge Me Not, or Bonny Varaki in The Neon Jungle -- it is clear he only does so once they have redeemed themselves in his eyes. In Erica Holmes, MacDonald asks us to believe that a woman who is desperately attempting her own redemption will always be a slave to her uncontrollable desires and thus cannot be redeemed. It's self-defeating, it's holier-than-thou, and it is one of JDM's shortcomings that have led to many latter-day charges of sexism in his work.

Yet, in 1953 I doubt if MacDonald was worried about being called a sexist. His interest in "The Trouble with Erica" is not with the girl in the title, but the character and motivations of Mack Landers. A rude, brash know-it-all with no redeeming qualities, he prefigures the protagonists of some of MacDonald's "adult" stories in S*E*V*E*N such as Aldo Bellinger or Frank Raymond. He doesn't act out of spite or from some uncontrollable urge to make mischief, but because he honestly believes he is helping and doing the right thing. It is only at the end of the tale where we are allowed to see some possible uncertainty and even remorse on his part. I've often wondered if, in some sort of perverse way, MacDonald was modeling the character on himself.

"The Trouble with Erica" was anthologized once, in MacDonald's 1966 collection End of the Tiger and Other Stories.

(The interior magazine illustrations, by Arpie Ermoyan, came from Today's Inspiration.)



  1. I just read this story today and it is definitely one of MacDonald's lesser ones. I am a little surprised it saw the light of day again in End of the Tiger. I kept waiting for the payoff and wondered what was in Erica's past. Was she an ex-con? Did she lead a double life? No...I guess she was just a "loose woman." Maybe a crime to some by 1950's standards.

    1. Exactly. But then again, I don't think we are meant to like the protagonist very much. This story would have fit better into S*E*V*E*N, with the many protagonist louts there.