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.

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