Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Wild, Wonderful Old Man"

The repeated refrain throughout the writing career of John D MacDonald, voiced by fans and sympathetic critics alike, went something like this: MacDonald was not just a great mystery writer, he was a great writer. Period. Clarence Petersen, a book critic for the Chicago Tribune, spoke for many when he wrote, "MacDonald's fans have known all along that there is more to his stories than meets the private eye, that his talents for characterization, motivation and milieu are at least the equal of his talent for concocting a crime." From the mid-Sixties up until his death his fans could proudly point out that he was the only living American author who enjoyed a regularly published journal dedicated to the study of his work, a journal that survived him by eight years. A few daring English professors in colleges throughout the country would occasionally assign one of his books for study, and Cal Branche -- who later went on to be the Managing Editor of that JDM journal -- even taught The Deep Blue Good-By to high school students when he was a teacher in Massachusetts.

Yet, as far as I can tell, only one John D MacDonald work ever appeared within the covers of a school textbook. It was a 1,500-word short story that originally appeared in the March 29, 1964 issue of This Week called "Wild, Wonderful Old Man," and two years later it was included in a classroom collection titled New Worlds of Literature, edited by Warren J. Halliburton and Mauri E. Pelkonen. And while it is nice to know that MacDonald was thought well enough of to be taught to school-aged kids, "Wild, Wonderful Old Man," is not first-rate JDM. In fact, it's an out-and-out copy of a far superior work, "End of the Tiger" a story that appeared in This Week only five months before.

Like "End of the Tiger," the protagonist and narrator of "Wild, Wonderful Old Man" is a man looking back on a profound incident in his childhood that has both shaped and haunted him. Both stories feature large, rural, fatherless families where the patriarchal figurehead is a widowed grandfather. And in both cases, something bad happens, the grandfather makes an uncharacteristic decision that is completely misunderstood by everyone, yet hindsight has revealed it to be of amazing wisdom. Even the title of the second story seems derived from "End of the Tiger," where the grandfather is referred to as "a wild and random old man." And in both stories the narrator is nameless.

In "End of the Tiger" the flashback is triggered by a chance encounter with the now-adult Tiger Shaw. In "Wild, Wonderful Old Man" the protagonist's recollection is sparked by the sight of a distant forest fire seen from the safety of an airplane. It reminds him of the dry October of his youth, the year when the well ran dry and the creek nearly did the same. Fires sprang up in the nearby woods with alarming frequency, necessitating the local farmers to band together in an effort to extinguish them. "When the winds were right, you could smell the stink of burning forest, a strange dirty stench, somehow frightening." Walking back from the creek where he had been playing with his older brother Paul, the narrator takes a match from the corner of his mouth and throws it down onto a nearby rock.

"In those years all small boys knew that if you hold a match in a certain way and throw it downward at a stone or a sidewalk, it will pop and burn. I was not skilled, but I had tried so many times it required no thought. As we passed a gray rock half buried in the dry weeds along the fence line, I hurled my match at it. It struck properly for once. The head popped and bounced into the weeds, and in an instant the sun-paled flames were high and spreading."

Paul reacts immediately and begins "stomping and flailing" at the flames, while the narrator runs to the house for help. The entire family springs into action, headed by grandfather, "like a great windmill hammering at the flames, yelling at them as he beat them down." After the fire is out and the family is resting, exhausted on the porch, grandfather asks an unusual question: "Which one of you did it?"

Unusual, because grandfather's typical method of punishment was to "wallop everyone who had been in the immediate area." He'd never singled anyone out before, knowing that in this family there were "no tattletales." Before the protagonist can open his mouth, Paul announces "I did it!" Grandfather sighed and looked at the narrator, as if he secretly knew the real guilty party, but proceeds with his unusual punishment. Grandfather arranges for Paul to skip school for a few days and takes him along with a group of firefighters to get a taste of fighting a real fire. While they are gone the well runs dry, and with Paul and Grandfather away, our narrator is the oldest male in the family. He is astonished when his mother asks him, "What do you think we should do?"

"Wild, Wonderful Old Man" is a good, well-written story that is both evocative and poignant, yet it is hard for a reader who is familiar with "End of the Tiger" to take very seriously. Its structure is identical and the characters could be the very same people that populated that earlier, superior story. Yet "Wild, Wonderful Old Man" lacks the wistful tone that made the earlier story so memorable, and its repeating of structure certainly lessens its impact. Both stories deal with the subject of guilt and regret, but those emotions are essentially subtext in "Tiger," while here they are the motivation.

As I have pointed out in a previous posting, this was not the first time MacDonald took a This Week story and essentially copied it a short time later. His very first submission to the magazine, "I Love You (Occasionally)," was copied a year later and published as "He Knew a Broadway Star." What was it about This Week? Did the magazine's editors specifically request what are, for the most part, sequels to earlier stories? Were the first stories so popular with the readers that MacDonald was obliged to keep his readership happy? Or were these tales first drafts of their predecessors? Perhaps the answer exists somewhere in The Collection.

The author's original title to the story was "Grandfather and the Burning Forest." It was changed by the This Week editors to "Wild, Wonderful Old Man," and changed once again -- to "Fire!" -- when it was collected in New Worlds of Literature.

That textbook was compiled specifically for students who might be dissuaded by longer, more involved examples of writing. A mix of fiction and non-fiction, there is nothing in New Worlds of Literature so long that it couldn't be read in a single sitting, even for the seventh graders it was seemingly designed for. In the preface the editors explain:

"We looked for a new kind of reading material and put it into the book that you are now reading. It is not the easiest book in the world, nor is it the hardest. It is a book for boys and girls who want to be better readers and are willing to work for that goal."

I was in seventh grade around the time New Worlds of Literature was published. We were reading things like Johnny Tremain, Light in the Forest, and Shane. A little John D MacDonald would have been nice, even if it was this less-than-stellar example of his work.
Like all of JDM's This Week stories, copies can be downloaded -- for a price -- from any of the online newspaper archives that carried This Week as a Sunday supplement. I obtained mine from the Los Angeles Times.

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