Friday, April 16, 2010

Weep for Me no longer

After thirty-five years of looking through countless used bookstores and online sources, I finally found, purchased and have read an affordable copy of John D MacDonald's elusive fourth novel Weep for Me. Thanks to a post mortem limited-edition reprinting by British publisher Robert Hale, there are hardcover copies floating around the world of cyberspace that are selling for prices far below that of either of the two paperback printings. Granted, the prices are not dirt cheap, but the mere fact that one can obtain a copy of this rare novel for under $100 is remarkable. I paid about $35 -- not much more than one would expect to spend for a newly printed hardcover -- for an ex-library copy, complete with a plastic-covered dust jacket, once owned by the Port Glasgow Library. I found it on Amazon UK from a merchant who was willing to ship overseas and it took about two weeks to arrive. Needless to say, I dropped everything I was working on to read it when it finally did show up. For a MacDonald enthusiast, this was indeed a big moment.

Back in November I wrote a piece on the book, which you can read here. The reason the book is so hard to find is that the author hated it and refused to have it reissued after its second printing in 1959. There is even some evidence that he didn't want the second printing but somehow it slipped through anyway (more on that later). He was quoted once as stating "It should die quietly in the back of used paperback book nooks," and later explained that he thought it "really quite a bad book... imitation James M. Cain ... with some gratuitous and unmotivated scenes." The three modern-day reappraisals of the book I discussed previously all basically come to the same conclusion: John D MacDonald was too harsh in his criticism of the book and that Weep for Me can stand proudly with the author's less-than-topnotch works. After reading the novel myself I'm forced to say that I agree with MacDonald, that this book is a noble failure, an attempt to write the kind of book he was not well suited to.

Its debt to James M. Cain is painfully obvious, but MacDonald lacked the skill at this point in his career to successfully portray the kind of existential separation Cain's characters suffer from. MacDonald's protagonists are invariably men who are successes in their chosen professions, experts who understand their work and do it well despite outward appearances, whether it's engineering, social work, claims adjusting, construction or serving in the upper management of industry. Weep for Me's Kyle Cameron is a lowly bank teller, a drifting, unfocused, unmotivated hero who seems to be aimlessly moving through life like a leaf in the wind. His strange attraction to Emily Rudolph -- portrayed as a modern-day succubus -- turns into obsession after a ridiculously brief exchange of words and his life changes course forever. The only protagonist who comes remotely close to Kyle in terms of moral ambiguity is Teed Morrow from Judge Me Not, but unlike Kyle, Morrow makes a morally positive decision early in the novel that ultimately propels the plot. Kyle Cameron is in a class by himself.

Told in first person, much of the writing in Weep for Me is overly florid and far too artificially colorful to be either believable or acceptable on its own pulp terms. Again, MacDonald seems to be aspiring to Cain when he writes sentences like these:

"...I couldn't tell her that in some funny way I had stopped wanting her, that all the wanting had somehow been diverted all at once, as though an earthquake had changed the course of a mighty river."

"She thrust her hips against me and leaned backward from the waist, as though she were trying to hold herself aloof and apart from the the body, which had now taken over volition, had now begun its unthinking act."

Some of it seems uncharacteristically clumsy, like this line:

"I was holding her, caressing her, murmuring to her, trying to make her fears smaller and her wants greater..."

Or some of it is downright embarrassing, like this almost comical exchange following Kyle and Emily's first sexual act together:

Emily: "This wasn't going to happen, I wasn't going to let it happen."

Kyle: "What did I do that made it happen?"

Emily: "I won't tell you that."

Kyle: "Because I'll use it again?"

Emily: "Yes"

[Kyle figures 'it' out.]

Emily: "Damn you. Damn you for learning how!"

The plotting of the novel is well done, even if it feels looser than the typical JDM novel of his early period, and the last quarter of the book -- which takes place in Mexico -- is very good indeed and was later mined by the author for his 1957 effort The Empty Trap. The character of Manuel Flores is chillingly drawn and seems a model of other latter-day JDM bad guys who happen to be masters of psychology. There are some well-written passages, not surprisingly, like this remorseful paragraph that follows a loud argument that takes place between Kyle and another teller at the bank. A stern, "influential" vice president stands up and "glares" at Kyle:

"'Watch that sort of thing, Cameron,' he said coldly.

"That's the hell of working in a bank. You can knock off six years of hard work in ten seconds. [Twenty years later] they'd still be remembering the morning I raised my voice at Sam Grinter. And I could see, just as plain as day, that I would remain a teller until the day they retired me. It wouldn't matter how many I.C.S. and night-school courses I took. Can't have a man yelling in a bank. No respect. Better keep an eye on him."

(Perhaps it's because I spent 30 years in the banking industry that I find that scene so funny and realistic.)

The mechanics of the couple's bank embezzlement, which takes place over the period of six weeks, is imaginative and well thought out, and by the time the pair hit the road with their swag, the book comes alive and it's hard to put down. There's suspense, betrayal and even murder: everything that MacDonald excels at, yet the book as a whole is deeply unsatisfying and "off" in a way that will be obvious to readers of MacDonald familiar with his other works of this period. And Emily's blatantly symbolic comeuppance and the appearance of a female character that eventually becomes Kyle's moral and physical salvation remind one more of comic books than JDM.This type of "descent into hell" plot would be revisited in the author's later forays into sexual obsession such as The Deceivers and Clemmie, but the motivations of the characters in those later novels ring much truer than the weird tale of Kyle and Emily. MacDonald's comment about "unmotivated scenes" is telling, as the motivation of either of the characters never seems close to realistic and the novel is ultimately unrewarding.

The only time MacDonald ever discussed Weep for Me in any detail that I am aware of (and it wasn't much) was in a letter he wrote to the JDM Bibliophile back in 1967 when the journal was still being edited by its founders Len and June Moffat. He had this to say:

"... there is such a thing as a learning curve, or better objectivity, or sharper skills as time goes by. For example, there is one novel, Weep for Me, which could have been reprinted many times by Fawcett over the years, and even though they could have gone ahead and done so without my permission, they were kind enough to respect my wishes and shelve it. I do not want it out because it was a kind of bad imitation of James M. Cain, and it does not come off. It is a clumsy book."

It was a position he never waivered from, even to the point of asking Ed Hirshberg not to discuss it in his 1985 Twain biography, which certainly says something about how much the author wanted to forget about this book. I know nothing of the circumstances surrounding the 2003 British hardcover edition, other than it must have been authorized by JDM's son Maynard, and that it was printed with a relatively small and single run. I, for one, am glad of it or I probably never would have been able to read it.

There seems to be some questions surrounding MacDonald's authorization of a second printing of the book in 1959. I read once (I don't remember where) that MacDonald asked that it not be reprinted, but somehow it was, either as an error or something Fawcett did willfully against the author's wishes. Most of the other early JDM novels were reprinted around the same time, probably in an effort to cash in on the success of The Executioners, and they all were "updated" to a small degree in order to appear as if their settings were contemporaneous.These were little things, like changing names of famous celebrities referenced in passing, changing the tense on a public figure who had since passed away, and changing dates. Weep for Me was no exception, as the Robert Hale hardcover was obviously based on the updated manuscript. Kyle remembers being drafted in 1950 when he was 20, and he is now 29. Although there is no mention of war, the locations of his military stations -- England and Brussels -- clearly denote a World War II setting, as these were not typical base assignments for draftees in 1959. So, if the second printing was updated, one must assume that MacDonald either made the changes himself, or he was aware they were being done. If he knew about the ones in Weep for Me, why didn't he stop its publication?

The old aphorism that says "trust the art and not the artist" is generally a wise one to follow, but as is evident from Weep for Me, sometimes you have to trust both the art and the artist.

4 comments:

  1. That is one great feeling to finally find that
    book after all those years.

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  2. On page 73, Kyle says he bought a "Chrysler New Yorker, vintage '57". A neat trick in 1951!

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  3. Chris, I'm currently re-reading THE EMPTY TRAP and there are multiple changes in the edition I have. The protagonist recalls when he met another character back in 1963 -- in a 1957 novel.

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