Chicago Tribune book critic and John D MacDonald champion Clarence Petersen once wrote that Cry Hard, Cry Fast, MacDonald's fifteenth book, "... may be the only novel ever written around an auto accident." Since Petersen read a lot more books than I ever have, I'll have to take him at his word, but if the central incident of the plot is unique the structure the author used in the novel was not. Cry Hard, Cry Fast was MacDonald's very first Popular Library publication and he was anxious for it to be successful, so he returned to the narrative technique that had served him so will in his most popular novel to date. His 1952 book The Damned featured a collection of different and unconnected people gathered together at a damaged ferry crossing, and the author developed each character through both background and interaction with the others at the landing. Cry Hard, Cry Fast, published in 1955, does the same thing, only it uses a multi-car accident as its gathering-point. And although MacDonald certainly didn't invent this kind of plot structure -- it goes back to at least 1927 with Thornton Wilder's Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Bridge at San Luis Rey -- he excelled with it and returned to it multiple times over his career, culminating in the lengthy and dense Condominium in 1977.
A crime novel in only the broadest of terms (one of the characters is an escaped bank robber), Cry Hard, Cry Fast shows MacDonald as a growing artist, a writer who was learning and using past mistakes a stepping-stones. It's certainly better-written than its predecessor A Bullet for Cinderella and it's a better book than its inspiration, The Damned. MacDonald has pared down the number of characters, from eight to seven (more or less) and he does away with the framing device used in that earlier book, replacing it with a seventh chapter that is a complete digression from plot and character where he discusses the physics of moving and stopping automobiles in a mock-classroom setting. And like The Damned, one of the central stories focuses on a married couple who are on the verge of estrangement, as well as a single criminal escaping his crime, but everyone else is different. All but one of them are on the road at this particular instance in their lives in an effort to seek change, to run from something or to some vague, unknown something ill-defined to even them. Tellingly, the one person who was there at that moment as a matter of course is the one main character who does not survive.
Using a multiple-car accident as the "gathering point," MacDonald gives each of his characters an introductory chapter leading up to the crash. They all begin similarly, like this: "Two hours before the accident occurred, Devlin Jamison drove over the crest of a hill..." or "A half-hour before the worst multiple-car crash in the three-year history of the new hundred-mile stretch of six-lane divided highway..." or (my favorite), "An hour before a huge young state trooper left the scene of the accident to be profoundly sick in the roadside ditch..." Then, following the "intermission chapter" where MacDonald goes into the science of car crashes, we watch how the wreck affects the survivors in life-changing ways. New secondary characters are introduced, including the town doctor, a tow truck operator, a cafe waitress and later, a couple of FBI agents.
We are on Route 56 in Blanchard, probably somewhere in either Pennsylvania or New York, on one of the new super-highways, those marvels of modern travel that were just beginning to become commonplace in 1955 preceding the creation of the Interstate Highway system. The town itself is a small one, an old village thirty minutes from "the city," once autonomous and now a bedroom community (and which could be a virtual stand-in for Hillston, the setting of A Bullet for Cinderella.) The novel begins as The Damned did, with one of the characters riding down the road in a blue Cadillac, only unlike Darby Garon, Devlin Jamison is alone. A recently widowed architect, Dev is still fighting the grieving process that all too often rears its ugly head in brief moments of forgetfulness:
"He tightened his hands on the wheel as the grief and loss threatened to overwhelm him again. He cursed the trickery of grief. It would back off from you a little way, crouched and waiting, tail tip twitching restlessly. It would wait. It would wait until you were so far off guard that you started to think of Gina in the old way, fondly, amused at the eccentricities of her driving, aware of your love for her. It would wait for that moment and then pounce and shake you and say in your ear, "There is no more Gina. She's gone.'"
At the insistence of his business partners he has been sent on an extended vacation. Dev's guilt over the death of his wife -- she was hit by a bus as she was picking up Dev's dry cleaning -- has turned him into a brooding, silent man, and even though he is aware that his guilt is irrational, it never leaves him. With plenty of money in the bank and no children to burden him, Dev drives along Route 56 with a suitcase and his golf clubs, hoping to make it to a service station before the bumping sound near his right front tire becomes worse. In heavy traffic and travelling over 50 miles per hour, the tire blows, and in an attempt to correct his skid into the right lane he overcompensates and hits a curb, sending the blue Cad hurtling like a slow-moving javelin into the path of oncoming traffic on the opposite side of the road.
Suzie Scholl is the one member of the Scholl family who does not want to be on Route 56 that afternoon. Along with her bitter, eternally-angry father, her overweight, defeated mother and her noisy younger sister, the family is heading out of Blanchard and toward vacation. Father Bert, a short, powerful factory worker, has the trip itinerary planned down to the half-hour mark and Suzie has already made them late. Before hitting the road we are given a glimpse of the Scholls through the third person eyes of mother Alice, with some remarkably lean and precise descriptive prose. Of her husband Bert:
"She knew how he would look, his face pink and bright with anger. Bert Scholl was a smallish sandy-haired man with a vivid temper. His face had not changed much with the years. It was possible to look at him and see at once how he had looked as a very young man... His face had not changed, but he had changed on the inside. Frequently, of late, Alice had shocked herself by realizing that she didn't even like him anymore. Long ago there had been a certain sensitivity, a tenderness even. He had tried to help her. He had become, in his home, a complete autocrat, either shrill with anger, or boisterously cheerful. His frequent use of her weary body was as quick and impatient and selfish as his anger. He had lost the words of love."
As Alice tries to roust her eldest daughter from an overly long morning bath, she looks at Suzie's ripe, naked adult body and wonders what has become of her little girl:
"She had been a merry child, thin, active, laughing. But in the last two years the body had slowed and ripened, and she had become sulky, distant, difficult. There was no way to reach her. Alice had heard hints about her in the neighborhood. The girl had been out very late last night. It had been a warm evening. Alice saw the way it had been, the car blanket and the faceless man, and the ripeness of her daughter. She felt her face grow hot and she was aware of the sagging tiredness of her own used body."
Alice's fears are well founded, for Suzie is indeed sexually active, but only with Barney, her steady boyfriend. Suzie would rather be anywhere than stuck for a week with her family and away from Barney and she is sullen and sarcastic as they head out onto the highway. Bert tries to make up for lost time and when a truck cuts in front of him on the highway he takes it as a personal challenge:
"He put the pedal down to the floor and took off after the truck, arms tense, jaw jutted forward, pale eyes narrow...
"'Please be careful,' Alice said.
"'I'm driving,' he growled...
"When he looked at the road ahead he saw the pale blue car..."
Tall, blonde, twenty-eight year old Kathryn Aller is also on Route 56, leaving a past behind that has consumed eight years of her life, now heading back to Philadelphia and a "future [that] was a grayness ... she could not penetrate." Nine years ago she was a stenographer with the Allied Chemical Company and had been promoted to be the personal secretary of up-and-coming corporate hotshot Walter Houde. When Houde was transferred to the San Francisco office he wrote Kathryn after a few months and begged her to come work for him again. "I have tried to make do with spooks out here, but I am weary of dandruffy girls to whom work hours are a desert between dates." With no boyfriend or family to tie her down -- save an elderly aunt -- Kathryn makes the move. Weeks of close and intense work lead to the inevitable kiss and on to a lengthy affair, despite the fact that Walter is married with children. MacDonald's skills as a short story writer are put to excellent use in the chapter introducing Kathryn, as we read of their gradual descent into adultery that takes up multiple pages. Kathryn is described in the same language MacDonald used to illustrate Joan Perrit, another corporate secretary, in his 1954 novel Area of Suspicion, and the relationship between Kathryn and Walter would be used to a much different effect in his 1971 short story "Woodchuck."
In Walter, Kathryn had found a fulfillment and sense of purpose absent in the other parts of her life, until it becomes the only purpose of her life:
"She sensed that she was more nearly married to him than was his wife. She cared for him -- professionally, physically, emotionally -- learning all of him. It seemed that life would go on that way. What could stop it? Though he had many outside interests, he was her only interest. Life began when she went into the office and opened her desk in the morning. And began again when she heard his footsteps climbing toward the apartment he had found for her."
Sure enough, the inevitable happens. Walter begins drifting away, slowly at first, then more definitively as the affection waned and the relationship grew colder. The final scene was "nasty and vicious and unforgettable." She quits and returns east, along with a glowing letter of recommendation and a very generous check from Walter. Outside of Blanchard and right before the fateful accident, Kathryn ruminates on her life in a remarkable paragraph, leading the reader to feel that becoming involved in a life-threatening wreck might just be the best thing that can happen to her:
"I am twenty-eight, she thought. A competent secretary, an adequate cook, a practiced mistress. I have an air of coolness that repels people, discourages friendly advances. I have a good healthy body that will last a long time. Life is, perhaps, a third of the way finished. But everything that was to have happened has happened. All the other chapters are written, I shall inhabit an office, stiff and correct and unyieldingly efficient. In the slow wheeling of the years the memories will grow dim until at last it will seem as if all those nights belonged to someone else. Someone else held close the male flesh and made the small, soft cry of love. I shall sit sterile and erect and terrorize the young girls in the office and, behind my back, they will say the usual guessable things. I return now from whence I came, used up by the years, too dry to cry, too cold to be warmed again, assured of my own inadequacy, cleanly, solvent, clad -- and quite, quite dead."
Paul and Joyce Conklin are the married couple, out on vacation in an attempt to revive a dying marriage.Joyce is twenty-six, a thin woman with a face "like that of a sensitive boy of seventeen," a dark, firm, quick-gestured lady whose physical beauty is not evident in repose (another JDM female "type" --see Tilly Owen in "College-Cut Kill," among others).
"She elicited love because of what she was. She made friends as automatically as most people breathe because she was inevitably, deeply interested and concerned. Grocer, dentist, bus driver, meter reader -- they liked seeing her and felt better that day for having seen her... She had grown up in a home where there was love and faith and warmth and discipline. Her energy was without bounds, her optimism contagious."
Clearly Joyce is not the problem. It must be Paul, and after we are introduced to him that suspicion is indeed correct. In a beautifully-written couple of chilling sentences, we understand him completely:
“His childhood had been served, as a sentence is served, in that emotional wasteland of a home which should have been broken and was not – a home where hate is a voice beyond a closed door, where contempt is a long intercepted look, where violence is a palpable thing in the silent rooms... After reaching in every direction for security he had reached within himself and found it in the exercise of a brilliant though erratic mind. Only through intellectual arrogance could his mind -- that place of safety -- be made known to others."
Joyce was responsible for something coming to life within Paul, "and he came forth, reluctantly at first, from the blue icy caverns of his mind and found himself warmed, and then loved. He had not been loved before." The couple produced two children and life seemed good, but three years into the marriage "...it had started to come back. All of it. The black moodiness. The compulsion toward rejection. The walls of ice." Their trip through Blanchard is a route that follows their honeymoon, revisiting all of the old places in an attempt to rekindle a love that has apparently died at the hands of Paul. Yet everything Joyce says is twisted by Paul and things do not seem to be improving at all, when they see a blue Cadillac up ahead begin to suddenly weave dangerously.
Our bad guy in the novel is the curiously laconic Jim Frazier, one of MacDonald's archetypal soulless villain, but exhibiting a decidedly lowercase evil. (In fact, regular readers of JDM are more likely to tag Paul Conklin as the soulless one.) One half of a pair of bank robbers, he seems to be Perry Smith to partner Charlie's Dick Hickock. They are on the lam with the booty from a recent Florida bank robbery, hidden in a spare tire in the trunk, and along the way Charlie has picked up a blonde goodtime girl by the name of Lou. All we ever need to know about Lou (and all we are really given) is written into one spare, simple paragraph. When critic Anthony Boucher wrote that Cry Hard, Cry Fast was written with "both depth and economy," he may have had these few sentences in mind:
"'Me? Oh, I was born in a place called Farrel. That's near [JDM's birthplace] Sharon, Pennsylvania. But we left there when I was real little.' She sighed dramatically. 'I guess I've lived a lot of places since then. I guess you could say I've had a tragical life. I had a little girl once. She died after two weeks. She had water on the brain. I was married then. I still am, because he just took off, but I make like I'm not. Gee, why am I telling you all this stuff.'"
Frazier drives as Charlie and Lou do their thing in the back seat, and at one point at night Charlie looks in the rear view mirror and sees the car behind them "bisected by [Lou's] slim leg." After he's had enough, Charlie climbs up front and falls into a deep sleep that lasts until the following day. This leaves Lou bored and she constantly attempts to make conversation with Frazier. As Lou is revealed to be a beautiful dim bulb, Frazier's story in more interesting and MacDonald is parsimonious with the details. He's an ex-con with a superior intelligence, education and background, a war vet who prefers the excitement of crime to anything else. He recalls his answer to a prison doctor who speculated that for Frazier, the mere act of acquiring something seems to answer some deeply held need:
"Could that be it, Doc? So you think a fellow would get so he'd look forward to those minutes just before it happens, to the sweat and tension, and everything honed keen and fine and close? Right up to the thin, hot tip of one minute of being alive? Could that get to be a thing with him?"
With Charlie still asleep and Lou talking incessantly, Frazier is looking for a place to stop and switch driving duties with Charlie when he slams into the back of a slowed car and pulls off onto the center strip of the highway, only to see a big blue Cadillac flying right toward them.
Finally, there's Stanley Cherrik, a veteran driver of the big rigs, on the road for too many years to count, with a wife and four kids at home, one in the Army, the youngest a surprise toddler. Stanley is a good driver and a good man, careful behind the wheel and respected by his co-workers. For years now his boss has been begging him to get off the road and come inside to work in the office, but Stanley's reply is always, "One more year, I think. One more year." He's driven his whole career without an accident but he realizes it has to end as he is getting older and his reflexes are slowing. Then there's the thought of safety and the long string of luck he's been blessed with:
"Twenty-one years and a lot of them had gone quietly and a lot of them had gone violently, but the violent separations were small in number, very small compared to the ones killed in the cars, the small, fragile, bug-quick cars that sped by his big rig, taking insane chances."
Cherrik is driving his regular run through Blanchard when the traffic thickens and he sees a quick, dangerous movement out of the corner of his eye. He looks up and sees the Cad "leap and roll like a fish... [he] had a box seat for disaster."
The wreck is awful and it closes the road for half a day. Killed instantly are the three members of Suzie Scholl's family and Lou, while Charlie burns to death in the getaway car and Cherrik dies while waiting to be rescued from his crippled cab. Bystanders note that Cherrik crashed on the side of the road while heroically avoiding smashing into the car driven by the Conklins. Sent to the hospital are Dev (with relatively minor injuries), Suzie, who has a broken arm and other non-life threatening injuries, and Kathryn Aller, who seems unscathed but is catatonic. The Conklins are treated and released, while Frazier disappears into town, refusing treatment.
The balance of the novel concerns three interwoven storylines: Dev's guilt over what he has caused and his attempts to expiate that guilt, the remarkable transformation of the Conklin's relationship, and Frazier's attempts to skulk around town long enough to get into the lot where the burned wreckage of his car is being stored in order to grab his robbery loot. Of these, Paul Conklin's Damascus moment as a result of his near death experience is the least convincing or interesting, although there is a nod toward realism when MacDonald has Joyce conclude that their reclaimed happiness is only temporary. Dev's attempts to try and make up for what he believes he has caused has him setting up a trust fund for Suzie's education and him becoming a daily companion to Kathryn Aller, as he helps her to break through her zombie-like state. Suzie thinks Dev is secretly in love with her and will be waiting for her on the other side of college with open, loving arms, while Dev realizes that he is falling for Kathryn, a woman who has never even spoken to him. In what is easily the novel's clumsiest line, Dev concludes that "Of the two, Kathryn Aller was by far the more likely Galatea."
The real fun happens on Frazier's pages, as he elicits the aid of a hapless, overweight cafe waitress by seducing her and making her think the two of them will run off together to Las Vegas. The inner workings of this expertly manipulative sociopath are on full display in these final chapters, and they are at the same time both sad and funny, and lead to the novel's explosive conclusion.
Cry Hard, Cry Fast has maintained a good reputation among JDM readers over the years. It's a novel that works on several different levels and the peculiar structure MacDonald utilizes allows him to explore many different types of people within the pages of a single work. Plot takes a back seat here, as it did in The Damned and All These Condemned, and will in Murder in the Wind and Condominium. The author is more interested in exploring the motivations of the characters than he is in talking about the great external force that has brought them all together. He first needs to explain why it is that they are here in the first place, then he begins digging deeper into their pasts in an attempt to better understand their reactions to the central moving action of the novel. Some are changed forever, some are not, and some are even killed. Still, it's who these people really are that maintains the reader's interest. I've written this often enough but it bears repeating: JDM's skill in writing fiction in the short form is what allowed him to excel in this type of multi-character novel, unified works where each character's background chapter reads like its own little short story. MacDonald's talent in this particular art form is simply mind-blowing.
MacDonald liked this book and was reasonably proud of it, yet he didn't like the title. It was forced on him by the editors at Popular Library and he hated it, saying in 1965, "A terrible title, they made it up, not me." Interestingly, there is no record in the Shines' Potpourri of what JDM's working title was.
The book received only one contemporaneous review, from MacDonald's biggest literary fan of the time Anthony Boucher. Writing in his "Criminals At Large" column in the New York Times, Boucher called Cry Hard, Cry Fast "a novel of "solid hard authenticity," and concluded that "the many plots [are] told incisively, credibly, even illuminatingly." Subsequent reviews of the novel's various later editions were mixed, with Publishers Weekly liking it and the Bakersfield News Bulletin calling it's plot structure "hackneyed." The novel is generally ignored in three of the four MacDonald biographies with the exception of Ed Hirshberg, who gave it a few interesting paragraphs. He asserts just the opposite of what I have written:
"The real focus of the novel is on what actually occurred and why, and what the effects were, rather than on the characters themselves, making it in some instances a series of almost clinical descriptions of what happens to human bodies when they're in auto accidents."
It make me wonder if he even bothered rereading the novel for his book, as this is clearly not the case. Still, he admires the book and calls it "a masterful series of sketches."
Unlike Dell, who ran off a huge number of copies of their first JDM book Area of Suspicion, Popular Library printed a relative small run of the Cry Hard, Cry Fast first edition. They published a second edition in 1958 and the novel remained out of print until 1966 when Fawcett began re-publishing the JDM catalog. The total number of copies printed in the two Popular Library runs was only 189,000, while Fawcett produced 569,000 copies over 15 separate printings.
The cover art for the first edition was illustrated by Ray Johnson, his only JDM assignment. That same picture was reused for the second edition, cropped and reformatted. I'm not sure who is depicted there, perhaps Charlie and Lou. The first Fawcett edition was done by the talented Robert McGinnis, featuring a lone couple consoling each other. The sixth and seventh Fawcett editions features a different McGinnis illustration, showing a barely-clad female standing in front of a pile of smoking automobiles. I don't own a copy with this cover and have been unable to locate an image. The final cover -- yet another McGinnis image -- depicts a pile of cars and flying bodies being viewed by a seemingly disinterested blonde in a background cameo.
The film rights to Cry Hard, Cry Fast were sold at publication and as early as January of the following year an announcement was made that Universal would film it as part of "the safe-driving campaign," whatever that was. Selected to produce was Albert Zugsmith, a legendary exploitation filmmaker who was actually responsible for some very good and notable films. The press release noted that Zugsmith would begin working on Cry Hard, Cry Fast after he was finished with the two films he was currently producing, The [Incredible] Shrinking Man and The Tattered Dress. I suppose that by the time he got around to Cry Hard, Cry Fast, Universal had lost interest in "the safe driving campaign," for the property sat on the shelf for years. Then, in 1967 it emerged in an unlikely place as a two-part episode of the popular Ben Gazzara television anthology series Run For Your Life. Broadcast on November 22 and 29, the novel was adapted by Luther Davis and Robert Hamner. The character of Stanley Cherrik was omitted and Gazzara's character replaced Dev Jamison. I've never seen it but a review of the credits on the IMDb reveal only two recognizable characters: Kathryn Aller, played by Susan Clark and Suzie Scholl (renamed "Schell") played by Robyn Millan. Charles Aidman, Jack Albertson, Joan Van Ark and the luminescent Diana Muldaur also had parts, with Muldaur playing the town physician, under a different name and a different gender than in the book.
After viewing a rerun on television in 1990, JDM bibliographer Walter Shine reported that "on the whole, the spirit of the novel is maintained," He also quoted MacDonald's feelings about the show:
"I never visited the set for this one, never had anything to do with it once I signed the contract. But I was satisfied with the results. Much of my dialogue remained intact, and the material made a successful transition from the story form to television. And the character and the action seemed well suited to Gazzara, so all in all I was happy with it."