Wednesday, June 30, 2010

JDM on Modern Education

“What happened to the schools?

“The pedagogues decided learning should be fun. For a long time they gave up phonetics and phonetic drill. Learn words by their shape. And they gave up keeping students back until they could pass the class work. There were lots of field trips. Still are. Lots of athletics and games. Kids can slide through without any special effort. Call it the Len Bias syndrome. At the time of his death he had been taking five classes at the University of Maryland, was failing them all, had given up two of them, and had stopped attending the remaining three. He would have been hard pressed to write a third grade theme, a simple three- or four-sentence description of a bunny rabbit. A fabulous athlete with a skull full of wet noodles. Quite obviously his attitude was that he did not need all that book shit…

“The life unexamined is the life unlived. Can one examine his own life without reference to the realities in which he lives? The political, geographical, historical, philosophical, scientific, religious realities? He does not have to know all aspects with some kind of deadly precision. He has to know the truth of them, the shape and the size, their place in relation to each other. He has to know them in the context to which reasonable and rational and thoughtful men of his times have assigned them.”

--- Speaking as "Meyer" in Reading for Survival (1986)

Monday, June 28, 2010

"College Man"

"College Man" is a passable John D MacDonald short story that originally appeared in the February 1958 issue of Cosmopolitan. It seems a rather odd entry for this particular magazine, concerning as it does the summer water skiing activities of a couple of high school boys, but by this time MacDonald already had eighteen pieces published in Cosmopolitan and they probably printed anything he sent to them. Still, one gets the feeling reading "College Man" that it was intended for a different kind of publication, like Argosy, Bluebook, or even Boy's Life. The author gets to show off his detailed knowledge of boats and skiing as he tells a fairly predictable tale of two guys pulling a prank on an older guy.

Told in the first person by eighteen-year-old Jud, "College Man" is the recounting of a botched attempt to show up a guy who has cut in on his girl Jean Anne. Jud's best friend is Dake, who also happens to be Jean Ann's brother. Jean is smart, pretty and an expert water skier. Jud and Dake own their own motorboat, the Banshee, which they rescued from a junkyard and fixed up into a superior speedboat, complete with a customized Cadillac engine. The three of them are a set and they love nothing more than to spend the summer boating and skiing along the west coast of Florida where they live.

"I'd been looking forward to our having a wonderful summer, like always, but this Foster Harmon had to show up. He and his folks moved down from Clearwater. He's nineteen, a college man. He's finished one year at Gainesville. That's where Dake and I are going, but not until fall... You get to thinking that a girl is your girl. So maybe you take it all a little too much for granted. And in comes another party. Name of Foster Harmon. And Jean Anne flips. And gets a gooey look in her eyes that could turn your stomach. So all of a sudden she doesn't have any time for all the old routines, and it's like something bit a hole out of the middle of summer."

Jud and Dake figure Harmon for "a phony" and devise a plan to show him up and reveal him as less-than-cool. That way they can "pry Jean Anne loose [and] open her eyes." Naturally, Jud doesn't trust this college man. "There was something too smooth about him," he worried.

Since water skiing is their thing, the plot to undo Harmon naturally involves that activity. The boys invite Harmon and Jean Anne for a day of water sports, and ask Harmon if he has ever skied before. "Some," he replies. "Not too much. I'm no expert." They all agree to go and the next Saturday finds them piling into the Banshee and heading south to Coquina Point, a favorite location on the gulf where many of their like-minded friends ski and scuba dive. On the way down Jean Anne decides to get on the skis, just to loosen up. As she rides expertly behind the boat both Jud and Harmon watch her.

"[She] came up like a feather and we headed south toward Narrow Pass. It was wonderful to watch her. Like a dance. Honey skin and white suit and the tangled auburn curls. She swung left and right in perfect form, skittering across the wake, dancing on the oyster bars, skidding toward the pilings, slanting the water up into temporary rainbows."

Harmon was "looking at her like a kid watching candy."

Once at the Point, Dake and Jud take turns on the skis, then coax Jean Anne to put on another exhibition, then finally ask Harmon if he is ready to give it a try. He agrees, so with Dake behind the wheel he begins what turns out to be a long and fast ride, far out into the gulf where the chop is heavy, farther than Jud or Jean Anne can see from the shore. When they finally return and Harmon coasts in, it is obvious that he is straining to keep erect.

"His face had a gray, twisted look. He had the most obvious case of spaghetti legs I have ever seen... You could tell from his face that he desperately wanted to land well. But thirty feet out his legs just folded on him and he went down.... Nobody razzed him. He was shaking all over when he climbed up. I helped him. I don't know why. He stretched out, rolled onto his back and closed his eyes, breathing hard. I could see the muscles in his thighs and calves jump and quiver. Jean Anne sat close to him and they began to talk in low tones. I wandered away. I knew that in a little while he'd feel all right, but when he tried to get out of bed the next morning, he would have a big surprise."

Sore that their trick didn't work, Jud and Dake vow to come up with a new plan. Meanwhile, there is more skiing to be done. Dake takes Jud and another friend Mickey out, skiing doubles, which requires a counterweight on the bow of the Banshee to keep it from slowing down. Jean Anne volunteers, stretching out in the sun while Harmon stays ashore attempting to recover.

Things go fine until they are ready to head ashore. A "damn-fool skin diver" pops up directly in front of the boat, and Dake yanks fiercely on the wheel to avoid him. The force of the turn knocks him out of the boat, the skiers are unloosed, and Jean Anne tumbles into the cockpit, knocked unconscious. The Banshee, at full throttle, is pilotless and running in wide circles. It is clear that its course will eventually widen and cause the Banshee to pile up onto a rocky portion of the shore. There is no other boat there fast enough to catch the it, and several attempts to intersect its course fail. The next sweep will bring the boat and the unconscious Jean Anne straight into the rocks at fifty miles per hour.

Then the "college man" springs into action...

It's a nice little story, full of fairly pat and predictable characters, but told in such a way that they seem fleshed out and fully realized. It's MacDonald's gift of using setting and situation to help build character, defining them by their actions rather than attempting to describe them. It was one of the earliest lessons in writing the author learned and he never tired of reminding interviewers, fans and would-be writers of it. He also never tired of deriding many of the best selling authors of his time for their inability or unwillingness to try and use less in an effort to create character. MacDonald's singular talent lay in his ability to take a simple plot like "College Man" and make it read like something more.

The wonderful story art for "College Man" was created by JDM friend and Sarasota neighbor Thornton Utz.

The story has never been anthologized.

Friday, June 25, 2010

"Path of Glory"

Adventure magazine was one of the earliest and longest running pulp fiction periodicals of the twentieth century. Begun in 1910 as a direct response to the popularity of the earliest fiction pulps, Argosy and All-Story, it lasted for sixty years in one form or another before folding in 1970. True to its title, it published adventure stories in a variety of settings. As Ron Goulart put it in his essential history of pulp magazines Cheap Thrills, each issue contained "one cowboy, one explorer, one legionnaire, one pirate and two or three musketeers." Published as often as three times every month (in the early 1920's), Adventure logged 878 issues, sold millions of copies, and was wildly popular and highly regarded. Goulart reports that during its best years the magazine was "thought of as the aristocrat of the cheap magazines, the Atlantic Monthly of pulps." But by the time it was fading in the late Sixties it had become simply another men's magazine, featuring articles such as "Topless Charmers in Cheju," "Bikini-Watching in Crete" and "No-kini Blondes of Corsica." The February 1970 issue features an indispensible and instructive article titled "How to Undress a Girl."

John D MacDonald published three stories in Adventure, one in 1949, one in 1950 and one in 1951. It was still a fiction pulp at the time, containing from six to eight works of short fiction, some verse and a few regular "Departments," such as "The Camp Fire," "Ask Adventure," and "Lost Trails." The stories were for the most part straightforward adventures yarns, not unlike the kind that would air on the dramatic radio series Escape. Yet interestingly, MacDonald's final appearance in the pulp -- in the July 1951 issue -- featured a story quite unlike the magazine's usual fare. The editors even went out of their way to explain this in a brief preface to "Path of Glory."

"This is the story not of a hero but of a heel. As such, it's a bit out of line for an Adventure yarn, where the main character usually turns out to be a pretty good joe, at least in the end. Maybe we should label it an off-the-trail story, a phrase that has been used in this magazine for many years to describe an unusual piece of fiction. Anyway, it was too good to pass up -- hero or heel, we thought you'd want to meet the inimitable Major Stacy Barnett."

Not only was it unusual for Adventure, but "Path to Glory" was unusual for MacDonald as well, showcasing a thoroughly unlikeable and extremely disagreeable main character in a work of fiction. But as the editors stated, it is too good to pass up. They even gave MacDonald the issue's cover.

There's no real story to relate in "Path to Glory." It's simply a day-in-the-life of an Air Force test pilot, from the moment he awakens in the morning, through breakfast, his drive to the base, a brief conversation with his commanding general, and ultimately his "big moment," the first air test of a brand new experimental supersonic jet, labeled the XP-181. It's the little vignettes along the way that slowly reveal the kind of person Major Barnett is. He's a "little man of twenty-eight, trim-bodied, cat-quick, with high hard cheekbones deep tanned, black hair parted low on the left, a crisp military mustache, the unforgiving eyes of a gambler."

That's just his physical description, for Major Stacy Barnett is indeed a heel. We watch as he indulges himself in the bathroom over a body he clearly is proud of, then re-pins the wings on his uniform because his wife has placed them an eight-of-an-inch too low. When he comes downstairs for breakfast, we get the first real indication of how awful this guy really is. As his wife Laura is putting his breakfast on the table his first words to her are, "You must have kept the kid quiet for a change." After a few curt exchanges between the two we are treated to a classic MacDonald paragraph, quintessential in its ability to present pages of background in a few well-written sentences.

"Once upon a time there had been, within Laura, a quick hard passion. Then came three years of constantly weakening spirit and defiance. Now there was nothing. When she thought of it, which was very seldom, she wondered that a person could become nothing. If he were completely a man, you could fight him with a woman's weapons. But he was more than a man. He was a controlled entity, with a man's cruelty, a woman's intuition, and the ruthlessness necessary to wield them cleverly, consistently.

"So after a time you ceased fighting."

As he's pulling out of the driveway he sees his young son looking at him, standing beside "a tired rose bush," and he can't resist playing a mind game with him. Stacy wins, of course.

"What could you expect? [The boy] had Laura's eyes. As spiritless as hers. Nothing to fight against, not any more."

As he passes through the gate of the airbase he reams out the guard for not checking his ID. The guard thought that on this "special day" he would save him the time. Stacy responds, "You're not being paid to think, Sergeant. You're being paid to check passes. Check mine."

In a meeting with his commanding officer he displays the same kind of social nastiness, to the point where the general asks him to "stop playing tin soldier." Stacy heads to the Kanteen, where it is revealed that he is having an affair with the counter waitress Betty. He doesn't treat her any better than he does his wife, grabbing her by the arm and inducing white-hot pain when she expresses her desire to see more of him. And then he's off to inspect the XP-181, barking orders to the civilian mechanics and demanding that they re-check everything they just checked, and to pump out all of the jet's hydraulics and have them strained and replaced. A defiant technician named Barney attempts to argue but is quickly bested by Barnett.

Finally it's into his overalls and up inside the cockpit, ready to test the jet for the first time, in front of the brass, the press, the politicians, and everyone who he has had an encounter with that day.

"Path of Glory" is a wonderful bit of writing, an undiscovered gem that lies moldering in the few fading issues of Adventure that still exist out there. It has never been anthologized. It displays MacDonald in full command of his craft, presenting a deeply compelling character, briefly and without a wasted word. There are so many of these forgotten delights, buried in the old pages of Argosy, Bluebook, Cosmopolitan and the like. Perhaps one day they will see the light of day again, to be studied, appreciated and most of all, enjoyed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

JDM on the Exploitation of Grief

As a confirmed news junkie, watching local news and, whenever possible, at least two of the networks, I am increasingly furious at the trend in local and national news for more and more invasions of the privacy of grief, and the jackass questions the young Airedales use to prime the tear ducts.
'Mrs. Brown, what did you think when the hurricane smashed your home?'

'Mr. Collins, what was your reaction to the death of your newborn quintuplets?'

'Miss Green, what was your thinking when they arrested your brother for the murder of his wife?'

All these people in crisis conditions have watched a lot of television. Now the lights and lenses are on them. In their genuine shock and grief they have no one to emulate but those gilded, glossy, improbable, two-dimensional actors in the soap operas, empty people who make a living giving dramatic and inaccurate imitations of reality.

And so the lens comes in tight and close to capture thirty-two seconds of an imitation of an imitation of pathos.
-- from "Exploitation of Grief"
JDM's entry in the November 1985 "Mad as Hell Issue" of National Lampoon.

Monday, June 21, 2010

"A Matter of Life and Death"

If you're looking for a John D MacDonald short story with absolutely nothing to recommend itself (I know... why would you?), look no further than "A Matter of Life and Death." Published in the June 14, 1953 issue of the Sunday newspaper supplement This Week, the brief 1,750-word piece is one of MacDonald patented family vignettes, featuring his typical suburban family-of-four addressing some typically overblown "crisis" that is happily resolved once the father realizes what a fool he has been. The difference in "A Matter of Life and Death" is that the "crisis" is not comedic in nature and, for once, the foolish parent is the mother. The story was the second This Week tale to be published in 1953, the first time since 1950 that MacDonald had more than one This Week story in a given year, and from this point forward his stories would appear in the magazine several times each year, up until 1958 when he took a four year vacation after writing "Man in a Trap."

The crisis in "A Matter of Life and Death" is Yo-Boy, or more specifically, what to do about Yo-Boy. The family dog is getting long in the tooth and now spends most of each day sleeping in a heap on the kitchen hearth. He's too lethargic to play, stinks like "five Egyptian rug merchants," and snores like a buzz-saw. It takes all the effort he can muster to simply raise his tail before letting it flop back down on the floor. Mother Miriam has had enough, and she broaches the subject with her husband Norris. Afraid to come straight out with the suggestion of putting the dog to sleep, Miriam simply says that they need to "do something," and Norris never does understand what she is driving at until she comes straight out with it.

"I mean, Norrie, that there has be an end to sentimentality. There's no pleasure in him. It's been years since he played with the children. They pet him about once a month. He's got about three teeth in his head. I think it would be the kind thing to do. Really."
Norrie, of course, objects, but Miriam is adamant and eventually gets her point across. They decide that they will announce the decision to their two children over dinner that evening, sure that the kids -- who typically ignore Yo-Boy now -- will agree and enthusiastically support the purchase of a new puppy. Once the subject of Yo-Boy is brought up, the kids' comments consist mainly of remarks about how bad the dog smells and how loudly he snores. But when Norrie announces that he and Miriam have decided to take Yo-Boy "to the vet," ten-year-old Chucky's eyes widen and he asks, "K-kill him? You mean kill him?" He puts his spoon down and solemnly asks to be excused, just as desert is about to be served (!) He is excused and his younger sister Alice runs after him, "making a sound like a very small clogged drain." Miriam insists that the children are just "being dramatic," but Norrie isn't so sure, and once the dishes are done they go upstairs to Chucky's room and talk with him.

This story is competently written and it ends with a bit of child-like wisdom and a comic remark from Miriam, but I'm not really sure I want to be reading John D MacDonald channeling Albert Payson Terhune. The author was himself a pet-lover, although his dog-owing days were limited to his youth and he preferred the company of cats to the less independent cur. As I've written before, these early This Week stories, all framed from the same template, are briefly interesting but have little lasting value outside of showing MacDonald as an all-around craftsman who could write a story in almost any genre. His strengths lay not in these sappy homilies but in the world of crime, suspense and real-world problems.

For the completest only, "A Matter of Life and Death" has yet to be anthologized.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

"Heritage of Hate" ("Secret Stain")

Black Mask magazine was undoubtedly the most influential and most highly regarded mystery pulp ever published. The list of authors that appeared within its pages is a literal 'who's who" of detective fiction, including Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Erle Stanley Gardner and the creator of the hard boiled detective, Carroll John Daily. Its initial focus, articulated by editor Joseph T. "Cap" Shaw, was "...simplicity for the sake of clarity, plausibility and belief...[and] action [that] involve[d] recognizable human character in three dimensional form." It's place in American fiction cannot be overstated.

Many of the finest works by the great mystery writers were published in Black Mask. Hammett's Sam Spade originally appeared in the serialized debut of The Maltese Falcon, and the prototype for Chandler's Phillip Marlowe was born in a number of Black Mask stories, later "cannibalized" by the author for his early novels. And while John D MacDonald published stories in the magazine long after the greats had either stopped or moved on to novels, his entries there were uniformly excellent. I've already written about two of them -- "Killing All Men" and "Jukebox Jungle" -- both terrific examples of "revenge" writing with much psychological subtext. "Heritage of Hate" fits nicely into that category as a story of retribution and redemption, filled with mystery, violence, an interesting and instructive background and an ending that doesn't quite resolve itself.

The story takes place in the world of the "numbers racket," a setting that must seem quaint to today's readers, what with state-run lotteries and ubiquitous Powerball promises of instant riches. Before it became "OK" to gamble, lotteries were illegal and the purview of organized crime, meticulously stratified organizations that thrived in poor urban neighborhoods. For the gambler the cost was low, the chance of winning real, and the ease of involvement ridiculously convenient. It was a lucrative business that naturally invited competition, and in the world of criminals, any inroads made against their flow of money was met with violence and gunplay.

The protagonist in "Heritage of Hate" is the mysterious Lawrence Hask, a right-hand-man to a syndicate lieutenant named Gus Lench. Hask came to be employed by Lench after he showed up one day attempting to run his own numbers game inside Lench's territory. He was dragged into Lench's office by a couple of strong-arms and immediately began explaining why he was muscling in on Lench: his operation was "soft."

"You've got no penetration in your area. Stinking little candy stores and horse rooms and newsboys. Hell, you've got half a hundred big plants in your area. One out of every three foremen and sweepers and setup men ought to be peddling for you."

Lench -- a man whose "weakest point was his inability to think of any motive beyond profit" -- hires Hask and makes him his "promotion manager." For one full year Hask has been working, improving the operation, all the while "gently prodding Lench ... telling him how smart he really was, of how unappreciated he was by the higher-ups." That higher-up is a man by the name of Carter, a big, dignified, well-dressed boss known for his ruthlessness. The story opens at Lench's luxurious Westchester home, where a party is underway, including drinks, dinner and swimming in the heated indoor pool. Carter is there and Hask senses that this is the evening Lench is going to make his move against his boss. With the help of his ex-swimmer wife Gail -- who is secretly having an affair with Hask -- he has arranged a pre-dinner swim for all the guests. Once everyone is in the pool the lights suddenly go out and Hask immediately heads to where he last saw Carter. Sure enough, Carter is underwater and unconscious, and after quickly getting the lights back on, Hask pulls Carter out of the pool and revives him with artificial respiration. The look on Lench's face shows he is not pleased.

Once Carter is conscious he asks who saved him, and when he is told it was Hask, he tells him that the two of them are leaving and that Lench's days are numbered. Although he didn't see his assailant he knew it was a woman's arm that grasped his throat from behind, and he also recognized Gail's perfume. Lench sputters his claims of innocence as Carter is walking out the door, but Carter will hear none of it.

"You, my greedy friend, may live another twelve hours, or even as much as thirty-six hours if you stay and fight it out. If you run like a rabbit, it may take my people a year to find you. If you want another year -- run."

As Hask leaves with Carter he gives the frightened and enraged Lench a wink, as if to tell him that this is all part of some grand plan. Carter brings Hask on as his assistant and immediately begins pumping him for information on Lench's operation, seeking the best way to rub him out. Hask tells him that Lench is too well fortified to go down in a direct assault and suggests a double cross: Hask will go to Lench and propose a burglary of Carter's safe, while Carter will hide out in his office and gun down Lench during his attempt. A time and alibi is established, but when he makes the proposal to Lench he gives him a different time, one that will take both of the crooks by surprise. Just who's side is Hask really on?

The story ends violently with plenty of bloodshed, and includes a scene that may or may not be a surprise to the reader. Running 6,300 words, "Heritage of Hate" zips along at a rapid pace and is ultimately satisfying, if morally ambiguous. It would prove to be MacDonald's penultimate entry in Black Mask.

Black Mask ceased publication in in 1951, ending with its July issue. In May of 1953 Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine "merged" with the defunct Black Mask, announcing on the cover of that month's issue, "Black Mask Magazine -- originator of the hard-boiled mystery -- is now part of EQMM." This simply amounted to reprinting one or two old Black Mask stories in each issue, under a separate heading in the table of contents. In the very next issue (June 1953) EQMM reprinted MacDonald's first Black Mask story, 1947's "Manhattan Horse Opera," re-titled "Heads I Win, Tails You Lose." A year later in their April 1954 issue they republished "Heritage of Hate," again under a new title, "Triple Cross."

To make matters even more confusing to bibliographers, MacDonald restored his original title -- "Secret Stain" -- when he included the story in his second anthology of pulp tales, More Good Old Stuff. Happily, because of the unique setting of the numbers racket he had employed, MacDonald was unable to "update" the story into a modern setting, an unfortunate practice that marred so many of the stories reprinted there.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

JDM on White Guilt

"I feel no guilt, shame or remorse for the social and economic oppression of the black, because I do not feel any personal responsibility for the past actions of political animals within the historic fabric of our country. I feel no guilt, shame or remorse for the gutted countryside in Kentucky and West Virginia, for the disappearance of the buffalo and passenger pigeon, for the poisoning of the soil and the water and the air. Man can always be expected to do the worst possible job with his environment, and with his relations to people of other races and of other nations. Were I to feel guilt, remorse and shame, it means that I was feeling guilt, remorse and shame for being a human being. Perhaps that would be a proper posture, but it is a negation of life to be ashamed of being the creature one is.

"I will feel my guilt, remorse and shame for the negative anti-life acts which, consciously or unconsciously, I commit. I will feel guilt, remorse and shame for my failure to take any kind of action in situations where action was an ethical imperative."

-- from a 1969 letter to Dan Rowan

Monday, June 14, 2010

"Escape to Chaos"

Sometimes, John D MacDonald could be too smart for his own good.

Take, for example, his 1951 science fiction novella "Escape to Chaos." What is basically a sprawling space opera becomes bogged down by some of the most mind-numbing science I've ever encountered in a s-f piece, requiring repeated re-readings and head-scratching. Combining quantum physics, statistical probability and multiple dimensions of reality, the premise for this saga is so confusing that even after you've read it you're not really sure of what happened. Perhaps it's just me, or perhaps MacDonald was padding a basically-simple adventure story to garner a higher paycheck -- who knows? And it's not as if one can just gloss over the difficult passages, because they are essential to understanding the basic premise of the story. Thankfully most of JDM's science fiction is far more readable than "Escape to Chaos."

Appearing in the June 1951 issue of Super Science Stories, this 18,000-word story would mark MacDonald's final appearance in that venerable pulp, as the magazine would publish only one more issue before folding. In any event, the author was winding down his work in s-f and would write only a handful of subsequent stories. One gets the feeling from "Escape to Chaos" that he was tiring of the genre and was looking for a way to keep it interesting, but unfortunately his method put enjoyment of the story out of the reach of all but the most dedicated and learned readers.

At its most basic, "Escape to Chaos" is MacDonald's favorite science fiction construct, the same premise used in his two early s-f novels and in several of his stories: aliens of superior intelligence and technological advancement surreptitiously manipulating the direction of civilization's social evolution. In Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies, it was aliens working to change the people of Earth, but in "Escape to Chaos" Earth is the advanced culture, or at least one of them, working to secretly advance the peoples of other planets in various different dimensions, here called Eras. The science of "Symbolic Probability" has made possible the discovery of 26 separate Eras, all in different stages of advancement. Through a principle called the "Oxton Effect" a government agency known as the "Bureau of Socionetics" has begun sending teams of trained agents into these different Eras in order to bring about a more rapid level of evolution. Since open involvement would cause a greater deviation and a lower probability of success along the lines desired, everything is done in secret. Once a certain level of advancement is reached the Oxton Effect allows these different dimensions of reality to co-exist, affecting each other's "languages, the mores, even the fads and fashions." The ultimate goal of all of this? Unity.

The action of the story follows the efforts of one particular team, a male and a female, working together in a fairly advanced civilization that has nonetheless fallen into a state of social decay. Ruled by a despotic emperor named Shain, this empire controls an entire galaxy from the central planet of Rael, and it rules it with an iron fist. Shain's third son, the big, handsome hunk known as Andro, has taken a look around the empire and he doesn't like what he sees.

"He had seen the prancing perfumed artists, claiming an ultimate reality in incomprehensible daubs. He had visited the slave markets of Simpar and Chaigan, and had been sickened. He had seen that the ships were old ships, the weapons old weapons, and the old songs forgotten. He had seen the dusty rotting machines that had been the hope of man, while ten thousand laborers built, by hand and whip a temple to the glory of the House of Galvan...And he had said, 'This is the dark age of Empire. We have had enough.'"

For five years Andro has led an open revolt against his father's empire, and for five years he has made several miraculous escapes, thanks to the hidden work of the Field Team of Calna and Solin. Calna (the female of the team) has gradually become emotionally attached to Andro and his work, and after a sixth near-death-experience saved by Calna, the team is call to the office of the Deputy Director to explain themselves. It is determined that a.) Calna needs a vacation, b.) Andro will be left in a permanent state of suspended stasis and, c.) a distinctive tattoo on Andro's arm will be removed and somehow delivered to his father's top agent Deralan, who has been in charge of hunting down the rebellious son, as proof that Andro is dead.

Calna pretends to go along with the plan but at the first opportunity steals one of the Team ships allowing her to travel between dimensions, saves Andro and goes into hiding with him in one of the twenty-six dimensions. All of the other Field Teams are pulled from their assignments in order to hunt her down. Meanwhile, Deralan has received the tattoo and has shown it to Shain in order to prove that he has at last accomplished his task, but he has his own secret doubts and begins an undercover search of his own for Andro. Calna and Andro fall for each other and Calna begins working for the rebellion, knowing that she can never return to the Bureau of Socionetics.

What could have been a halfway-enjoyable, pulpy, adventuresome joyride is undermined by MacDonald's insistence on bogging down the narrative with overly-technical passages that bring the story to a dead halt. It would be one thing if this "science" was understandable -- perhaps it is, to some readers -- but it borders on the indecipherable for a reader like me. Like most of JDM's loyal readership, I enjoy his forays into science fiction only when the "science" doesn't undermine the "fiction," and when he's more concerned about the characters he has created than the make-believe world they inhabit.

"Escape to Chaos" has been reprinted once, included in a 1976 anthology titled Galactic Empires (Volume Two), edited by Brian Aldiss. Used copies appear now and then.

Friday, June 11, 2010

A Black Border for McGee

Of all the legends surrounding the writing career of John D MacDonald -- and there were a few -- none took on a life of its own more than the "Black McGee." According to this myth, MacDonald had written a final installment in his flagship Travis McGee series where Travis is killed. The remainder of the book -- as well as the case -- is finished by his sidekick Meyer. Since all of the McGee books featured a unique color in their titles, this would of course be black. This book was supposedly locked in a vault in MacDonald's office, to be released only after his death. The title was uncertain, but the one used must frequently was A Black Border for McGee.

It's been twenty-three years since MacDonald passed on, and we're still waiting.

Although this rumor has been credibly denied by no less an authority than MacDonald's wife and son, it lives on, popping up in blog postings, websites and the occasional newspaper article. Since starting this blog last November I have already received two email inquiries asking if I have a copy of this mysterious book and how to obtain one. I've looked into the background of this myth and found a few surprises.

Ironically, it may have been MacDonald himself who started it. In the Spring of 1980 the very first issue of Clues: A Journal of Detection was published and featured the full transcripts of several scholarly papers that had been presented at the John D. MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction on November 18, 1978. JDM attended that conference and responded verbally to the papers immediately after they had been read, and those comments were published in the July 1979 issue of the JDM Bibliophile (# 24). The subsequent publication of the full papers in Clues offered MacDonald an opportunity to respond again, in writing this time and with much more careful thought. In his comments on a paper by Classics Professor Erling B. Holtsmark titled "Travis McGee as Traditional Hero," MacDonald attempted to explain how the unique characteristics of the McGee novels came to be. He wrote that a strong erotic element to the stories was necessary in order to make the plot compelling, since due to the very nature of a series character the element of his death was absent.

"The constant reader is going to know, subliminally, that no matter how grievously I endanger McGee, he will survive -- at least until until I do a book with black in the title. The reader does not know whether or not a person for whom McGee has formed a strong attachment will survive."

It seems pretty obvious to me that this was an offhand comment and that he had no actual intention of writing such a book at the time. And since there is no reference to a previous mention of the book or of a longstanding rumor, this could very well be the rumor's origin. At least I have found no earlier mention of it.

This is not to say that MacDonald never grew tired of McGee or thought about ending the series. Biographer Hugh Merrill quotes a letter penned during the writing of The Lonely Silver Rain where JDM said "I can see now that I'm aiming for an end to the series with the 22nd installment." After the book was published he gave an interview to Peter Heck where he stated the following:

"I'm gonna end with the twenty-second book. I got it blocked out enough to know that if the book goes all right, which I trust it will, he's gonna pull up stakes with a bunch of about five or six other boats, good friends and what not and acquaintances. Well, he's gonna go find the place and then go back to Bahia Mar and they're gonna load up and take off and move to a new marina up in the Panhandle. Up there you can find areas that are as pleasant as Fort Lauderdale was twenty years ago."

Tellingly, MacDonald requested this paragraph be removed from the interview and it did not see the light of day until Merrill's book was published in 2000.

MacDonald did tell Heck that some form of Black existed, but it bore no resemblance to a finished or complete work and had been done primarily as a negotiating tool, not as a real end to the series.

"I've got some materials on it, but not for immediate publication and I don't want to publish it because it would spoil the fun for people who are just now finding McGee and people wouldn't want to read a book about a dead hero, right? So I use that threat and twenty to thirty pages... I've used that as a bargaining base with my publishers. When they get funny ideas how long it takes them to get the royalties... Why, then I start muttering about that book. I say, 'You better treat us right, McGee and me, or I'll kill him.' That straightens things out. That's practical economics."

That paragraph reads to me like a grand put-on, and MacDonald admitted that he lied frequently in interviews. As far as I know there was never any such "material" found among his papers. One can see he never intended to actually publish such a work, and his most direct response to the idea of killing McGee was made to a fan who wrote in 1981 and asked him about the notion point blank. MacDonald replied, "There will never be one called BLACK where he is killed off. It wouldn't be fair to the people who are just discovering the fellow."

Still, the author was working on a twenty-second McGee when he died. Merrill quotes JDM in a letter to Stephen King where he states "I have made enough of an inroad on the 22nd McGee to know now it will be twice as long as any which have gone before. It will be two books in one, twenty years apart in time." But he was working primarily on Barrier Island at the time and was only in the plotting stages of the new McGee. MacDonald had no intention of rushing things, as can be seen from this excerpt from a May 1984 letter to friend Mickey Spillane.

After MacDonald died in 1986, Dorothy and Maynard MacDonald wrote a brief thank you to the fans of the author that was published on page one of the January 1987 JDM Bibliophile (#39). Titled "A Thank You to John's Friends," it contained the following postscript:

"There is no book or manuscript by John which ends in Travis McGee's death. We think John would have missed him as you would."

This was probably in direct response to the mention of just such a book in nearly every newspaper obituary published, with the Associated Press version even quoting the supposed title.

So how far along did MacDonald get with McGee 22? That wasn't revealed until December 1990 when MacDonald's bibliographer Walter Shine wrote a paragraph on the subject in his JDM Bibliophile column. He revealed that JDM's correspondence with Spillane was the earliest mention of the book, with a subsequent mention in a December 1985 letter to his publisher, stating that the book would be "twice as long as the average of the others." (Shine doesn't mention the letter to Stephen King, which was written in January 1986.) At the end of April he was "about to start it," and the following month JDM said he "was chugging away at [it]" and thought it might be published in the Spring of 1987. According to Shine, the last recorded mention of McGee 22 was on September 2, 1986, only a few days before MacDonald left for Milwaukee and his fateful heart operation.

"[MacDonald wrote] that 'the very last work' he was able to do 'before the lethargy got too heavy was [Reading for Survival, a travel article on the Yucatan], and the fourth chapter of the 22nd McGee'... Those four chapters have not been located..."

As near as I can see from the JDM Collection finding guide, they never were located. MacDonald had been writing on a word processor for several years by then and he may not have printed hard copies of those chapters. Perhaps the words are still sitting on some floppy disc or hard drive deep in the bowels of the University of Florida library. They have no listing for JDM's word processor or of floppy discs, and I'm not sure what happened to the machine. It could have been auctioned off, along with much of the MacDonalds' other belongings in the notorious 1989 estate sale. Maybe some unknowing fan has the last four chapters of McGee sitting in his attic, waiting to be fired up and downloaded to a waiting world.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

JDM on the English Mystery Novel

"I have always felt an impatience with the novels of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers, and have been mildly puzzled at their lasting popularity... I cannot fault the quality of the prose -- Sayers' especially. Nor the professionalism.... There was a bloodlessness, a papery quality about this work which put me off. Even the screams were mannerly. Weekends in the British countryside seemed an impossibly placid ritual...

"These are, of course, puzzle stories, some of them of the had-I-but-known pattern... But they are, too many of them, unfair puzzle stories. They mystify, and one may even pick out the culprit through using the least-likely-suspect theory, but the mechanics of solution are beyond us because they depend upon some field of knowledge so esoteric that in many cases we have never even heard of it. Lord Peter Wimsey in The Nine Tailors is a case in point. I learned something about bell-ringing, but not enough, soon enough, to help Wimsey nail the guilty person... Poirot, Wimsey, Marple and company may add new bits to my dust bin of knowledge, but they never give it to me in time for me to use it in independent solution.

"When I read a puzzle story, I want a measurable chance, no matter how small, of beating the author to the punch line. Sherlock Holmes is an offender equally guilty, and I do not care for him either, heresy though this may be. It is like attempting to solve a cross word puzzle where one of the key words can be found only in a Sanskrit dictionary.

"So the vast readership achieved by these people would seem to indicate that people do not want to solve the puzzle. They want to be mystified, confused, and then amazed at the startling resolution. And terribly impressed by the absolute genius of the detective, his dazzling brilliance."

-- from Clues: A Journal of Detection

Vol 1, Issue 1 (1980)

Monday, June 7, 2010

"Wedding Present"

John D MacDonald was no stranger to the rejection letter. According to legend he received over one thousand of them in his first year of writing, and he even told one interviewer (facetiously) that he had papered the walls of his study with them. (When asked if they were still there, he replied that he had painted over them.) And while this might have been discouraging and may have caused a lesser writer to give it up, MacDonald had the confidence of knowing that he could sell his fiction: the very first story he ever wrote was sold to Story magazine. It just took him six months and a thousand tries to sell the second.
But it is surprising to learn that MacDonald was still receiving the occasional rejection as late as 1961, a point in his career where he had already published 35 novels and 95% of his 400-short story output. But that was the case with a work he called "A Little Black Confetti." 

According to the listing of the JDM holdings at the University of Florida, it is included under the category "Short Stories - Unpublished" with the notation "Rejected ... 1961 Oct 12," yet from the portion of the first sentence provided for reference, one can tell it is a story he eventually sold to Antaeus, a literary journal, in 1977 and re-titled "Wedding Present."

If it seems odd for a John D MacDonald story to appear in a literary journal, it should. MacDonald had little love for these collections and regarded them as the "province of the academics," their contents often filled with "turgid, self-conscious, nonobjective prose... promulgated by intellectual poseurs." So how did a previously-rejected story end up in a place like this? I have no idea, and there are no clues in the JDM collection, or at least in their finding guide. They don't even have "Wedding Present" included with his list of published short stories, although it was included in Walter Shine's Bibliography in 1980. It's a question some future scholar will have to answer, as there are no clues in the journal itself.

Antaeus was founded by Daniel Halpern and author Paul Bowles and began publication in Tangier, Morocco in 1970. With a decidedly international scope, it nonetheless published many stories by well-known American authors such as Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs and Joyce Carol Oates. By the time the MacDonald story appeared in its pages the magazine's operations has moved to New York and was being published by Ecco Press, which was spawned by the journal and which outlived it. Beginning as a quarterly, Antaeus eventually resorted to publishing double issues on a semi-annual basis and lasted until 1994, when it gave up the ghost with double issue 75/76. The covers of Antaeus were printed on a thick matte stock and featured distinctive illustrations with a decidedly aboriginal flavor, many of which can be seen here in a great blog post about the magazine.

"Wedding Present" appeared in double issue 25/26, published in the Spring/Summer of 1977. The focus of this particular issue was Popular Fiction, and as can be seen from the cover, the issue was divided into three subsets, Western Fiction, Detective Fiction and Science Fiction. Some of the other authors featured in the magazine were Edward D. Hoch, Robert L. Fish, Ursula K. Le Guin, and J.G. Ballard, whose wonderful short story "Low-Flying Aircraft" was reprinted here. MacDonald was probably the only author who could have successfully submitted a great story under any one of the subsets, but "Wedding Present" was included with the Detective Fiction.

There are no detectives in "Wedding Present," but it is an excellent story nonetheless, a tale of corporate espionage that is both ingenious and improbable, and which reads like one of the authors entries for his anthology S*E*V*E*N. Told in the first person, it nevertheless contains some interesting lapses into third person narrative as the protagonist gives his account of how he was able to smuggle the internal correspondence from the office of the Chief of Research and Development of Metalmaster Associates, Inc. With echoes of "Pygmalion" and several previous JDM females, the 2200-word story is written in a rich, descriptive prose that is characteristic of MacDonald's later period. That this was written in 1961 is a bit of a surprise to me.

Two years before the "Wedding Present" begins, the protagonist called simply "Mulloy" concocts a scheme to steal research findings from a rival business. Mulloy is a junior executive with a company called International Metals and he is determined to work his way up the corporate ladder any way he can. He has managed to identify the personal secretary of the head of research at a rival firm and begins his scheme. Christine, aged twenty-four, is a girl who "has decided that love would forever look the other way." And with good reason:

"She [wore] clothing suitable for a fifty-year-old woman. She spoke in a high nasal whine through an oversized nose. Her hair was the color of clay and she wore it in a spinster knot. When she walked, it was a though she were guiding an invisible plow across an uneven pasture... But I saw the glorious texture of the skin of her wrists and her throat. I noted the subliminal mischief in the depths of her stern and innocent eyes. And neither her lumbering gait nor her sorry garments could totally conceal the promise of a wondrous geography hidden from an unappreciative world."

Mulloy makes a pass, which is at first greeted with incredulity and eventually with gratitude. He begins remaking her, slowly at first, by suggesting wardrobe changes, a new hair color, and by teaching her how to achieve a more ladylike walk. As the affair deepens Mulloy has no trouble revealing what he is really after: the discarded Mylar ribbons from her office typewriter, which contain a record of every word Christine has typed for her boss. To MacDonald's credit, he doesn't base Mulloy and Christine's relationship on anything resembling love, but on a mutual, strong sexual attraction, and Christine's growing confidence in herself allows her to engage in this affair-of-convenience with eyes wide open, enjoying the carnal aspects while at the same time receiving payment from Mulloy for smuggling the spent ribbons out of the office. Mulloy has an entirely different arrangement with another young woman, Ruthie, a girl in the typing pool at International Metals. Ruthie supports a "wheenchaired mother" and is happy to receive the additional money she earns from Mulloy for transcribing the ribbons at home via a Rube Goldberg device created by Mulloy.

The story opens in the bedroom of Christine as she is awakened from a post-coital slumber by Mulloy, about to say goodbye to her for the last time. She demands "one more for the road," which Mulloy eagerly supplies. Their affair and their arrangement is finished, by necessity as it turns out, as Christine's two-year metamorphosis has drawn the attention of another participant in the story, her boss. He has proposed marriage, Christine has accepted, and she fully intends to be a faithful wife ... that is, once she actually becomes a wife. She is rueful but realistic, and after their second lengthy coupling she descends into a deep sleep, leaving Mulloy to dress himself and depart, "with a back broken in three identifiable places, a sprung rib cage, and a soft, bemused, rubbery smile." He will miss Christine, but is happy in the knowledge that she has promised him a gift, a kind of "reverse" wedding present...

Ignoring the air of sexism in the plot and the strong hints of the soon-to-be-famous "Travis McGee therapy," "Wedding Present" succeeds as fiction primarily because of its style, a full, nearly poetic prose that rings from the page. MacDonald draws attention to this at one point when Mulloy tells his co-worker (to whom he is relating the tale), "My degree of emotional involvement renders me particularly articulate. It's the poetry of the organization man." The story also succeeds because of the unsentimental portrayal of its protagonist, who is shown to be a cold, completely self-serving sneak who avoids a physical relationship with Ruthie only because it will spoil his plan, and who openly makes a future challenge to his co-worker once his usefulness is over. He's the kind of hard-case corporate anti-hero MacDonald would begin to explore only long after his short story days were largely behind him.

As near as I can tell, "Wedding Present" has never been anthologized.

Friday, June 4, 2010

You Live Once

You Live Once is John D MacDonald's sixteenth novel, published in March 1956 by Popular Library as a paperback original. Following on the heels of the multi-character Cry Hard, Cry Fast, it was a return to the straightforward, first person narrative crime story that he had last employed in A Bullet for Cinderella a year earlier. In discussing that novel I asserted that A Bullet for Cinderella was not first-rate MacDonald, that it was a step backward in his progression as a novelist and, in particular, a stylist. I'm afraid the same is true for You Live Once. Taken on its own terms it is an interesting and suspenseful story, but read on the heels of the excellent Cry Hard, Cry Fast the book seems hurried, abrupt and disjointed. It features an everyman hero who suddenly finds himself in a dangerous situation, and MacDonald attempts to combine so many of the features from his earlier books that the reader gets the sense he wasn't exactly sure of the kind of book he wanted to write. We have the corporate executive and his problems, as explored in Cancel All Our Vows and Area of Suspicion, the insular small town society of Contrary Pleasure and -- again -- Area of Suspicion, all written around a whodunit plot that is reminiscent of All These Condemned. The novel had a somewhat troubled history prior to its publication (see below) so perhaps the author simply wanted to get it done and move on to other things.

The book has the feel of an overextended short story, featuring a well-worn literary device to kick-start the plot and get things rolling (a dead body). Along the way we're treated to a rich patriarch, hints of madness in an old-line family, a sadistic cop, a wanton wench, a private eye and a completely over-the-top bad guy. You Live Once also features what is easily MacDonald's worst and most embarrassing love scene, several pages so clumsily written and placed in the plot that he actually has the female say "Whatever this is, it isn't funny!"

The protagonist is Clint Sewell, a junior executive with Consolidated Pneumatic Products who has recently been transferred to the company's Tube and Cylinder Division in Warren, a fictional town in an unnamed midwestern state. His new boss, who was moved in after him, is Dodd Raymond, a one-time local who is back working in his home town, an unusual move for the company. Dodd springs from one of the old line families of Warren and travels in that elevated circle of country clubs, exclusive sub-divisions and fancy lakeside weekend retreats. He also has an old flame, "an easy loving belle" by the name of Mary Olan, who he immediately begins seeing secretly, something suspected by his wife Nancy. As a ruse and to throw Nancy and everyone else off the scent of his illicit affair, Dodd has convinced Clint to be his decoy, accompanying Mary to public events and to dinner foursomes with Dodd and Nancy. Clint does as he is told, and who can blame him?

"Mary Olan was smallish but sturdy... She is brown and rounded and firm. She has black, black hair and about all she does with it is keep it out of her eyes. She has a thin face, a wide mouth, black caterpillar eyebrows, a go-to-hell expression, limitless energy and several million bucks tied up in various trust funds. She has an air of importance. Waiters and doormen snap, pop and crackle when she lifts one finger, or one millimeter of eyebrow. In a faded bathing suit in the middle of Jones Beach she would still be unmistakably Somebody. She has an electric something that could disorganize the equipment in a research lab. Even the halfhearted kisses she had allowed me would each have melted an acre of perma-frost above Nome."

Mary's money has kept her from being called -- in the vernacular of the day -- "a bum," her behavior "sufficiently lurid" and featuring "one marriage, an annulment, other escapades and scandals." In their moments alone Clint tries to get to second base but is rebuffed repeatedly -- not by anger but usually by derisive laughter. Nancy's suspicions have impelled her to ask Clint to keep trying, to get her away from her husband, but what she doesn't know is that Clint is secretly pining for her (Nancy), but not badly enough to take any action. She is Mary's opposite in every way, a "candybox blonde... small perfect delicate features, silky floating hair... [and] a little-girl voice with overtones of a lisp cured long ago."

The reason behind Mary's wanton behavior is implied to have been caused by an incident in her past. Her mother murdered her father when Mary was two years old, then was institutionalized in a mental asylum. Mary was raised by her uncle Willy Prior, a wealthy, conservative and upright man with a wife and three daughters of his own. The three girls are prim and reasonably proper, but not Mary, who flaunts her disobedience in the face of her uncle. There is talk in the town that the family blood is tainted and that Mary may be just as nuts as her mother--- why else would she behave so?!

All of this background is filled into the early chapters of the book but unknown to the reader when we meet Clint, awakened on a Sunday morning by two policemen looking for Mary. She didn't return home the night before when she was out on a date with Clint. Clint explains that Mary dropped him off at the house at around two and left, with a promised drive up to the town lake the following morning. After the police leave Clint goes to get dressed, only to find the dead body of Mary Olan lying on the floor of his bedroom closet, with one of his belts pulled tightly around her throat.

After considerable shock and panic, Clint decides that there is no way he would not be blamed for this crime, although he is certain he did not commit it. Someone is trying to frame him, someone who probably hated Mary enough to want her dead. This being a whodunit, that means almost everyone in town, with the exception of Clint. He wraps the body in a tarp and throws it into the trunk of his car and drives toward the lake where he and Mary were to have gone that morning. Along the way he pulls into a wooded area and throws the body down a deserted ravine. From there he goes to the lake and tries to pretend that all is well.

As the days go by Clint goes to work as the town's big preoccupation becomes "Where is Mary Olan?" A meeting is held by the police, a sort of inquest where they question anyone who had any contact with Mary. There Clint meets Paul France, a licensed investigator brought in by the police to ask the kinds of tough questions the local cops can't address to town royalty like Willy Prior. The inquiry goes on for some time and is eventually interrupted by a phone call. Mary has been found, by a troop of hiking Brownies, strangled and at the bottom of a ravine. There is apparently nothing to implicate Clint and he returns home after the meeting. After dinner he takes a walk and as he is returning approaching his apartment he sees the place surrounded by cops. Realizing that they've made some connection, he flees.

The only place he can think to hide out is the nearby apartment of his secretary Toni MacRae. Toni has been introduced in passing earlier in the book as someone Clint had tried to date but who rebuffed him with a standing rule never to date men she worked for. Still, MacDonald's description of her, as it typically does, gives away her future importance in the plot and in the life of the hero.

"She is a slim and pleasant morsel, and satisfyingly bright. She decorates and implements an office adequately. Italian and Scots combine to make an intriguing woman. Her mother gave her her coloring, her suggestively rounded figure with its promise of languor and lazy Sundays in bed. But from Papa she inherited a cool, canny eye, a lot of skepticism, and a brain that goes click like an I.B.M. machine... It makes for a peculiar relationship to share an office with a girl who is lovely and desirable, as well as efficient."

Unsure as to why Clint is throwing pebbles against the window of her rooming house apartment, Toni sneaks him in with a warning to keep his voice down in order to keep the landlady from hearing. Clint tells her the whole story and asks her to help him. When she agrees he suddenly realizes that he is in love with her, that it has always been her and, like some smitten high school kid, he tries to tell her.

"One minute she was a handsome gal with a good mind, good taste, and far better equipment than average. All that one minute -- and then she was suddenly Toni MacRae. Not a pastime, not a hobby, not a target for tonight. Toni. Part of my life. Most of my life. All of my life."

One has to go pretty early into the writing career of John D MacDonald to find anything as embarrassingly written as that -- and it's only a small part of the "love scene."

Toni comes around, admits that she's always loved and wanted Clint, cries, they make wonderful love and then start calling each other "darling." But Paul France is a good snoop and the following day, while Toni is at work, France convinces the landlady to let him into Toni's room. He discovers Clint, who manages to briefly escape before giving himself up. Then he's at the mercy of the local police, and the word "mercy" is not in their vocabulary.
This being a whodunit I won't reveal any more of the plot, but I think that any reader of mystery stories can pick out the killer early on in the narrative without too much trouble. There is a particular physical characteristic of a certain person described in a nearly gratuitous way that makes one instantly suspicious. I spotted it 35 years ago when I first read the book and it leapt out again when I recently re-read it. It's bad writing and is illustrative as to why this kind of mystery was not MacDonald's strong point. Yet there is a good reason to read this undemanding work, and it's not the plot or the characterizations or the sex or the dialogue. You Live Once is one of MacDonald's earliest attempts at illustrating and exploring the life of the corporate executive, specifically the new kind of gypsy exec who was becoming the norm in postwar industrial America. One of the reasons for Clint Sewell's insecurity and his quick assumption that he will not be believed is precisely because of his outsider status in the town of Warren. He is a man who is shifted about by the whim and the immediate need of a faceless corporate entity, a company that uses their policy of musical chairs as a winnowing process, promoting the superior, dumping the inadequate and using up the merely-efficient. It's one of the recurring themes in MacDonald's work and emerges frequently in later novels such as A Man of Affairs, The Deceivers and Clemmie, and it would reach its apogee in MacDonald's masterful short story "The Trap of Solid Gold."

There are a few passages that bring this lifestyle to light, revealing both its rewards as well as its hazards, with much subtext and style.

"Warren is a tight community. I was part of the new influx of postwar population, and a professional transient at that. The old part of town drew its skirts tightly around itself, talked about the dreadful habits of the 'new element,' and quietly raised its standard of living with the money we were bringing in. So I had battered myself into apathy with workouts at the Y, with sheaves of work I brought home from the office, with library books that I had never gotten around to reading before. When restlessness got its sharp fangs into me, I'd roam the Saturday bars. That is a forlorn pursuit, eying the tight-skirt little drabs in the neighborhood joints, or the enameled Vogue-like birds of prey in the dollar-a-cocktail lounges, nursing their pale poison during the five o'clock ritual of appraisal and rejection. The jukes hammer your head and your need is a sickness to be assuaged only by predictable shame."

Wow. A paragraph like that is worth the cover price of the book. Clint continues,

"During my five transient years I had come to learn that the more complex the civilization grows, the more violent are the effects of loneliness. I has learned why CPP, GE, DuPont, Alcoa, Ford, General Motors, Kodak and all the rest of them wanted us safely married. Still, there were a lot of us still single, minds honed keen by Sheffield, Towne, Stanford, Harvard Business School, MIT, and by day we made things run and move and grow. But by night we paced the neon sidewalks where nylon whispers on hips and ankles, and lipstick shows black when the light overhead is red... A few times I had reached the point where the act of marriage became a goal in itself, apart from any specific woman. Marriage to a faceless being who was nevertheless all too vivid from the neck down, who by warmth and closeness would still the gnaw of the blood."

No wonder Clint jumps at the chance to date Mary Olan: It opened a door to "a world previously denied [him]."

What little reception You Live Once was accorded when it was released in 1956 was lukewarm. The only contemporaneous review of the novel came from the reliable Anthony Boucher in The New York Times, who complained that JDM's foray into the world of whodunit was "none too fresh or surprising." When the book was republished in 1961 a reviewer for the Hamilton Ontario Spectator complained that the book was "poorly plotted and the characters... wooden enough to worry the reader as they make their appearance." He also rued MacDonald's "decision" to allow the book to be republished, sparking a rare response from JDM, who wrote that "no publisher's contract in existence gives the author the power to veto further printings of work under contract."

MacDonald's original title for this work was You Kill Me, and like a previous novel that Popular Library had re-titled (A Bullet for Cinderella), it was allowed to appear under its original name when the book was reprinted in the early Sixties. And, like A Bullet for Cinderella -- which had become On the Make -- the originally-assigned title was restored to all subsequent printings when Fawcett obtained the rights to the JDM catalog in the mid Sixties. You Kill Me featured a slightly altered version of the original's cover -- again, just like On the Make. That cover, featuring a wild-and-crazy Mary Olan lifting her skirt in front of a background shot of Clint Sewell carrying her dead body, was illustrated by a now-unknown artist (unknown, at least, to me and to MacDonald bibliographer Walter Shine). The subsequent Fawcett reprints depicted a dead Mary being carried into the woods and was done by the always-superb Robert McGinnis. It was used -- in one form or another -- on every future edition.
For book collectors, identifying a true first edition isn't that hard -- it bears the Popular Library number 737 -- but the book was unique in the MacDonald world in that there were two versions of that "first" published. One contained a green tint on the inside of both the front and back covers, the other was white. I'm not sure of the reasoning behind this idea and I don't think that one is more valuable than the other. A second printing was run a mere eight months after the first (in November 1956), possibly indicating the popularity of the title. The total number of books printed under the Popular Library label (including the 1961 You Kill Me) was 314,000, a huge increase over their run of Cry Hard, Cry Fast (189,000 copies) and the paperback version of Contrary Pleasure (225,000).

I mentioned above that You Live Once had a troubled history. According to Walter Shine, the original manuscript for You Live Once was written in early 1955. It was submitted to Popular Library, who approved it and paid MacDonald his advance, but they requested extensive rewrites. This was not unusual at the time -- or probably now -- but the fact that this was mentioned indicates that the extent of this request may have exceeded that which MacDonald was accustomed to. While working on the revisions requested, JDM's agent showed the original manuscript to Cosmopolitan magazine, who liked it and wanted to publish it, but in a shorter version. In fact, the length they were willing to print was about one third of the original length of the novel. So MacDonald first began working on the Cosmopolitan version -- it was his first novel to be "previewed" in a magazine, and under the title "Deadly Victim" -- which eventually appeared in their April 1955 issue. After he was done with that he then began working on the Popular Library rewrites. He told an audience in a speech in November 1955 that "...I am getting very tired of the characters in this book."

It was, however, a good thing for the author, as Cosmopolitan went on to "preview" seventeen more of his novels over the years, including many of his finest works of the 1950's and five Travis McGee novels.

Incidentally, You Live Once was the third of only four John D MacDonald books published by Popular Library and the last of his novels printed by them. The final PL JDM paperback published was the July 1956 anthology Border Town Girl. Consisting of only two novellas -- the original "Linda" and the reprint of an old Dime Detective novella originally titled "Five Star Final" -- it was, perhaps, a last contractual obligation in a troubled professional relationship.

You Live Once is out of print but easily obtainable from used book sellers.