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.

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