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.

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