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to the listing of the JDM holdings at the University of Florida, it is included under the category "Short Stories - Unpublished" with the notation "Rejected ... 1961 Oct 12," yet from the portion of the first sentence provided for reference, one can tell it is a story he eventually sold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.

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