Friday, September 3, 2010


"Quarrel" was the first John D MacDonald short story ever published in Playboy. It appeared in the May 1967 issue and must have provoked a few smiles and a lot of head scratching among MacDonald's dedicated fans, following as it did only a year after Travis McGee's anti-Hefner rant in One Fearful Yellow Eye. "Quarrel" was the first of five JDM stories that would appear in Playboy between 1967 and 1974, and all but the last of these tales would eventually appear in MacDonald's 1971 short story collection S*E*V*E*N. It was the fourth story in that anthology, and even though there is supposed to be thematic arc to S*E*V*E*N, I've never been able to figure out what it is.

The story is told in the first person by a character simply named Noonan, an aging hippie who walks around with a pet mouse in his coat pocket and who talks in the hep jargon of the day. Depending on your age and point of view, Noonan's dialogue is either wonderfully authentic or embarrassingly arch, a woeful attempt by a middle-aged author to capture the speech patterns of the counter-culture. MacDonald is usually deadly accurate with his dialogue, but many of the phrases found in "Quarrel" sound as if they came from a bad episode of the "The Mod Squad." Still, the story itself is sound and the use of flashback to tell a tale is a MacDonald trademark. Finishing up at a mere 1,900 words, there's hardly a wasted sentence, even if some of them are stilted.

We first encounter Noonan in New York's Central Park as he runs into "crazy Kaberrian," an old friend and fellow hippie who he hasn't seen in years. It's actually Kaberrian who recognized Noonan first, as the crazy one has now become "a square." He's sitting on a park bench next to a primly-dressed girl, looking far different from the way Noonan remembered him.

"The laugh was the same. Everything else had been changed. With that 12 or so pounds of shiny curly black hair chipped away and shaved away, underneath was a very ordinary-looking-type person, like the uptown subways are full of five evenings a week, like come and take away things people don't make payment on."
When Noonan recalls just how unkempt and far out Kaberrian had been back in the day, he comes to the only conclusion that makes sense and he tells it to him face-to-face: "A sell job. A fink-off. You squared it, huh, baby?" Kaberrian and the girl just laugh, and then Noonan is introduced to Ellie (the girl), who, in turn, is introduced to Noonan's mouse, named Buckley. Ellie then looks at her watch, kisses Kaberrian on the cheek and walks away, "very girl in every way." She's heading back to her job at a local museum, and just as Noonan's head is about to explode at the very squareness of it all, he asks Kaberrian to tell him what happened.

Kaberrian reveals that he and Ellie are married and that they "have an apartment, even." He's employed in a hi-fi store, which at least makes some sense to Noonan, as the Kaberrian he knew was an aural playwright who used tape recordings to make "accidental plays the way painters get accidental paintings." Even back in the day, Kaberrian's knowledge of recording techniques was vast. And, as he relates, it's how he met Ellie. But before he begins to tell the tale, Noonan has to bitch at him.

"It hurt me. So I explained how everybody has this terrible tendency to give up the fight, man. Square it out, and fink off, and start dying of conformity and plastic coffee. But when he started yawning, I had the idea I wasn't getting to him."
Kaberrian then relates how it all started. He was living in a tiny flat on 12th Street with the apartments on either side of him vacant. Then, on the very same day, both become occupied, one by a man, the other by a woman. It turns out that they were a couple, but the woman (Ellie, of course) "had such a deep belief in all the old-timy values," she would not permit co-habitation until marriage. The male is a playwright, the kind who has never finished anything, who is always working on the second act, and who sits around the apartment all day awaiting a call from his muse. Ellie, on the other hand, "is the only one earning bread, and she pays both rents, cooks, cleans, everything." They also don't seem to get along very well. Their loud arguments, easily heard through the paper-thin walls, inspire Kaberrian to break out the Ampex, and he begins recording the tiffs with the goal of turning them into one of his "accidental plays." He quickly builds up a large library of reels (this was 1967, after all) and begins splicing things together into what can only be termed as modern art. He even hires a couple of musicians to play along, with a clarinet mimicking Ellie and a French horn filling in for her boyfriend. Once everything is finished and put together for playback, Kaberrian tries it out on the most logical audience of all: Ellie and the playwright. Their reactions prove to be very different.

MacDonald does a wonderful job in contrasting the two main male characters in "Quarrel," pitting the willing-to-change Kaberrian against the supposedly more enlightened Noonan, who has become that most pathetic of creatures: the aging radical. In a couple of wonderfully economic sentences, the author manages to sum up the wasted life of Noonan, a grown man still walking around with a mouse in his pocket. My favorite:

"[Kaberrian] asked me how things were at Columbia, and I said I was auditing the Oriental-religions thing again, the same course [he] and I had audited maybe seven years ago together, which is how we met. I said they had changed it a little, but it was still stimulating."
How many of us have known someone like Noonan? There are few authors I read who can say as much with so few words as John D MacDonald.

Noonan's final rueful summation of what Kaberrian has become says more about himself than it does his friend:

"Off he went. That's the last we'll ever see of him. Who's going to keep up the good old traditions if we keep on losing the Kaberrians one at a time? Who can laugh in a world like this one?"
(That line will make more sense once you've read the entire story, as I've left out any spoilers.)

Used copies of S*E*V*E*N are easily obtainable for very little money, and one can even find the original May 1967 Playboy for relatively little cash through any number of online used book stores.

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