Tuesday, November 30, 2010
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
This year, Thanksgiving is a time when two young American girls lost to their father a forfeit of twenty-five dollars each because they could not stand the official German food rationing system for two weeks.
It is a time when American magazines will go overseas, and they will contain pictures of our healthy families gathered around the well-set table. Remember that Norman Rockwell picture of a family at dinner? It was drawn as a part of that series of four to illustrate the four freedoms. Reproductions of that picture go overseas.
In many prisons where the convicts are permitted to read newspapers, someone goes over the papers first and cuts out any reference to crime. Maybe the United States periodicals that go over seas should have all reference to food removed.
Did you ever open a magazine and look at a color photograph of a great big steak, butter melting on top? We wonder how those advertisements strike such persona as Bill Mauldin's French philosopher— the man who said that a pessimist cuts off the loose end of his belt, while the optimist merely punches new holes.
Our ancestors gave thanks because they fought a wild and alien country with their hands and made the soil give them food. We give thanks because in this strange year of 1947, a blind throw of Fate's dice left us as an island in the midst of war, left us untouched by the hunger, cold and disease that afflict the rest of the world.
We must be thankful, but not complacent We are in the midst of the second armistice in the war that began in 1914. Somehow, during these years of uncertain peace, we must find the strength with which to protect this way of life which makes our Thanksgiving possible.
-- from John D MacDonald's weekly Clinton (New York) Courier column in the November 27, 1947 issue. Twenty-six years later the author would expand upon this sentiment in a more apocalyptic vein when Meyer frets about conspicuous consumption in The Scarlet Ruse.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Of course, Professor Amberson has just traveled through time, although he doesn't realize it yet. "Not a man to take much note of his surroundings," he writes out a check on the counter and gets in line to see a teller. The scornful young man in the teller window looks intently at the check and then tells Amberson to go play his games elsewhere. It is only then that the good professor notices the strange way the man is dressed, in brightly-colored clothing that look like pajamas. When the teller refuses, Amberson makes enough of a scene that the guard walks over and confronts him, a guard who is dressed even more strangely.
"The man wore a salmon-pink uniform with enormously padded shoulders. He had a thumb hooked in his belt, his hand close to the plastic bowl of what seemed to be a child's bubble pipe."
There is an altercation which leads to the professor being shot with some kind of ray gun that prevents him from moving. Only then does the bank manager emerge from his office, a "fussy little bald-headed man" wearing "pastel blue pajamas with a gold medallion over the heart," who wants to know what all the commotion is about. Once he opens Amberson's change purse and sees a 1949 quarter, he has the professor brought back to his office. It's all now perfectly clear to the manager, but not to Amberson. This is not 1949 but "year eighty-three under Gradzinger calendar." The manager opens the windows to his office and reveals a strange cityscape, unrecognizable to Amberson, who now realizes he's not in Kansas any more.
But this is not really a problem, for the manager need only call the "Department of Temporal Technics" at Columbia University to send over a few technicians who will send the professor back. It is while they are awaiting the arrival of the time boys that Amberson takes the opportunity to ask about the economics of the future world. The currency is now small plastic pellets, although the monetary decimal system has been retained, and when Amberson makes the presumption that the currency is still backed by gold, he gets a dismissive answer.
"Greenbush gasped and then laughed. 'What ludicrous idea! Any fool with public-school education has learned enough about transmutation of elements to make five tons of gold in afternoon, or of platinum or zinc or any other metal or alloy of metal you desire.'"
The professor suggests other possibilities, such as units of energy, precious stones, even rare national resources, only to be laughed at by the manager. Perplexed, Amberson asks a question that must sound strange to anyone who was not an adult before 1970:
"But currency, to have value must be backed by something!"
It is backed by "something," something that is still rare in a future where there is an abundance of everything else that once had value, something that can not be duplicated with speed or mass-production, something that the manager just happens to have stored in his "refrigerated" bank vault: an "HUC."
To find out what that acronym stands for, you'll have to read the story.
It's hard today to recall that once our money was backed by precious metals, and that one could actually walk down to the Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, DC and exchange bills for silver or gold. Historically this was always the case, with a few periods of national crisis (World War II, the Great Depression) when that standard was relaxed. When MacDonald wrote "The Miniature," the United States has returned to the gold standard only three years before as a result of the Bretton Woods agreement that set a system of fixed exchange rates and pegged the value of gold at $35 per ounce. That system was followed until 1970, when Richard Nixon closed the gold window and began a system of fiat money, where the currency of the nation was backed by nothing more than "the full faith and credit" of the United States Government. The world followed suit (the dollar being the world's primary currency) and the gold standard has never been used since. Interestingly, a few days before I re-read "The Miniature," former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan told the Council on Foreign Relations that "fiat money has no place to go but gold," and the continuing troubles of the world economy bring almost daily calls for a return to some sort of "sound money" policy.
It makes me wonder what MacDonald would have thought of our current economic mess. A Keynesian most of his life (recall the name of Meyer's boat at Bahia Mar), MacDonald had a change of heart after the economic troubles of the Nixon, Ford and Carter eras, and he told George Vassallo in his last-ever interview that he believed the world economy was doomed, "unless we dump Keynesian theory and embrace Schumpeter's vision of the reward to the innovator." He even blew up the John Maynard Keynes at the beginning of Cinnamon Skin!
"The Miniature" was included in MacDonald's 1978 science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds -- which can be found on used book sites -- and it is currently available in eBook form (marred by several typographical errors) as an entry in Wonder Audio Books' Death Quotient and Other Stories.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
She begins to tell him her sad story. Her "people" were dead. (MacDonald's consistent use of the word "people" when he means "family" or "parents" -- not only here but in all of his work -- obviously must mean something, but that's a subject for another day.) She had married a marine who was killed and "his people, Kentucky people" wanted nothing to do with their son's widow. She worked in California and married an Air Force warrant officer, who "got in some kind of jam and had been given a dishonorable discharge." She later found that he already had a wife and two kids back in Maine. He left and she got sick. After spending some time in a hospital as a "charity case," Linda returned to her hometown, broke and broken, with "the heart taken out of her." It was only under circumstances such as these that a man like Paul would have a chance with a woman like Linda.
"... we went up to bed... She fooled around [in the bathroom] and I was in bed first. Finally she came out... and stood in the doorway with the light from the bathroom shining right through some sort of flimsy thing I'd never seen on her before... She stood there for a long time. As I said, I've never seen a better figure on a woman in my life. She turned the light off, finally, and I could hear the rustling of her as she came toward me in the darkness, hear the rustling, and then smell a new kind of heavy perfume she had put on, and then feel her strong arms around me as she brought her lips down on mine there in our dark bedroom."
Stella, unburdened by Paul's deep insecurities, immediately understands what is happening. The long periods she and Paul are forced to spend together while their respective spouses are gone brings them closer than they ever were as friendly neighbors, and they spend time going into town to shop and take long walks on the beach together. Paul has never thought of Stella as anything other than a "nice" woman who wasn't very attractive, but their closeness begins to change that. Interestingly, MacDonald saves his most descriptive prose for Stella, perhaps because she is the only "good" female in the story, or perhaps to serve as a red herring.
When Fawcett began reprinting the novels of MacDonald in the sixties, following the success of the Travis McGee series, Border Town Girl was one of the last to see daylight. It reappeared in July of 1969 and featured its most recognizable cover, a Robert McGinnis original featuring Linda in a purple shirt (and nothing else) holding a scope rifle next to her. Also depicted is one of the females from "Border Town Girl" with a large sombrero draped over her back, probably Diana Saybree. The re-publication was heavily reviewed by the press of the time, with the Chicago Tribune's Clarence Petersen (another longtime JDM fan and supporter) calling "Linda" "... one of MacDonald's best tales... [it] is as chilling as it is gratifying." Reviews appeared in Publisher's Weekly, the St. Petersburg Times, the Springfield Journal-Register, the Boca Raton News and the Buffalo Evening News. It was even reviewed in several British newspapers as well as in the Dublin Herald. Most were favorable and nearly all singled out "Linda" as the superior of the two novellas.
Twenty years later the USA Network produced its own adaptation, again as a made-for television movie (technically made-for-cable, I guess). It is a far more faithful version that maintains the novella's timeline without resorting to flashback and that retains much of MacDonald's original dialogue. Virginia Madson (another blonde!) plays the title role and Richard Thomas turns in a great performance as Paul, an actor whose physical appearance and demeanor has far more fidelity to the character that did Ed Nelson. But, as hard as the screenwriter and director tried, the feel of the characters never really comes across. Linda seems more of a venal, selfish woman-child than the evil character of the novella, and there are too many badly acted scenes to make this film worth recommending. There are several gratuitous scenes that were added by the filmmakers, including a near-tryst in a motel between Paul and Stella, that serve no real purpose. Still, Thomas comes across as closer to MacDonald's character than anyone, and it is for his performance that the film is worth watching. There's also a really neat touch in one of the beach scenes, showing Paul lying on a blanket with a paperback book spread open over his face. The book? Border Town Girl.