Friday, February 4, 2011

"The Man Who Almost Blew His Top"

John D MacDonald didn't invent the title for "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top," a short story of his that appeared in the May 30, 1954 issue of the newspaper supplement This Week. That dubious honor is due the magazine's editors, who didn't like the author's own title, "We Love You Anyway." Yet despite the clunky designation, "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" is a simple but above average story about the pressures of modern society and how they gradually grind away at a man's temperament. It's a nifty little microcosm of 1950's America and the man in the gray flannel suit, that suburban commuter with a wife and two children who drives into "the city" five times a week to toil away at a job he doesn't really like, for a boss he hates, only to return home each evening to a family who is increasingly getting on his nerves. It takes an dose of road rage -- 1954-style -- to make him see himself for what he has become. 

"The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" was the seventh John D MacDonald story to appear in This Week, and the six that had been published before this were all lighthearted, semi-comic set pieces built around that typical suburban family of the two-child variety dealing with some kind of situation resulting from a well-meaning misunderstanding. In the end it is (usually) the husband -- typically the cause of the trouble -- who is chastened but wiser. Beginning with "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" MacDonald's This Week stories take on a more serious tone, albeit one still fit for a Sunday morning newspaper supplement. 

The basic situation for "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" is taken directly from MacDonald's novel of the previous year, Cancel All Our Vows, and there are several direct parallels to the opening chapter of that book: a broken air conditioner at the office making work unbearably hot; opening up a sun-baked car and trying to air it out; references to reduced traffic as a result of leaving work at a different time; and a trip to a suburban home up in "the hills." But while Fletcher Wyant (in the novel) is experiencing only the faint hints of middle class ennui, Daniel D. Hunter in "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" seems ready to blow apart. 

"For Daniel D. Hunter it had been such an incredible beast of a Thursday that he wondered why he hadn't broken into tears of pure frustration... One of the bigger clients had gone elsewhere, his secretary had been weepy all day, old Gunnison had given him an entirely unwarranted chewing-out, the new assistant was definitely not working out, the carbon of an important letter could not be located, and he felt stale, old, tired and fumbling."

Add to that, the air conditioning has been out since mid-morning and it can't be fixed until Monday. It's late in the evening and Dan locks the office and heads for the elevator. He pushes the button and... no elevator.

"The blind fury came so quickly that it frightened him. He wanted to kick the wall, smash things, stomp on his hat. The sudden flood of adrenalin made his heart pound, made his hands shaky, his knees weak. These fits of rage seemed to be coming more frequently lately."

Indeed they had, and Dan enumerates all of the petty problems that have made his life so miserable lately: the job, the commute, his co-workers who "filled your back with knives," and always "some kind of mess at home." It would be either trouble between his wife Ruthie and one of their children, or a party he had forgotten that they had to attend that evening (another direct steal from Cancel All Our Vows), or a damned bicycle sitting in the driveway. Dan was getting "old too fast, get[ting] nerves that jingled like broken doorbells."

After he airs out the furnace-like interior of his car, he has trouble starting it, "and again he thought he would break into tears," but the engine eventually turns over and he heads for the hills of home. Outside of the city he looks in his rear view mirror and sees a black sedan speeding up and hovering about a foot away from his back bumper. The sedan then swings out to pass him on the single lane road. Dan reacts -- predictably -- with anger and steps on the gas in an attempt to prevent the other car from getting ahead. As the sedan comes alongside Dan's car he sees the "red apoplectic face" of the other driver, equally consumed by anger, yelling at Dan. Dan vaguely recognizes the man as someone who he met at a Rotary function, "a man who worked in the city and lived up here in the hills too, with perhaps an equal burden of mortgage and the dreadful monotony of daily commuting."

The sedan eventually passes Dan, narrowly avoiding an oncoming truck in the other lane, but the effort to pass has caused the car to lurch out of control. Dan watches as the sedan veers back and forth, then jumps a steep bank, hanging "ludicrously in the air, silhouetted against the cobalt sky." The sight is followed by the "drawn-out jangle and crash and roar of impact." Dan stops his car and runs to help the other man.

The other driver had been thrown out of his car and was lying "face down in a ditch, his legs up the slope at an awkward angle." Other drivers stop and together they manage to send for the police and move the victim, still breathing, into a more comfortable position. Later, as the man is on a stretcher and being placed in the back of an ambulance, Dan notices the socks the man is wearing.

"[Dan] had a pair of socks just like that. Same color and clocks and weave. The man's wife and Ruthie had probably bought them at the same store. There was something terribly meaningful about the socks. Meaningful and pathetic."

Still trembling, Dan heads for home again and turns into his driveway, only to find daughter Jill's bike in the way. 

This is where the story gets really interesting, not because of what happens, but because of MacDonald's beautifully spare descriptions of the other family members, their brief, instinctive reactions to the head of their family that reveal a man to be feared. The wreck and seeing those socks has changed and humbled Dan, but the other members of his family don't know it yet. Dan calmly moves the bike, only to be greeted by a nearly frantic Jill, running out to apologize for not moving it herself. 

"He looked at her for a moment and saw how tautly she stood there, as though ready to flinch or duck. He saw himself in her eyes, and it was not at all pretty. Not a good thing to see, to come home to."

When he rumples her hair and tells her it is okay, she looks at him "puzzled." As they enter the house together, wife Ruthie looks at the two of them "with a taut quickness, with a tension around the mouth." Seeing that Dan is not in one of his moods, Ruthie's mouth relaxes into a smile with "considerable relief."

The final third of "The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" consists of nothing more than dinner and a quiet aftermath with Dan and Ruthie sitting under the stars on their patio. Yet it is Dan's confrontation with his own behavior and personality that makes this story interesting, certainly compared to the author's previous This Week entries, and while this is not timeless fiction in the accepted sense, it is an excellent example of how MacDonald was honing his craft, sharpening his observations and providing more mature material to an outlet more used to tales of stopped clocks, comic misunderstandings and aging family pets. A very nice step forward for the author, who would go on to provide twenty more stories to This Week over the next twelve years.
"The Man Who Almost Blew His Top" has never been anthologized but can be purchased from many of the newspapers that once carried This Week, including The Baltimore Sun and The Los Angeles Times.

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