Friday, April 29, 2011

"You Got to Have a Good Lip"

The story of John D MacDonald's beginnings as a writer was often told during his lifetime, so much so that it became the stuff of literary legend. While stationed in Asia during the second world war, he wrote a story to entertain his wife, because censorship of his letters home robbed them of anything interesting to say. Without telling him, Dorothy MacDonald typed it into manuscript form and submitted it to Story magazine, a popular pulp of the era, who purchased it for publication and paid the author $25 for the honor of doing so. Dorothy saved the good news until her husband's return home, and MacDonald was so dumbfounded over the news that he quit the army and became an author. The facts of the story are, of course, a simplification but they are basically true. Left out of most tellings of this tale is the fact that Dorothy MacDonald's first attempt at selling "Interlude in India" met with a rejection slip.

It was Esquire magazine who had the first chance to publish the first John D MacDonald story -- then still called "Through a Glass Darkly," JDM's original title -- but they turned it down, reportedly because of its meager length, not due to any lack of quality in the writing. The editors even encouraged Dorothy to submit something longer. But a little over a year after MacDonald returned home Esquire managed to make up for its oversight by becoming part of another bit of JDM history: they were the first slick magazine to publish a John D MacDonald story. "You Got to Have a Good Lip" appeared in their gigantic (382 very large pages!) December 1946 issue and the story is a peek, I think, at the kind of writer MacDonald could have become, had 1,000 rejection slips not separated his first and his second sales.

Once MacDonald decided to try writing for a living, he recalled that "for the first time in my life I really worked. Really. Eighty-hour weeks. I turned out 800,000 unsalable words in four months." Later he said "I must tell you that a lot of those words were really dreadful." What kinds of stories were these early efforts? We'll never know for certain, since the author and his young son later burned all of the manuscripts, however it is important to remember that "Interlude in India" was not a mystery story but straightforward narrative fiction dealing with the subjects of race, culture and boredom. MacDonald once sarcastically characterized his early unsellable work as "wonderful beautiful [stories] about dying blind musicians, but they didn't sell." It wasn't until he "lowered [his] sights a little" and started writing crime fiction that he finally began receiving checks back in the mail.

"You Got to Have a Good Lip" is the story of a musician, but he is neither dying nor blind. His name is Souie Bless and he's "a sarcastic, egotistical jerk" who "can't think and... never smiles." But he can play jazz.

"He had one fine talent that kept him in Packard roadsters and big blonde dollies. He could blow a horn -- or a trumpet if you're one of those people who call them that -- that was high, wild, sweet and true."

Souie's story is told in the first person through the character of Marty Terrace, the man who "discovered" Souie and who brought him up into the big time. Marty tells the tale in a kind of affected Runyonesque prose that is a bit stilted at times and definitely shows an author still learning his craft. Marty recalls how he first became involved with Souie:

"I had heard a few guys mention his name when he was playing out in the tank towns. I listen for things like that. I noticed that they said it with a kind of reverence. That, I didn't get... So when Hoggarty, who is the Ronald West of Ronald West's Band, caught his first horn with his babe, there was a vacant spot in the band. They filled in with a couple of plumbers and I took a trip looking for this Souie  Bless. I found him in a mixed joint in Buffalo..."

When he finally gets to hear him play, Marty is impressed.

"He didn't mess with rough riffs or fancy breaks. Just nice plain round notes that kind of melted out of the bell of that horn."

Souie, "a swarthy guy with little black eyes," is unimpressed with the applause that "tore the roof off the place," puts his horn down and heads for the bar, "a mean look on his nasty little face." When Marty introduces himself Souie responds with bile and the two almost come to blows. But finally Marty is able to communicate his reason for being there and eventually gets Souie's agreement to quit his current combo and join up with Ronald West's Band. When Marty explains how much of a great opportunity this will be, Souie responds, "Opportunity for me... hell! West'll be buying the best horn in the business."

Souie joined the new band, and it should have been the end of Marty's involvement with him, only "somehow, by going out and getting him, I had given everybody who got browned off at him a ticket to cry on my shoulder." Souie headed straight to the top and became the featured soloist in the band, performing on radio and "cutting discs by the bushel." Marty recalls that no matter how famous Souie became, he was still the "little stinker" he had always been, hated by any and everyone who worked with him, an enmity that was reciprocated toward all. He tells a story about a run-in with a trombone player over a solo that results in an "accident" involving the other musician's instrument. Then there was the fight with Big Bronson, one of the best men on drums in town. Despite Souie's smaller size he manages to chop Bronson's face into "hamburger meat" thanks to a deftly-wielded signet ring. And of course there were the girls, "big blonde women who stared at him with  that honest sincere affection with which big blonde women always stare at big bank notes." Souie just "enjoyed blowing that horn and he enjoyed being a big shot."

But this musician is a specialist, and when Souie steps out of his specialty, only for a moment, it all comes crashing down on him...

For early JDM, "You Got to Have a Good Lip" isn't bad, and the author's attempts at a kind of stylized idiom full of colorful slang spoken by earthy characters works more often than it doesn't. It was rare for MacDonald to have a first-person narrator tell an entire story using this kind of language, and as his career progressed it was a task that eventually fell to secondary characters. The author usually used it for comic effect, reaching its apogee in his 1949 mainstream story "Looie Follows Me." These kinds of tales featuring musicians, second-rate actors, gangsters and other assorted low-lifes populated the fiction pages of certain magazines in the 1940's, and none of them were mystery pulps. Pulp magazines demanded action, violence and real crime before anything else. Slicks like Esquire preferred a bit of distance from its subject matter, lives to be looked into and marveled at and to feel superior to. These walls eventually broke down in the 1950's as fiction became less important to the slick magazines, but there has always been a dichotomy in the world of fiction between the "serious" writers and the "popular" ones. I think MacDonald longed to be a serious writer despite protestations to the contrary, at least early in his writing career, and he never stopped producing mainstream fiction. His readers can be thankful that the editors of all of the slick magazines to which he submitted work to in late 1945 didn't think he was good enough to join the ranks of the serious boys and girls.

I'm sure MacDonald viewed this first appearance in a slick with some pride, so much so that he notified the local newspaper of its pending publication. The November 17, 1946 edition of the Utica Observer-Dispatch ran the following piece on page 2 of their Sunday paper, complete with the author's home address, in case one felt like stopping by to congratulate him:

 MacDonald loved music and he especially loved jazz. He owned a large collection of recordings, enjoyed visiting intimate clubs where jazz was performed, and wrote about it with some frequency. One of his Clinton Courier columns (April 29, 1947) was entirely devoted to a review of a local jazz concert (he panned it). One of his club visits was a celebration of his return from the war, when he and Dorothy headed down to NYC to see Billie Holiday, backed by Big Syd Catlett's combo, perform at the Three Deuces on 52nd Street. (Catlett was a drummer and one naturally wonders if he was the model for Big Bronson in "You Got to Have a Good Lip.") Hugh Merrill in his biography of MacDonald tells the amusing story of that evening, when during an intermission JDM and Dorothy made a trip to the rest rooms. Along the way they encountered three enlisted men in uniform fighting. Holiday pulled Dorothy into her nearby dressing room, where she enjoyed the protection of two boxer dogs. John, who had just quit the service holding the rank of lieutenant colonel, attempted to break up the row. Unfortunately he was not in uniform and one of the soldiers slugged him, knocking him five steps backward. MacDonald recalled, "I will never forget my shock at looking down at my clothes and finding out I was a civilian any damn soldier could clobber at will."

It is interesting to note that, despite the purported objection to the length of "Interlude in India," "You Got to Have a Good Lip" -- at 1,550 words -- is only 50 words longer than the former short story. Esquire didn't even include "Good Lip" in the "Fiction" section of the December issue's table of contents, relegating it to a category titled "Briefs," which included works of both fiction and non-fiction. Would another 50 words have made "Interlude in India" both MacDonald's first story sold and his first mainstream sale?

"You Got to Have a Good Lip" has never been anthologized or republished.


  1. Thanks for discussing JDM's early writing career. However, in the first paragraph you refer to Story Magazine as a "popular pulp of the era". Perhaps you are thinking of Short Stories magazine which was a pulp but Story Magazine was a literary periodical which aimed to publish quality fiction of a more "literary" nature. Many well known mainstream writers published in Story.

  2. Thank you for pointing that out, Walker. I was attempting to differentiate Story from the slicks of the day and I should have been more clear. I only own one copy of Story -- an issue from 1937 -- and it's definitely not printed on pulp, nor does its content resemble that of the pulp magazines of the era.