Sunday, September 25, 2011

"Pickup"

Of all of the numerous and varied magazines that published John D MacDonald's short fiction over the years, two hold the record for "most appearances." The first, not surprisingly, was a pulp: Dime Detective, where from 1946 to 1952, thirty-nine JDM stories appeared in 36 separate issues. The other may be a bit of a shock to modern readers (but not to faithful readers of this blog), especially considering the current personality of the magazine in question. From 1947 to 1975 Cosmopolitan magazine published 36 issues containing MacDonald's fiction, fiction that spanned the gamut from short story to novella to "full-length" (read: condensed) novels. The numbers break down thusly: 13 short stories, five novellas and a whopping 18 novels. The short stories include two of his very, very best work ("The Bear Trap" and "Hangover"), while his novellas include "The Impulse," which was adapted for television as an first-season episode of Thriller (re-titled "The Fatal Impulse"). The novels were all works that were published in concert with their appearance in book form, either contemporaneously or several months prior to hitting the bookstands.

Aside from the fact that Cosmopolitan paid substantially more than the two-cents-a-word rate common in the pulp world, it afforded the author a significantly larger audience, and -- believe it or not -- a more upscale audience, a fact that must beggar belief to anyone looking at the covers of recent issues of this woman's magazine. With headlines such as "Guys Rate 50 Sex Movies," "How to Outsmart a Bitch." "50 Things to Do Butt Naked" and the highly doubtful "The Sex Article We Can't Describe Here!" it is completely understandable that most modern readers have difficulty wrapping their heads around the fact that Cosmopolitan began life as a premier fiction magazine, and that it once led with fiction, and even that it once marketed itself without prejudice to either gender.  Helen Gurley Brown changed all that when she took over as editor in 1965, but even then the change was gradual. Back in its heyday Cosmopolitan was a highly respected publisher of fiction -- popular fiction, to be sure -- but fiction nonetheless, featuring authors of every level of the business, including Ernest Hemmingway, Ambrose Bierce, Sinclair Lewis, Damon Runyon, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton and A.J. Cronin.

After World War II the magazine shifted slightly and began including many popular writers, some graduating from the then-dying pulps, and including names like John Cheever, A.A. Milne, Mary Roberts Reinhart, Agatha Christie, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Patricia Highsmith, Ian Fleming and, of course, John D MacDonald.

MacDonald's first sale to Cosmopolitan took place in 1947 with the publication of his crime tale "The Pay-Off". It was the author's third sale to a large-circulation slick magazine, following appearances in Esquire and Liberty. "Pickup" was published the following year, in the February 1948 issue. It's not a mystery and contains no crime whatsoever, unless one considers a tired premise and an artificial situation as crimes. It certainly has the feel of the author "writing to market," despite his protestations that he never did such a thing. Worst of all, it features a female protagonist -- thankfully revealed in the third person -- who is dealing with decidedly female problems, and if MacDonald had any weakness, it was getting inside the heads of women. Not that he couldn't do it on occasion, usually with secondary characters, but the author's singular ability to create fictional people who seem uncannily real seemed to fail him when it came to the ladies. Examples include Alice Furmon in Contrary Pleasure, Judy Jonah in All These Condemned or Ginny Sherrel in Murder in the Wind. (His bad girls, on the other hand, are usually marvelous creations.)

There's nothing really wrong with MacDonald's depiction of Catherine, the subject of "Pickup," but then there's nothing really deep about her either. JDM's attempts at meaningful introspection in Catherine are done so with overly-florid language that makes it seem like a smokescreen, covering up something the author really didn't understand. In the end "Pickup" is unsatisfying and almost trite, although it's subject matter is anything but, and one gets the feeling that in more competent (and female) hands, this could have been a deeper story.

Catherine Hazard is a young housewife, the mother of two young children and married to Carl, a man twelve years her senior. The family lead a seemingly happy and fulfilling life in a midsized city -- Carl has a good job as an accountant with a building contractor and Catherine is a stay-at-home mom (this is, after all, America in 1948). But something is not right, at least with Catherine. A darkness is creeping into her soul, an emptiness whose cause she is unable to identify.

"[She] looked out the wide front window, saw the street distorted by the large wet flakes that melted against the glass -- and something in the wet asphalt's shining, something about the yellow of the early street lights, the soggy fall of snow, called up the feeling of emptiness, of strangeness that had haunted her for over a month."

As she awaits the arrival of her two children from grade school, she contemplates her husband Carl's return from work at five and it brings another dark shadow across her mind.

"Thinking of him brought back the new dark feeling of aloneness, and she knew that it was tied up with him somehow, but there was no way for her to find out. The new feeling was something restless within her that receded as she tried to grasp it, to find its component parts, its chemical analysis."

She wonders if this first autumn with both kids out of the house during the day has brought about her feelings, with the silences offering more time to think about herself.

"[As she looked around the house, it] looked different. She saw frayed edges where before she had seen newness and adequacy. She felt the smallness of the house; the constriction and tension building within her was like a spring, which, if released, would flatten the walls, send the roof sailing off, open the square rooms to the gray sky above."

This foreboding fades away as the kids come in and, later, Carl arrived home. This is the typical MacDonald family unit, one he used in virtually all of his early This Week stories, where there was never any gloom or feelings of doom, and here we are presented with the hardworking husband, weary from work but shrugging off that weariness once he sees his wife and kids. And MacDonald is at pains to depict Catherine as a good wife, loving, supportive and properly domesticated. After dinner she has more housework to do, but with the kids put to bed all she wants to do is "sit and look at Carl's strong square hands holding the [newspaper.]" When Carl gets up and announces that he has to return to work for a few hours, Catherine sees the weariness in his eyes "and she [wants] to hold him tightly, somehow to rest and restore him." Even a troubled housewife in 1948 couldn't resist her innate impulse to be an Earth Mother.

Carl senses something wrong with his wife and asks her about it. Catherine deflects any idea that there might be something wrong, but when Carl shrugs off his concern by blaming "the old differential"  -- their pronounced difference in ages -- Catherine inwardly wonders if he has put his finger on exactly what ails her.

"There had been dancing and music and brightness, and in the middle of it all Carl had come along, with his steady eyes and gentle hands, and before long the world had become a place full of grocery bills and washing and cleaning and formulas and bitter fights with the man from the diaper service. Maybe the sense of loneliness came from the thought of time going by, each second a knife that neatly sliced off a small chunk of the only life given her."

A few moments later the doorbell rings and it is the babysitter, arriving on the wrong night. But Catherine urges her to stay and watch the kids anyway so she can go out for a long walk, to be by herself for a while and contemplate her feelings. Here follows many column inches of prose as Catherine wanders the snow-covered streets, looking at life going on around her. She spends a few minutes in a hotel lobby, imagines herself to be an actress in a movie, fends off a would-be suitor who offers to buy her a drink, and without realizing it, begins to weep.

On her way home she is walking down her street when a car comes up behind her and follows. Catherine begins to walk faster, but the horn beeps a familiar beep and she turns to see her own car with Carl behind the wheel.

Carl: "You going my way, lady?"

Catherine (affecting coyness): "And what way would you be going?"

Carl: "Oh, I thought I might go out on the turnpike and buy a beer or two. Come along. I'm harmless."

Now if this were a really cool John D MacDonald pulp tale, Carl would be someone else -- a "sex maniac" or something -- and Catherine would be in a in a mood to expiate her depression with a mad fling, only to be terribly sorry for doing so once she got into the car (see "Jail Bait"). Or even better, Carl would be himself, but suffering some sort of psychotic reverie, and it's later revealed that he has been secretly trying to kill Catherine since last year! ("Mr.Killer") But no, this is a JDM social tale, so the reader has to suffer through an extended scene of this married couple pretending to be strangers, the only way -- apparently -- that they can reveal their true hearts to each other. The ending of "Pickup"  is as glib as anything MacDonald was ever guilty of writing.

MacDonald continued to pen these kinds of "women's stories" throughout his career, and the pages of magazines like McCall's, Good Housekeeping, Woman's Home Companion and Redbook are full of them. He got better as he went along, and some of these stories are incredibly well done. It should be remembered that "Pickup" was published only nine months after he had his first story published in a real magazine, so I suppose I should cut him some slack. Yet when the ultimate John D MacDonald short story anthology is finally published (yes, I'm dreaming), "Pickup" shouldn't be included.

MacDonald was rarely what one could call a pretentious writer. He dealt straightforwardly with his subject matter and told a tale as well as any writer who ever lived. Yet his invention of story titles reveals a side to him that the general reading public didn't see. In the case of "Pickup," MacDonald should have gotten down on his knees and thanked fiction editor Dale Eunson for sparing him the embarrassment of his original title: "A Soupcon of Despair."

The MacDonalds were living in Clinton, New York when JDM wrote this story, and were still there when it was published. He wrote a column for the local paper during those day, and he mentioned "Pickup" in one of his rare moments of self-revelation. Under the headline "ADVERTISEMENT" he wrote (using that annoying royal "we"):

Strange things happen in this business of putting words on paper, and in the interests of breaking a wrist, slapping our own back, and in order to bolster the sagging newstand sales of our major masterworks, we herewith record this one.

This is the month in which we became the composite author, the cross section of American scribblers. All at the same time, and all on the same newstand we were shocked to find ourselves published as follows:

One gentle little love story in Cosmopolitan entitled "Pickup."

One humorous story in Blue Book entitled "The Pastel Production Line."

One sports story in Sports Fiction entitled "Punch Your Way Home".

One story of politics and murder in New Detective entitled "One Vote for Murder."

One psychological crime story in Dime Detective entitled "High Walls of Hate."

One worlds-of-the-future story in [Astounding] Science Fiction entitled "Cosmetics".

The thing which gives us pause is the fact that not yet have we ever written a story of which we are completely proud. We are serving an apprenticeship to the Angry Gods of the Typewriter, but we can't bury our lesser efforts. We have to sell them for grocery money. It's a good thing they don't let doctors practice this way.

Any one of those other stories sound better than "Pickup," a JDM effort that has never been anthologized.


Story art by Tom Lovell

1 comment:

  1. I notice the COSMOPOLITAN cover also lists the name of William E. Barrett. As a pulp author he wrote the Needle Mike series for DIME DETECTIVE in the 1930's.

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