Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Stephen King Connection

Regular readers of this blog have no doubt seen the small list of quotes I've placed in the right column of the page, quotes of praise about the work of John D MacDonald. The most succinct and adulatory of this tiny collection is also the most oft-quoted: author Stephen King's "[John D MacDonald was] the great entertainer of our age."

 Although the two writers were separated by 31 years of age their careers shared many characteristics, including early years as short story writers working in entry-level markets (JDM in the pulps, King in second-tier men's magazines), similar writing styles that featured a strong gift of narrative, and ultimate best seller status in the world of American fiction writing. The two men were also friends, a relationship that began with MacDonald's agreement to write the introduction for King's first short story anthology Night Shift. After MacDonald passed away King wrote a fascinating tribute to his pal that appeared in the inaugural issue of Mystery Scene magazine, along side tributes from over two dozen other writers, including Lawrence Block, Donald E. Westlake, Charles Willeford and Harlan Ellison. King's piece offered an interesting history of his introduction to the fiction of JDM, how the elder author came to write the introduction to Night Shift, and ended with King's heartfelt admission of deep loss.

 King revealed that his first exposure to MacDonald occurred in 1959 when he read the author's 20th novel Murder in the Wind, which was published three years earlier. He described how the book illuminated a truth that was instrumental in guiding his own career choice as a writer:

 "[I was] knocked cockeyed by it... and both while reading it and afterward, I went around in a state of exhilaration, thinking 'So it can be done. It can be.'

 "By 'it' I suppose I meant telling the truth about life even while you were writing for the popular market, so often regarded by those self-esteeming English profs as a market made up of closet sadists, lowbrow truck-drivers, and bored housewives. But even at twelve, with no more experience of life than a rural upbringing could afford, I knew the feel of the real when it touched me in that book. How could I, or anyone, not feel it? Murder in the Wind did not reach out and touch you; it grabbed you, jerked you into a dark alley, and assaulted you.

 "MacDonald was writing about people I knew, about smells I had smelled, and I thought, about the way I would feel under certain circumstances. It was like seeing your first color movie after a lifetime of black-and-white."

When King was in college he managed a brief period of "writer's block" by reading many of MacDonald's novels, a recollection he revealed in his excellent 2000 memoir On Writing, where he mentioned the incident in a condemnation of creative writing classes. By the the time King had become a full time writer -- after the publication of the paperback edition of Carrie in 1975 -- his second novel 'Salem's Lot contained an interesting passage, probably an unconscious bit of writing but one which would blossom into a kind of literary mutual admiration between King and MacDonald. The novel's hero Ben Mears is an author who returns to his boyhood town of Jerusalem's Lot, Maine, only to discover that the town's citizens are slowly turning into vampires.  During a lengthy interview with Homer McCaslin, the county sheriff, he reveals his occupation and it turns out McCaslin had read some of Mears' published work. McCaslin was not impressed. The interview (and the chapter) ends with the sheriff offering the author some advice:

 "You ought to write books with better sense. Like the guy who writes those Travis McGee stories. A man can sink his teeth into one of those."

Three years later, after the publication of his third novel The Shining,  King put together a collection of his early short stories he called Night Shift, and after the initial editing process with his editor Bill Thompson, he was asked who he would like to write the introduction. Specifically, King recalled Thompson's question thusly:

"If you could have anyone in the world do the introduction to the book, who would you pick?"

King remembers his response as being "quick and automatic. 'John D. MacDonald,' I said."

"Why MacDonald?" [Thompson] asked.

"Because he taught me everything I know," I said, hesitated, and then added in spite of my embarrassment (hell, it was the truth): "Because I idolize him."

"Well, let's ask him," Bill said

I said that would be okay (as long as we was Bill Thompson), but I was taken aback all the same. To me it was like asking God to write an introduction... Someone like that writing an introduction for my book? Presumptuous, man. Extreeemly presumptuous.

"He'll probably be too busy, though," I said. What I really thought was that John D. MacDonald was about as likely to waste his valuable time writing an introduction to my book of short stories as Adolph Hitler was apt to be then employed building snow-forts down in hell.

"Doesn't hurt to ask," Bill said...

I went back to Maine, thinking little more about the business. In my mind MacDonald had already sent Bill a form letter or no response at all.

Instead, Bill called and read me an extremely courteous letter from MacDonald, saying he would read my stories, and, if he liked them, do the introduction. I couldn't believe it. Refused to believe it, in fact, until Bill sent me a photocopy. Then I had to... but I knew he'd decline, because the stories weren't very good, mostly just pulp stuff I'd published to help keep my family afloat during the first four years of married life (and having no inkling, at that time, that MacDonald had fought his own battles for light and survival and a little extra nourishment in that same pulp jungle, as Frank Gruber termed it), and besides, MacDonald wrote crime stories, not horror stories, although I'd be less than honest if I didn't add... I also knew he'd written some horror and fantasy shorts, and two sf novels.

His agreement to do that introduction and its prompt arrival a couple of weeks later pleased and impressed me more than the kind things the essay itself had to say about my work; MacDonald's generosity to a young writer who he'd never met helped to keep that young writer open to the needs -- and wistful hopes - of other young writers...

MacDonald's piece was a rambling yet brief and pitch-perfect analysis on the art of writing and being a writer. Discussing King -- a man he had never met or spoken to -- he was really writing about himself, putting into words beliefs about his profession he would repeat in interviews over and over until his death eight years later. Remember, this was before King had become STEPHEN KING, the bestselling American author of all time, so MacDonald's agreement to write this introduction was obviously done because he genuinely liked the stories and enjoyed the craft employed in creating them.

King wrote MacDonald a thank you letter before the book was actually published, saying how much he appreciated the gesture and the content: "I thought [it] was intelligent, witty, and very kind. Your comments on why and how we write were especially welcome." He went on to praise MacDonald's novel Condominium, which King had just read, calling it "a good, honest, meaty job of writing and an acrobatic feat of storytelling." MacDonald responded a month later, saying "Glad the introduction seemed okay to you," and went on to bemoan the mountain of mail that had piled up while he was away on a cruise.

In 1980 King sent two copies of Night Shift to MacDonald, apologizing that they were "sadly overdue" and revealed that he and his wife Tabitha had been in Florida the month before and had thought about giving MacDonald a call but didn't because King was afraid that JDM "might bite [his] head off" for not sending him a copy of the book.

The next year King published his sixth novel (I'm not counting the Richard Bachman books -- that particular secret hadn't been revealed yet). Cujo was the story of a rabid St. Bernard who menaces a mother and her young son trapped inside a car in a remote location. Containing almost no supernatural content, it featured King's second fictional reference to his idol. As things turn bleak and it becomes apparent that there is no way they can get free, the mother ruefully thinks:

The time might also have gone, but she would have to live with that -- and perhaps die with it. No one was going to come. There was going to be no knight on a silver steed riding up Town Road No. 3 -- Travis McGee was apparently otherwise occupied.

That same year King published his first non-fiction work, the indispensable Danse Macabre, a lengthy and wonderfully written study of the horror fiction genre. In it he relates the story of how JDM came up with the title for his 1979 Travis McGee novel The Green Ripper:

John D. MacDonald tells the story of how for weeks his son was terrified of something he called "the green ripper." MacDonald and his wife finally figured it out -- at a dinner party, a friend had mentioned the Grim Reaper. What their son had heard was *the green ripper, and later it became the title of one of MacDonald's Travis McGee stories.

One year later MacDonald finally reciprocated in the literary game by including a Stephen King reference in the 1982 Travis McGee novel Cinnamon Skin. While staying in the apartment of Meyer's niece, the duo eat dinner and Meyer heads to bed.

I cleaned up, looking around, and found a paperback by Stephen King about a big weird dog. Took it to bed and read a lot longer than I'd planned to. Very scary dog. Very scary writer. Wondered if he would be able to guess what kind of person Evan Lawrence was: as scary as King's dog, but in a different way.

King's 1983 novel Christine featured a scene where a man is sitting reading a John D MacDonald novel.

When King's Pet Sematary was published later in 1983 King gave a copy of the book to John and his wife Dorothy, inscribing it "I hope this book scares the hell out of you." So, in the subsequent and final McGee novel The Lonely Silver Rain MacDonald plays the game again. While waiting at an airport McGee buys a book; this time it's King's Pet Sematary:

Once through Security I found an empty chair that backed up to a wall. There I pretended to read the book I had picked up at the hotel newsstand. I had gotten to the part where a buried cat came back to life, but couldn't walk well.

That was MacDonald's last King reference, as he wrote only one more book before he died in December of 1986. King, however, has continued to include references to MacDonald in his works of fiction. In Bag of Bones the protagonist recalls having read 23 John D MacDonald novels. In Needful Things a character reads a JDM novel while nursing her baby son. In Duma Key a character references the kinds of sociopathic people that MacDonald turned into an art form in the persons of Max Cady, Junior Allen and Boo Waxwell. And in the fifth entry to The Dark Tower series, Wolves of the Calla, MacDonald's name appears on a menu board(!)

King's most direct fictional reference to MacDonald came in 1990 when he published Four Past Midnight, an anthology of four novellas. The final entry was titled "The Sun Dog" and King dedicated it to his literary friend:

This is in memory of John D. MacDonald. I miss you, old friend -- and you were right about the tigers.

The novella is preceded by a lengthy "note" where King relates how he came up with the idea for "The Sun Dog." Nowhere does he mention MacDonald or the cryptic reference to "the tigers." It is probable that the note was written before King decided to dedicate the novella, for nothing in the subject matter of the story bears any relationship to MacDonald, at least as far as I can tell. "The Sun Dog" is about a Polaroid camera that is given as a birthday gift to a young boy. Instead of reproducing images of what the camera is pointed at, it prints images of a particular scene in front of a house, with a savage-looking dog in the corner of the frame. As subsequent shots are taken the dog slowly begins to fill the screen, eventually ripping through from some other dimension and attacking the camera's owner. The novella is an unfortunate choice as King's one and only story specifically dedicated to MacDonald, as it has got to be one of the weakest works of fiction he has ever written. Dull, predictable and wordy beyond belief (even for King!), it might have made a fairly interesting 3,000-word short story as part of a larger anthology. At its existing length of 62,000 words spread over 145 pages it is nearly unendurable.

(Lest anyone think I am being disrespectful to King, I would note that I was an early and rabid reader of his works, beginning in 1975 when I unpacked pile of paperback copies of Carrie while working in the book section of a department store. Leafing through it I noted the epistolary style of the writing -- reminding me a great deal of Bram Stoker's Dracula --  took it home and devoured it. I purchased and read every subsequent King novel -- in hardcover! -- up to The Talisman, when I simply ran out of gas and lost interest. I have been back to the well now and then over the years but have not come close to reading everything the man has published.)

In 2007 King was chosen to receive the annual Grand Master award from The Mystery Writers of America. Not surprisingly, his acceptance speech included a JDM reference:

"I'm delighted to be getting the Grand Master Award and to be joining the company of some of my greatest idols and teachers -- people like John D. MacDonald, Ed McBain and Donald E. Westlake. The award means a great deal to me personally, because it's an award from people who understand two things: the importance of good writing and the importance of telling stories."

In interviews over the years King rarely fails to mention MacDonald when talking about early influences. A good example is one you can read here, where he states,

"I had cut my teeth on [JDM] stories. I still think that of all the people doing top fiction today, he is the best. He was my model as a kid. If there are people out there that want to write, all you need to do is read 20 of his stories to get an idea what it takes to make a story kick over."

It really must have been a waking dream for King to have become an associate, and later a friend, of his childhood idol. The two authors and their wives eventually met, and MacDonald and King exchanged letters regularly in the years up to JDM's death. During MacDonald's final year King was one of the few people on earth to whom JDM revealed the plot of the never-to-be-written new Travis McGee adventure, and he wrote to King of personal travails, including his wife's cancer and chemotherapy treatments. And in 2001 the Kings purchased a winter home in MacDonald's adopted town of Sarasota, barely a mile south from the home where the MacDonalds lived from 1952 to 1969.

It's safe to assume that King's Mystery Scene tribute really was as heartfelt as it reads, and it's as touching to read today as it was back in 1987.

The death of a writer who has spoken so clearly from his own heart into your own is always a painful, scouring thing, and I'm in a little too much grief to find any uplifting conclusion... It doesn't seem right to me, somehow, that a voice like that should ever be stilled... I'll read [one of his books] when I need something I know will hold up. Man, he was a good writer, wasn't he? When you went out to the drugstore to grab a paperback, most times you got a bologna sandwich. With John, you got the whole fucking delicatessen. And man, he was a good man.

Jesus, John, I miss you.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Stephen King on JDM

Question: "Is there a novel you go back to again and again? If so, why? What does it teach you?"

King:   "I go back to the John D. MacDonald novels from the fifties, like The End of the Night and One Monday We Killed Them All. Great stories. The Travis McGee books are small beer compared to the stand-alones (the greatest is The Last One Left); the stand-alones are real American literature -- rough, sure, but so's Thomas Wolfe. These books taught me how to write stories."

 --from The Secret Miracle: The Novelist's Handbook (2010) Edited by Daniel Alarc√≥n

(Interestingly, the three titles King cites were all written in the sixties, not the fifties.)

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Empty Trap

The Empty Trap is one of my all-time favorite John D MacDonald novels. I felt that way the first time I read the novel back in 1975 and have confirmed my opinion every time I have reread it. When tackling it once again for this blog posting I was amazed at how fresh and alive it seemed, and -- re-reading the JDM novels in chronological order -- how sharp a departure it was from the books the author had penned up to this point. Its plot it simplicity itself -- a pulp revenge-morality tale that bears strong resemblance to some of his earlier short stories (see especially his 1953 novella "Death's Eye View") and its protagonist's primary motivation is not redemption but revenge. Yet it's the setting and the secondary characters that bring this tale alive, as well as the interesting, gradual way JDM reveals the past in a series of disjointed flashbacks. And while said protagonist is a MacDonald prototype -- big, athletic, rugged, hardworking, an expert in his field of work -- he is imperfect, in ways that the author had rarely touched on in previous works, with the notable exception of his early novel Weep For Me. Indeed, The Empty Trap reads a lot like a reworking and a kind of penance for Weep for Me, one of only two novels the author didn't ever want reprinted. Gone is the Cainsean sin of fatal impulse, replaced by a nobler imperative, equally mistaken but morally (as MacDonald defines morality) more acceptable.

That's not to say that the book doesn't have problems. The plot itself is rather fantastical, full of all sorts of improbable occurrences, happenstance, near misses and circumstances that beggar belief. The device of using radical plastic surgery to completely fool otherwise intelligent people is laughable at points. And the author's treatment of Mexican Indios as noble creatures, full of ancient wisdoms and without any faults borders on worship, to the point where the reader may begin thinking they are reading some hippie primer from the 1960's. (It brought to mind the old Firesign Theatre bit where the earnest young stoner assures an old Native American: "There's a lot of young people in the country, just like myself, who really know where the Indian's at. And don't worry. Soon we're all gonna be out here on the Reservation, livin' like Indians, 'n' dressin' like Indians and doin' all the simple, Beautiful Things that you Indians do. Hey --  got any peyote?") But these faults are far outweighed by MacDonald's trademark narrative drive, and the novel, once started, really is almost impossible to put down.

And with the exceptions of Weep For Me and Judge Me Not, it's probably as close as MacDonald came to writing noir up to this point in his career, and by that I mean true noir, the form defined by Otto Penzler as "...bleak, existential, alienated, pessimistic tales about losers-people who are so morally challenged that they cannot help but bring about their own ruin." In Weep For Me the protagonist fits the classic mold more so than in The Empty Trap, with Kyle Cameron starting from a place of comfort and, because of one really bad decision, sees his life spiral down into the pits of hell. Technically the same could be said for The Empty Trap, but here the author plays with time in his telling of the tale, and we begin the story where the fruits of his misdeeds are punished, then flip back and forth through flashback to see how he got there. He also uses introspection a lot more here, where the hero examines his past and his motivations, never really understanding them but realizing how he came to be where he is. And Lloyd Wescott, The Empty Trap's hero, is no Kyle Cameron, no listless soul stuck in a low-level job waiting for life to happen. He's a success in his trade, one of the top men in the industry, making his decent into the noir underworld all the more bracing.

The Empty Trap was MacDonald's twenty-first novel, his seventeenth paperback original, his third of four novels written in 1957, and his fifth and last title for Popular Library, a publisher that seemed to have been losing interest in the author. In fact, The Empty Trap suffered from the smallest first run of any JDM paperback ever, with only 72,000 copies printed for a single run. Coming on the heels of Dell's huge printing of The Price of Murder only a few months earlier, one wonders what Popular was thinking. Did they recognize how different this book was from the author's previous efforts? Were they unhappy with the sales of their previous MacDonald effort, Border Town Girl? Or did somebody simply screw up? And since MacDonald was paid not on sales but on the size of the printing runs, he must have received a very modest paycheck for this great book. Perhaps it was MacDonald himself who severed the ties with Popular. The book did not see a second printing until 1967 when Fawcett brought out a new edition, and from that point forward the book went through many printings of over half a million copies.

Another interesting anomaly with this effort is the fact that, for the first time since writing You Live Once, five novels back and two years prior, there was no simultaneous magazine version of the novel published. Cosmopolitan had already printed two JDM titles in 1957, and perhaps wasn't interested in doing another only two months after The Price of Murder. (The Empty Trap was published in December of 1957). Redbook, who had published the condensed version of Murder in the Wind would have likely been put off by the tone and subject matter of the new novel. The only possible market for a book like The Empty Trap would have been a magazine like Argosy, but that didn't happen, and the novel came and went with little notice.

The story of The Empty Trap begins at what seems like the end but turns out in fact to be the middle of the story. Beaten, tortured and bound Lloyd Wescott is sitting between two mob goons in the front seat of a dark blue Chrysler with Nevada plates, riding along a remote and mountainous road in the wilderness of Mexico, en route to his death. Following closely behind is Lloyd's own car, a Pontiac, which carries the dead body of his girlfriend Sylvia. They are coming from several days of hellish treatment in a Mexican motel at the hands of these three men. Lloyd has been burned, slugged and cut, and seems barely alive, but he's luckier that Sylvia, who endured several days of repeated raping before being put to death. Now it's time to kill Lloyd and dispose of the bodies, in Lloyd's own car, over a steep and high cliff where they will likely be found only by the locals, poor Indios who will be more likely to scavenge the wreckage than to call for the police.

Lloyd himself is no mobster but one of MacDonald's best-of-breed professionals, a hotel manager at the top of the industry. In a flashback midway through the novel we learn how Lloyd, already a success in a variety of different hotels, is approached by a guest named Harry Danton. Danton wants to build his own hotel, a gambling resort in Nevada, and he is so impressed by Lloyd's work that he offers him a job: not just to manage the resort but to design it from the ground up. When warned by Lloyd that such an endeavor could easily fail, Danton responds "I'm in a lot of things. People can go broke in any one of them, Wescott. I don't, on account of I always get top people and give them their head." Lloyd has already been warned by a knowable associate that Danton is a mobster, so despite the offer of a relatively free hand and a huge increase in pay, he refuses. But a year later, after changing jobs for the winter, Danton asks again and Lloyd accepts.

At that point Lloyd has fallen into the "trap" of the novel's title. Thinking of himself as "one of the good guys" in the "script" of life, he can't imagine himself becoming involved with the mob or being sullied by his association with a known gangster. Losing himself in nonstop work helps this conceit, and it's not until he has a conversation with someone long after the Hotel Green Oasis is up and running and a roaring success, that he recognizes the freedom he has forever lost. It begins when Danton decides to move his headquarters from Detroit to the hotel, living in a small bungalow beside the main building. He brings with him three hoodlums, the three who eventually are sent to kill Lloyd, and later he brings a new wife, Sylvia. Unlike most of the brain-dead bimbos that Danton previously had hanging around him, Sylvia is different. When told that she is a lounge singer Lloyd imagines "a brass-haired blonde going to seed, with the gutter voice of the blues shouter," but when he actually meets her she is anything but:

"She was a long-bodied girl, medium tall, narrow of waist, sleek of leg. Her black hair was of a soft texture and it was pulled back into a bun...Her eyes were a deep brown, almost black, her face well-cut and delicate, her smile warm and personal...Her voice was low, well-modulated, her diction precise."

Danton asks Lloyd to show Sylvia around the hotel and the two end up in one of the establishment's many drinking holes. An initial air of courtesy quickly gives way to animosity as Lloyd admits that he and Danton's mobsters were surprised at how classy Sylvia turned out to be. There follows an amazing piece of JDM backstory as Sylvia, in an attempt to shock and anger Lloyd, tells her the background of her life. It's one of those short-story-within-a-novel bits that MacDonald had mastered early in his novel-writing career and did better than almost anyone else. Speaking of herself in the third person, she begins:

"So take Sylvia at fourteen. She looked eighteen. A kid from Hell's Kitchen. A tough bastard of a kid with a whore mother and an unknown father. She was tough through and through and you don't lose that kind of toughness, my friend... She knew every filthy trick in the books and got picked up helping the other kids roll a lush, and got sent to one of those schools and got out by knocking out a matron with a Coke bottle. That was twelve years ago, Lloyd. How am I doing?" 

He was shocked by the whispered vehemence of her words. "You've come a long way." 

"Before I was fifteen I was traveling with a syndicate car thief named Joey Tower. He got hot so they transferred him to the west coast and I went along. My hair was bleached white. I wore sweaters two sizes too small. I talked with a whine and the language would make a truck driver shiver. But Joey's boss saw something in the slut, and cut Joey out, with a little help from the slut, who was a very greedy child, and still is." 

"Sylvia, I--" 

"You started the needle job, and you're going to listen..."

And on it goes for three densely-packed pages as we learn how this tramp became a lady, working her way through one gangster after another, dealing dirty and getting people killed, until she ultimately ended up a singer in a "sour little club," billed as "the ex-darling of mobland," doing a routine that contained "some very blue material." (A sure sign in MacDonald's moral universe that she had indeed hit bottom.) After she goads Lloyd into telling his very dull life story, she is nearly brought to tears.

"I need to stop feeling so damn sorry for myself all the time. I've felt that way for years. I wanted to shock you. I wanted you to come up with a lot of asinine questions. But you put me very neatly in my place. I thought I was being dramatic. I guess I was being silly." 

"Just a little bit silly. Not enough to count." 

"All I ever really wanted was a guy with one drug store who could maybe build it up to three. You're going to be good for me, Lloyd. You have...balance."

The new marriage quickly sours and Lloyd finds that he can't get Sylvia out of his mind. When he sees her a week after their initial meeting, she is morose and withdrawn. They talk for a while and the subject turns to Lloyd's relationship with Danton.

Lloyd: "He's left me alone." 

Sylvia: "Try to leave and see." 

He stared at her. "I could give notice and leave. Why not?" 

"You could be desk clerk in a flea bag. You'll never get a good job managing a good hotel. Not for long. Not in this country. And I know just how he'd fix you. Through the unions. Hiring you would be a guarantee of a walkout on some other pretext. Harry never lets people go. He likes them to try it, though, because he likes to have them crawl back." 

"He's no monster!" 

"Of course not. In his business there are certain rules. He's carried those rules over from the rackets to the legit enterprises. Nobody leaves. No top people. You're in for life. But don't kick about it. You have it good."

Lloyd is astounded (he's apparently never read anything about the mob before!) and he tests Sylvia's assertion by going to Danton, who, in a fairly nice way (for a mobster) confirms the claim.

Lloyd: "What you're saying is, I work for you from here on in." 

Harry stood up. "Is that so bad? Am I some clown? Isn't the pay right? Listen, I'll tell you something. In every business they got key personnel, right? Okay, you're key personnel. In a lot of businesses they got a turnover problem with key personnel. G.E. has it. General Motors has it. Even the Air Force has it. But you know what ratio of turnover I run on key personnel? None. No ratio at all. I don't want you trying to spoil my record, kid. If right now you got an itch, that's okay. It's letdown. You've worked like a dog. Tell you what you do. Draw a thousand and take off for a week. The house won't fall down. Go away someplace. Go get laid." 

"Thanks, Harry. I'm not that restless. I was just thinking." 

"Don't think too much."

It is at this point that the novel begins to borrow heavily from the plot of Weep For Me, as Lloyd and Sylvia fall in love and decide to run away together. They plan a massive theft from the hotel's casino, and it comes off without a hitch. They jump into Lloyd's Pontiac and head to Mexico, making it to Juarez in three days. Their plan, right out of Weep For Me, is to use a portion of their stolen loot to purchase citizenship in an unnamed South American country, far enough away from Harry Danton to finally feel safe. But Sylvia will never feel safe.

The increasing distance had not given her peace of mind. Rather she had seemed to grow more frightened, day by day, pale, nervous, irritable.

"We're safe now," he told her. 

"We'll never be safe. We shouldn't have done it. We shouldn't have tried to do it, Lloyd. We were crazy to try it. We were insane to even think of it. You don't know what they're capable of. You don't know how he'll feel about this. He can't let a thing like this go. We'll never be safe." 

"Don't worry about it. Let me take care of things." 

"You can't take care of things. You don't understand them. You don't know how they are."

Her fear is real enough for Lloyd to take one precaution, a move that will further the plot along later in the novel when it's time for revenge. He takes a portion of the loot, forty thousand dollars, stuffs it in a peanut brittle jar and hides it under the floorboard of the motel room.

Of course they are caught -- Danton's three mobsters have located them fairly easily -- and they suffer at their hands for several days in a locked motel room. It is at this point that "boy scout" Lloyd Wescott realizes the truth of the world, that there is no good or bad, no cosmic justice, no moral compass, only strength and survival and the white-hot emotion of hatred.

"Lloyd sat with his chin on his chest, the tears running out of his eyes, breathing hard, sobbing against the gag. He could smell the rich stink of his burned chest and belly, his burned feet. He knew he could never be the same person again. He knew he could not go back to what he had been before. He had learned, abruptly, a special kind of hatred. He thought he could not hate any more violently than he did in those moments. Yet an hour later the hatred was stronger. The next hour tempered it, like a cherry red blade thrust into the quenching oil...

"The script was wrong. There were always the good guys and the bad guys. And the beautiful woman. Lloyd had known all his life that he was one of the good guys. That made it simple, because then you always knew how it came out. The good guy and the beautiful girl would always get into one hell of a mess, but something always happened just at the very last minute, just when they both seemed doomed. Something happened. The bonds were worked loose, and you felled the bad guys with a chair. Or the cops came. Or the cavalry. It usually happened just when they were getting set to torture you. But something was wrong with this script and they went right ahead and did it. It didn't happen in the nick of time. The nick of time went right on by while you screamed and screamed on to a bloody towel. And always the beautiful girl was threatened by a fate worse than death. And they never quite got to her. They made some error in timing, or they left a gun around loose. But this nick of time went right on by too."

And soon thereafter we arrive at... the beginning of the novel. Lloyd's push off of the Mexican cliff nearly kills him but of course it doesn't. He is thrown from the car and lands on a convenient tree sticking out the side of the cliff. His efforts to get his already-tortured and now broken body off the tree and safely down to the bottom where there is a small river are painstakingly detailed, as MacDonald ventures into Jack London literary country. And this is how much of the beginning of the novel is told, with the backstory haltingly revealed in sporadic flashback. Lloyd is eventually rescued by a Mexican Indio, a member of a small and remote village, whose people are victims of some sort of tribal warfare that has left them outcasts. This allows MacDonald the time and the solitude to have Lloyd slowly heal without any news of his survival getting back to Danton. It also gives the author a chance to revel in his knowledge of Mexico, a country he took his family to live when he was a struggling pulp writer, and more importantly, to express his singular love of the people of this country.

As we are shifted back and forth in time, from the "present" of Lloyd's reoperation to the past of the events that brought him here, we slowly learn about the people of this village, their nobility, their simplicity, their open caring for a stranger in distress. And naturally there's a girl, just as there was a girl in Weep for Me (Adela) and a girl in "Border Town Girl" (Felicia). Here she is named Isabella, but she might as well have been either of the other two named characters, for she serves the same purpose and is essentially the same character. Not as strikingly beautiful as Adela, Isabella is described as a simple girl, one Lloyd wouldn't have looked twice at in his former life, but here she is pretty enough to strike a chord within him.

Usually it was the girl who took care of him. Her name was Isabella, and often they called her 'Bella or 'Bellita. She seemed to be seventeen or eighteen, a sturdy girl with a broad brown face in which he saw a family resemblance to the three boys, with black thick brows, black braided hair coarse and shiny as the tail hair of a black horse. She came to feed him and care for his needs during the day when the others worked, came to him smelling of sun and the fields and of sweat, impersonally gentle, sometimes crooning to him with the reassuring sounds you make to a small child. He knew she was not directly of this family, yet somehow related.

It is Isabella, young, unmarried Isabella who nurses Lloyd back to life over the many months it takes for him to recuperate, and eventually they couple and produce a child. But Lloyd cannot stay here in this bucolic setting, a place where he has been accepted and where hard work in the fields under a blazing sun has helped bring him back to life. He explains it to the villagers one evening, and they understand completely.

"I feel it is necessary [to tell you all]." He found himself looking at Isabella. She was looking down at her clasped hands. "The money and the woman. They were not mine. I took them. I was followed." He looked around at impassive faces. "But a thing cannot be black or white. I was a thief when I took the money, but that money had been stolen from others. I was a thief when I took the woman, but she was gentle and unhappy and often beaten. She asked me to take her away, and I wished to give her happiness. The men found us. My actions were not honorable, perhaps. But their actions were the actions of animals. With me and with the woman. Most of all with the woman, before one of them killed her. That is why it is necessary to kill them. 

I will not be a man again until that is done." 

It was not something he could have said in his own land in his own tongue without feeling ridiculously melodramatic. And he wondered whether the need to kill would have been as understandable even to himself in another place and time. Yet here it was perfectly clear, and he could see that [they] accepted it. 

Here there was no talk of the futility of revenge. This was a mission of honor.

And so Lloyd leaves, first to reclaim the hidden stash of loot in the motel room, then to a plastic surgeon in Mexico City to repair his horribly damaged face. Then it's on to the Hotel Green Oasis...

I wish I could better explain why it is that I love this novel so much. It's certainly not the simplistic revenge plot, or the naive and romantic portrait of a more primitive people, or even the redemptive love experienced between Lloyd and Isabella. I think it has more to do with MacDonald's telling of the tale, his experiments with time, revealing two sections of Lloyd's experience in alternating chronological order. And the revenge part is pretty satisfying, I have to admit, even if it is tempered to an extent in the end (read it yourself to find out what I mean). But what I think I really like about this book is JDM's attempt to improve on a failure, or at least what he perceived to be a failure. He obviously loved the idea of escaping to Mexico with a beautiful babe and a stash of stolen cash, and he does tell it much better here than he did in Weep For Me. And I love the idea of redemption, of taking what even MacDonald must have realized was becoming a kind of archetypal hero in his own fiction and making him more flawed than perhaps even he as the author was comfortable with. The background of Sylvia, for example, would have consigned her to an early and deserved death in one of his earlier short stories or novels, but here -- even though she does pay the ultimate price -- is dealt with compassionately and with some degree of understanding. MacDonald was indeed growing as an artist.

And I really, really love the ending of this book, which according to my own rules of this blog I can't discuss. It's a descent into a noir world that eventually leads to.... no, I can't. You have to read this book.

As far as I can tell, and as best as bibliographer Walter Shine could research, there was only one contemporary book review for The Empty Trap when it was published in December 1957. Not surprisingly it was by MacDonald champion Anthony Boucher, who wrote in his New York Times column Criminals at Large:

"In John D Macdonald's The Empty Trap, a man left for dead by gangster assassins is nursed back to life by an isolated Mexican community in the mountains of Queretaro. Recovered, he is pulled in various directions by the kingdom concept of revenge-killing, by the local code of manly honor, and by his own upbringing which makes killing impossible. MacDonald has taken some familiar elements of the gangster novel, developed them brutally and even shockingly -- and looked behind them to write a book that is a novel rather than a shocker."

When Fawcett reprinted the novel in 1967 the book got a lot more press, much of it very favorable. The Toledo Blade said "Like all MacDonald novels of recent years, this is absolutely top-notch and eminently readable. In our opinion, the man can do no wrong." (I'm guessing the reviewer didn't bother to look at the original copyright date.) The Springfield Journal and Register wrote "Let's face it, there just isn't anybody around today turning out suspense-sex-adventure stories like MacDonald... [He] has been increasingly prolific and amazingly consistently good for the size of his literary output. This brisk, crisp and often downright brutal tale is one of the better ones, even for him." And the Montclair-Piedmont Spectator out of Oakland, California went completely overboard, stating that "MacDonald may be the very best story teller in American history." (OK, I won't argue with that one.)

The first edition cover features two scenes that give the would-be reader a clue about the dichotomy of worlds featured in the story. To the right and largely filling the frame is a sultry blonde with a trio of grinning thugs behind her. If this is supposed to be the motel scene it has some curious features, including a blonde Sylvia (she was brunette) looking very unlike anyone who is about to undergo what she is about to. Below that the smaller figures of an injured Lloyd being nursed by Earth Mother Isabella. Above the art is a quote from Real Magazine which may or may not be "real," as Walter Shine was never able to uncover a copy of the  review it came from. The artwork, which has an almost seedy, unfinished quality to it, was uncredited.

And the cover for the first Fawcett version of the novel, published in April 1967, was also uncredited. It's a somewhat unremarkable illustration of a woman carrying a hat bag and an overcoat walking away from the viewer down a very wide hotel lobby. The green carpet looks almost alive.This cover was retained for Fawcett's second printing in 1969, but by 1971 it had been dispensed with and replaced with a Robert McGinnis lovely wearing a bikini and standing in front of a large Aztec sun. This version was retained for a total of five printings, through 1980. Finally, in 1982 William Schmidt created one of his best paintings for the final four printings, featuring a large vulture sitting on the makeshift grave of poor Sylvia, her arm sticking out between the stones.

Just as John D MacDonald wasn't through with the themes and plot devices he had begun to explore in Weep For Me, so too was he not finished with the doors he had opened with The Empty Trap. Three years later he came back to the world of hotel management in the darker, more mature The Only Girl in the Game. It's an amazing job of plot reconstruction, taking a similar tale with similar characters (the mob is again involved) and leading it down a completely different path. It will be quite some time before I get around to dealing with that wonderful novel (there are ten JDM books between these two) but Jared Shurin, who helps write the great Pornokitch blog, has recently published an insightful piece at comparing the two novels. It's highly recommending reading, which you can find here.

The Empty Trap, long out of print, is is readily available from all the usual used booksellers on the web.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

JDM: War Remembrance

It is 1944 and I am at Chabua in Assam, up in north India, trying to hitch a ride in a cargo C-46 or C-47 over the hump to Kunming. A major of engineers asks me if I can help him. I am a captain in the ordnance department. He explains his problem and I go with him in his jeep through the stifling heat to a big field where hundreds and hundreds of trucks sit rotting and rusting in the tropic sun and rain.

Madame Chiang had addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate and steamed them up about sending more help to China. All these new vehicles had been coming up the funny railroad from Calcutta as part of the result of her plea. The Burma Road was not finished. They were too big to be sent into China by air. So there they sat, a giant khaki-drab, depressing used-truck lot. We went to the oldest sector of the field, where the staunch and familiar 6 by 6 trucks had been parked for a year.

Jungly green was growing up through them and around them. The rubber was pulp, the insulation slime, the gears rusted shut.

"You want to what?" I asked.

"Up near Hell Gap, we got this damn bottomless hole. Been having them Kachins head-carry tons of rock in them little baskets. Sinks out of sight. We hook onto a couple dozen of this junk and haul them up and push them into the hole, they'll sink down in that swamp and get wedged and we can build the road across them."

"Why me?"

"Is this stuff worthless junk?"


"Can't get any of these supply-wallahs to authorize a thing. Had a requisition in for weeks. Got to get on with the road. You're up from Delhi. They'll buy any headquarters signature. Just twenty of them. What do you say?"

I hung around and watched them yank the first two out of the vines and mud, onto a big flatbed. There was a disconsolate look about them. We weren't meant to be under the road, they said.

In the late afternoon I hitched my ride. We went way above the operational ceiling of the C-47 to avoid bad icing conditions, but when we came back through it for the Kunming landing at 6000 feet, we iced up heavily and I thought I was about to be punished for favoring logic over protocol, but we landed like a giant chandelier, and I felt I had been forgiven, or at least given a remission.

from "Farewell, My Lovely Machine," a piece about automobiles that was published in the July 1982 issue of the JDM Bibliophile.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

JDM: Meyer or McGee?

Almost from the moment John D MacDonald created his famous series character Travis McGee, he began getting asked if McGee was in fact the author's alter-ego. It seems like an unlikely question to me, comparing a beach bum to a guy who sits in a room typing all day, but McGee's characteristic asides on the nature of modern civilization are probably what drove people to assume that McGee and MacDonald were -- figuratively -- one in the same. MacDonald denied it, of course, and he even went as far as to proclaim that McGee's asides were not necessarily his (JDM's) own opinions. "His opinions are not my opinions," he wrote. "In some, they are -- though in varying degrees of strength and conviction."

As the character of Meyer was gradually introduced into the novels, another strain of author-character comparisons were begun, with readers assuming that Meyer was MacDonald. Again, JDM said no, although he admitted that his own personality was closer to Meyer's than to McGee's. Once, MacDonald's wife Dorothy, when asked by reporter Ed Hutshing if Travis McGee was based on her husband, reportedly laughed and said no, that if John was anyone in the McGee saga he was Meyer. And in a 1990 speech at the Third JDM Conference in in Ft. Lauderdale, son Maynard MacDonald said:

"Someone said this evening, 'Did my father know a person -- was there someone in his life -- who was like Meyer was to Travis?' I said 'No, actually Travis McGee really was very representative of my father with that tremendous sense of rightness and justice -- but Meyer is also like him. If you put Meyer and Travis together then you get someone who is very like John D.'"

In 1986, the last year John D MacDonald was alive, he was approached by psychologist  Raymond J. Fowler, a professor-emeritus at the University of Alabama and the president of the American Psychological Association. Fowler, who must have been a Travis McGee fan, proposed an interesting experiment. MacDonald would take the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI), a test that was designed to provide a reasonably accurate idea of the personality of the taker. He would take it once as John D MacDonald, then again as Travis McGee, and finally as Meyer. The results would be compiled through "an elaborate system of computer analyses and interpretations," allowing Fowler to come to some sort of conclusion as to which character MacDonald resembled.

In an article published in the November 1986 issue of Psychology Today titled "The Case of the Multicolored Personality," Fowler made these conclusions:

Meyer and MacDonald are so much alike that a clinician looking at the two profiles might assume that they were the MMPI's of the same person a few years apart. Both are dominant, self-confident individuals who are able to define their goals and to move resolutely toward their attainment. They are self-assured and likely to be demanding in their expectations of themselves and of others. They are intellectually aggressive and somewhat self-centered. Both prefer thought to action, and their aggressiveness is more likely to be verbal than physical.

Neither Meyer nor MacDonald feels much need to change. Neither is troubled by anxiety, depression or somatic problems. Both are accustomed to being viewed as competent and both feel that they deserve the respect they receive from others. Both are dominant in a positive sense. Neither is a shrinking violet; neither is dependent or bitter. Both are survivors; that is, they feel that they have the intelligence, competence and resilience to cope with tough situations and to deal with life effectively.

McGee is an entirely different person from Meyer or MacDonald. He is tougher, more aggressive and much more physical than either. He is no intellectual -- Meyer refers to him affectionately as an illiterate -- but he is much too complicated to be considered a dumb jock. He has almost as much need for status as Meyer and MacDonald, a bit more anxiety, and is much less satisfied with himself.

McGee is a creature of MacDonald's imagination who has almost no similarities to MacDonald in personality, behavior or life-style. Meyer, on the other hand, could well be called MacDonald's alter ego. Intelligent and thoughtful, with a great store of information and an ability to stand back and consider before acting, Meyer plays a vital role for McGee and perhaps for MacDonald as well. Meyer provides MacDonald with an opportunity to enter McGee's life, to talk with him, advise him and react to him. Although McGee is the narrator, it is through the eyes of Meyer, and therefore MacDonald, that we see Travis McGee's world.

Dorothy MacDonald knew her man... or men.