In April 1981 John D MacDonald sat for an interview with fellow writer Dick Lupoff. Done for radio, it was a fascinating conversation that touched on many aspects of MacDonald’s early short story career, writing for the pulps and his relationships with several of the editors of those periodicals. Early on in the interview, Lupoff explains that he had done some research into MacDonald’s biography in “the standard reference works,” and MacDonald replied: “You may find a lot of contradiction, because I lie a lot.”
I remember that when I first read his response I was taken aback. Lie? What does John D MacDonald have to lie about? This is a guy who spends eight hours a day sitting in front of a typewriter. Married to the same woman for decades. The only lies I could imagine were ones used to spice up an otherwise dull biography. Years later when Hugh Merrill’s MacDonald biography The Red Hot Typewriter was published there appeared another admission of occasional mendacity, quoted in a letter JDM wrote to a friend about his upcoming bio written by Ed Hirshberg:
“Should you read Ed Hirshberg’s tome, you will find some obvious discrepancies here and there. That is because he is such a nice, gullible, trusting chap, I just can’t keep from lying to him. I know it is a bad habit, but I keep wondering how far I can go before he realizes it’s a put-on. This is a strange basis for a bio.”
It didn’t take long in the Lupoff interview for MacDonald to prove true to his word. Only a few questions later, when talking about “house names” -- that fairly static list of JDM pseudonyms employed by pulp magazine editors when more than one MacDonald story appeared in a single issue -- he let rip an assertion that was not questioned by Lupoff and has been taken as gospel by a few of his later chroniclers.
“I had one magazine -- I don’t know which -- I’ve still got it around somewhere -- where I wrote every story in it, so that I used about five of those [house] names in addition to my own.”
Well… I’m sure most readers or listeners bought that line when it was uttered, but not me. (I didn’t read a transcript of the interview until 1987 when it was included in the first edition of Mystery Scene Reader.) By then I was well steeped in the bibliography of John D MacDonald and knew about nearly all of his published work, thanks mainly to Walter and Jean Shine’s indispensable A Bibliography of the Published Works of John D. MacDonald. I knew, for example, multiple inclusions of JDM’s stories occurred only in pulp magazines, never in a mainstream or “slick” magazine. I knew that there were eighteen issues of various pulp magazines which contained two stories by MacDonald, and seven which included three. And I knew about the one time when a pulp contained four John D MacDonald short stories. It was undoubtedly this issue MacDonald was referring to in his conversation with Lupoff, and it has long been a sought after collector’s item among JDM fans. It wasn’t a mystery pulp, or even a science fiction pulp, but one of that rarest-of-all-and-hardest-to find collectables, a sports pulp. And if MacDonald had remembered the name of the magazine he would have given the game away.
The July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories does, indeed, contain fifteen stories, but only eleven were works of fiction. The remainder were cheats: running columns, quizzes and other “departments and features.” The four MacDonald pieces and their listed authors were:
“The Glory Punch” by John D. MacDonald (Boxing)
“Bye, Bye Backfield” by John Wade Farrell (Football)
“The Thunder Road” by Peter Reed (Auto Racing)
“Blue Water Fury” by Scott O’Hara (Deep Sea Sport Fishing)
This would only be a bibliographer’s attempt to count a gang of angels dancing on the head of a pin if it was not for the fact that one of these stories was of enduring quality and was one of the author’s proudest short story achievements. “Blue Water Fury,” a title the magazine’s editor came up with after discarding the author’s “Freedom by Violence,” is a 5,000 word story ostensibly about a particular day of fishing but really concerns itself with the weightier themes of domination, determination and freedom.
Told in the first person by a somewhat passive observer, “Blue Water Fury” takes place in Acapulco and the nearby Gulf of Mexico off of the Yucatan peninsula. Referred to only by his last name, Thompson is an American who has been living in Mexico for some time, and he is an expert deep sea fisherman. Planning an outing for the next day he approaches one of his favorite charter boat captains, Pedro Martinez, skipper of the Orizaba, only to be joined by a rival pair who arrive at the same time. Agreeing that the three of them can charter the boat together, they make the arrangements and head across the street to share a beer together. Thompson immediately begins to regret his decision.
The pair are an odd couple, and in another day and in the hands of a different author these two men might have had some homosexual undertones going, but not here, at least not in any overt sense. Lew Wolta, the alpha male, is initially described by MacDonald in terms that are both familiar and predictive for readers who know his work.
“Wolta was a tall, hard, heavy-shouldered man in his late thirties with a huge voice, white teeth gleaming in a constant grin, and washed-out eyes that never smiled at all. He kept up a running chatter, most of which seemed designed to inflict hurt on the younger, frailer Jimmy Gerran, a quiet lad with a humble manner… Over the beer, Wolta said, ‘Yeah, I ran into Jimmy up in Taxco and it was pretty obvious that he needed somebody to get him out of his daze. Hell, I’ve never been in this gook country before, but I’ve got a nose for fun. Leave Jimmy alone and he’d spend all his time walking around the streets.” At that he had slapped Gerran roughly on the shoulder. ‘Tomorrow we hook a sail, boy, and it’ll make a man out of you.’”
When Thompson arrives at the dock the next morning he finds Wolta and Gerran already there, and it is obvious from Pedro’s manner that Wolta has been treating him rudely. In Spanish Pedro tells Thompson that Wolta has been speaking to him “as if I were his gardener.” Wolta is instantly suspicious of the conversation he cannot understand and asks what was said. Thompson replies, “He said that he thinks we’ll have a good day.” Once at sea the experienced Thompson sets the fishing ground rules: two men have lines out seated in the two fishing chairs. Once one man hooks a fish the other must quickly reel in his line. Once the man who hooked the prey either catches or loses his fish, he is replaced by the third fisherman.
Throughout the day Wolta is disdainful of Thompson’s expertise and rulemaking, reacting sarcastically to nearly every utterance out of the narrator’s mouth. And even though neither Woltz or Gerran have ever been deep sea fishing before, Wolta acts like a know-it-all and continually refers to Thompson as “the expert.” Jimmy Gerran seems genuinely interested in the mechanics at hand and asks Thompson to explain everything in detail. After a lengthy explanation of how to use the rod and what to do when there’s a strike, Jimmy asks Thompson how he will know if the fish has been hooked. Woltz roars with laughter and replies, “ He’ll rise up and talk to you, boy. He’ll come up and tell you all about it.”
Wolta and Jimmy are the first two in the chairs, and Jimmy is the first to hit a strike. After a bit of a struggle the catch breaks the line and escapes, resulting in the following exchange:
“Absolutely beautiful!” Jimmy said softly.
Wolta gave a hoarse laugh. “Absolutely butterfingered, pal. You had him and you lost him.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Jimmy said.
“I’d have liked to see him boated,” Wolta said. “What the hell good is it to look at a fish?”
Next to land a strike is Thompson, another sailfish slightly smaller than the one Jimmy lost. With little effort Thompson reels it to boatside, where the crew of three (Pedro and two crewmembers) club the fish and bring it aboard. Jimmy looks at it wide-eyed and says “That was wonderful.” Wolta responds, “The experts are always wonderful… Do I have your permission to fish?”
When Wolta makes his own strike, the landing of it is “a comedy of errors,” but eventually, with some unsolicited help from Thompson, he reels in a ninety pound sailfish. After Pedro and crew club and bring the fish onboard, Wolta does a curious thing: he grabs a club from one of the sailors and hits it again.
“It was an understandable thing to do. But the way he did it, the way the club smashed against the hard flesh, revealed something savage and soul-naked about the man… He kicked the dead fish. I didn’t like that and neither did Pedro. A sail is an honorable opponent, a brave fish, a gentleman of the sea. Even dead he isn’t to be kicked.”
It’s Jimmy’s turn again and as he seats himself Wolta calls out from inside where he is getting a beer, “Both the men have got a fish, kid. Now let’s see if you can lose another one.” Jimmy smiles weakly. After a long time without results, Wolta gets impatient and wants to fish again. He begins browbeating Jimmy into setting a time limit, and after repeated haranguing Jimmy agrees.
“The older man had him buffaloed. I knew the signs. I liked Gerran. So all I could do was to think that it was just too bad… While I was wondering how Gerran got himself tied up with Wolta, Pedro hissed and said, in Spanish, ‘There is a monstrous fish to starboard, señor.’”
It’s a monster, indeed, not a ninety pound sailfish, but “five hundred pounds of blue marlin.” Jimmy hooks it with four perfectly timed strikes, and then the battle begins. It’s a long, exhausting affair that tries the limits of the seemingly placid Jimmy Gerran, with an impatient Wolta interjecting cutting remarks while at the same time imploring his companion to give up and let Wolta take over the battle. When it is all over one of these three men is a different person.
Told directly and with not a wasted word or sentence, MacDonald wrote this tale of honor and independence with the style and economy that would become his trademark for the rest of his career. Wolta, especially, is a “type” that MacDonald developed and used repeatedly throughout his career. Perhaps it is because I am currently rereading it for an upcoming posting, but he reminds me especially of Warren Dodge, a character in his 1957 novel A Man of Affairs. There are plenty of others, most notably John Lash in the similarly told story “The Killer.”
MacDonald loved this story and never forgot it. He freely admitted that most of his early work had been lost to memory, and that when he studied most of the possible inclusions for his latter-day pulp anthologies The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff, he had no idea how most of the stories would end. But in 1966 he remembered “Blue Water Fury” well enough to include it in his first short story anthology, End of the Tiger and Other Stories. Mainly a collection of the best of his mainstream slick magazine short stories, it is the only pulp story included in that book.
And although finding any critical mention or discussion of any of MacDonald’s 400 published short stories is almost as impossible as finding an old copy of the July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories, “The Big Blue,” as it was retitled by MacDonald for End of the Tiger and Other Stories, was actually one of the only short works ever discussed outside of the late, lamented and sorely missed JDM Bibliophile. Ed Hirshberg, in his 1985 biography of the author gives the story a few sentences while discussing the author’s growth as a writer. Unfortunately he fumbles the ball embarrassingly, making comparisons to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, and decrying a “rather inappropriate ending.” I won’t reveal more, only to say that if you decide to read “The Big Blue,” go read Hirshberg’s paragraph on the piece, if only to see how facile and supercilious it is. And if you’ve ever read The Old Man and the Sea you might actually laugh out loud. As for that “inappropriate ending,” I’ll admit that it’s a bit abrupt in the flow of the narrative, but after a second reading it seems like the perfect coda.
“The Big Blue” even got a mention in that Dick Lupoff interview I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, a rare accomplishment for any of John D MacDonald’s short stories.
Lupoff: Would you care to mention your [favorite short stories]?
MacDonald: Well, I like “The Annex” and I like “The Bear Trap” …
Lupoff: “The Big Blue” -- the fishing story?
MacDonald: I like that one, yes. That was sort of based… You know how little things happen. Budd Schulberg was telling me about going fishing with his father in Acapulco and having another person aboard ship that so enjoyed clubbing the fish that he wouldn’t let the guide do it. He wanted to do it himself. It’s a kind of the germ of it.”
And that’s how (some) great fiction is born.
The story, now forever known as “The Big Blue,” is available in ebook form through Amazon and (probably) other online outlets as one of the stories in End of the Tiger and Other Stories. And used copies of the original paperback are always floating around.