Monday, June 22, 2015

"Even Up the Odds"

I’ve always been a reader. Growing up in a house full of books and with one parent a true bibliophile (my mother), reading was a normal and expected way of life. I began at an early age and never looked back. And outside of a normal childhood fascination with comic books, it has always been the written word that has captivated me. Looking back on my reading life I sometimes try and quantify my experience: how many books have I read? How many different authors have I enjoyed? How much required reading did I zip through while my classmates struggled with a volume of Cliff Notes? What was the first book that I stopped reading because it was so bad I couldn’t continue? (That one’s easy: The Word by Irving Wallace. Taking a cue from Dr. Watson, I threw it across the room in disgust.) The route from my house to the local library has always been a well trodden one, and once I learned to drive I practically lived in used book stores on the weekends.

Of all of the great literary years of my life, 1978 stands out as the Year of the Short Story. In the tenth month of that year three monumental and indispensable anthologies of short stories by three of the best writers America ever produced were published. Irwin Shaw, who had long since devolved into a slightly pedestrian writer of sprawling novels, issued a huge tome titled Short Stories: Five Decades. It contained 63 stories that dated back to the beginning of his career and revealed a craftsmanship that was only sporadically exhibited in his novels. Stories such as “Circle of Light,” “Tip on a Dead Jockey,” “The Eighty-Yard Run,” and the magically titled “The Girls in Their Summer Dresses” were a revelation to me at the time. I never thought of Shaw the same way again. John Cheever released his own collection of past writings that same month, The Stories of John Cheever, and it was even better. A superior writer to Shaw, Cheever’s short work was more familiar to me as I owned an old used paperback of an earlier, shorter collection titled The Housebreaker of Shady Hill and Other Stories. Most of the stories from Housebreaker were in The Stories of John Cheever, as were many more, nearly as many as Shaw had published (61). A few of the stories contained therein are some of the most memorable moments of fiction I cherish, including “The Swimmer,” “The Season of Divorce,” “O Youth and Beauty!,” “The Death of Justina,” and, especially, “The Sorrows of Gin.” Cheever’s anthology went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

The third anthology published that October certainly doesn’t seem to belong with the two other weighty collections, but on a John D MacDonald blog and in my own literary life it certainly does. It was Other Times, Other Worlds, published as a lowly paperback, and was a collection of MacDonald’s science fiction short stories, mainly from his early pre-novel career that hailed from the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, Startling Stories and Galaxy. To me, these stories were the equals of the works of the other two authors, not in style or even in depth, but in revealing the sheer breadth of MacDonald’s talents. It was also the first collection of his stories culled mainly from pulp magazines and it got a lot of fans thinking that MacDonald, an author we championed as an equal to the great writers of the time, deserved his own large collection of short stories. In a word, we wanted him Cheevered.

It began with the amazing Martin H Greenberg, possibly the world’s greatest expert on the short story published in the American popular press; he was also the editor of Other Times, Other Worlds. Along with Francis M. Nivins -- writer, editor, anthologist, mystery story historian and frequent contributor to the pages of the early JDM Bibliophile -- he approached MacDonald about just such a project, although restricting it to the writer’s early work for the pulps. MacDonald was less than enthusiastic but agreed that the two could proceed and present him what they deemed to be the the best of the lot. Jean and Walter Shine, the foremost JDM bibliographers alive, joined the project and proceeded to go through every one of MacDonald’s pulp tales. They eventually whittled the list down to thirty and presented the proposal to the author. Admitting that he was “astonished” at the quality of the work, MacDonald eliminated only three of the thirty stories and agreed that they could be published, not in a single book (which would still have been half the size of the Cheever and Shaw collections) but in two separate volumes. The second would only see light if the first one didn’t tank at the bookstores.

The first volume, which was titled The Good Old Stuff, didn’t appear until 1982 and while this was not the great literary event we had perhaps hoped it would be, it was still a big deal to us fans and for many opened up a world we hadn’t experienced before. It was favorably reviewed and sold well, in fact better than anyone had expected. All of the stories are uniformly good, some okay, some excellent and a few truly amazing. I would classify “Even Up the Odds” as belonging in the later category. It didn’t appear until the second volume, which was titled More Good Old Stuff, but it was certainly worth waiting for and proved that as far as quality went, the collection wasn’t front-loaded. While written in a Runyonesque first person singular and featuring a plot that isn’t exactly original, there is a quality to the writing that is a step above most of the other tales, along with a wistful air of regret and loss that barely skims the surface. It had a lasting effect on me the first time I read it and I’ve enjoyed going back to it often. For me, it never gets tired.

Johnny Pepper, a “large and ugly” bartender, is the story’s protagonist and narrator. He works in a dingy dive called the Spot Tavern, situated on River Street in a less-than-good part of town. The Tavern’s owner, Angelo Manini, a small and somewhat elderly man, is a kind of tyrant and he frequently tries to push Johnny around, only resulting in Johnny quitting, which he has done several times before.

... always he fires me and the neighborhood hears that he is behind the bar and all the characters come around and talk rough to him and he gives away two free drinks for every one paid for, as he is usually nervous of anybody who acts like they want to hit him. Then he begins to think how he would rather be in the back room drinking that red wine and playing some screwy card game with some old guys who come in just to play with game with him. The next day he comes to see me and at twelve noon sharp I am wrapping on the apron and once again Johnny Pepper, which is me, is at the old stand, with that junior baseball bat handy to reach, prepared to handle the business.

One day Manini asks Johnny to move all of the crates and boxes of booze out of the upstairs storage room and down into the basement. When asked why, Manini informs him that he is renting it out to “a lady and her husband.” The room has “only a sink, with holes in the walls and rats like jackrabbits,” but Manini says he is getting it fixed up that afternoon.

The next day the couple move in. From the bar Johnny can see them outside supervising the movers. The man is unimpressive, a “frail type” leaning against the side of the truck “sneering at the bustle.” The wife, however, is altogether different.

She is a slim type with good clothes, and she stands out in the wind giving orders to the bums who carry up her furniture. The wind plasters her skirt against her and I see that when the customers are drinking, she better stay upstairs with the door locked, as she is built like what my customers dream about on winter nights.

Johnny’s brief reverie is interrupted by the arrival of Buster Pasternak, built “like Gargantua,” mean as a snake (“even when he is sober”) and as quick as an alley cat. He’s thirty-five, blonde and half balding, “with a beefy face and mean little eyes.” He’s also connected.

Often I have wished to work him over with the ball bat, but seeing as how his brother Dave is deputy chief of police, and his brother Harry is alderman, and his brother Francis is behind all the rackets in town, one swing with the bat and Angelo Manini has to fold his tent and sneak. Buster meets nobody but yes men and strangers. He loves to turn the strangers into yes men.

And sure enough, he picks a fight with another customer, a big man nursing a drink and minding his own business. Buster saunters up to him smiling and manages to provoke a fight, which he wins with little difficulty. (And told in a few fairly graphic sentences.) The man staggers out of the bar and is back in a few minutes with the local cop. When he points out Buster as the attacker, the cop shoves the man out of the bar. “Get away with you, you stew bum. If Mr. Pasternak beat you up, he had a good reason.”

The next day the man living upstairs makes his first appearance in the bar. He says little, but begins to open up after a few quick belts of straight rye. He introduces himself as Bob Simmonds, and Johnny thinks to himself “I had him cased. There‘s only one kind of drinker that drinks like that. I began right then to feel sorry for the wife.” Simmonds tells Johnny that he is a poet and is working on a book of poetry that, when published, will make him rich. His wife is the family breadwinner, a secretary for a guy who runs a big laundry. As the day winds on, Simmonds gets more and more lit, reciting poetry and talking about art and culture, and before Johnny realizes it he has emptied a bottle. Then Buster walks in.

But it is Simmonds who makes the first move. In a scene that is remarkably similar to an early incident in Clemmie, he yells across the bar. “And here comes an example of the Neanderthal man. The primitive type.” Buster comes over and Simmonds takes a swing at him, “like a kiss from a mosquito.” Buster grabs him and just as he is about to start slugging, Simmonds’ wife comes into the bar and gets between them, “her big eyes flashing.” She warns off Buster with a “Keep your paws off him, ape man” and Simmonds falls to the floor in a dead drunk. She asks Johnny to please bring him upstairs for her and she heads up,  “her hips moving nicely under her skirt.” Buster, looking dazed, whistles “That’s for me. Boy! That’s for me.”

This worries Johnny, as Buster has a reputation with women, and it usually involves violence, which is always hushed up later by his brothers, no matter how extreme. Johnny carries Simmonds up to his room and he gets an earful from Mrs. Simmonds about her husband’s alcoholism, which has been especially bad for the past three years. She begs Johnny to stop serving him, but Johnny says he can’t do that, and besides, there are plenty of other bars in their neighborhood. Thinking of Buster, he tells  Mrs. Simmonds to purchase a chain for the door and tells her all about the man who nearly beat her husband. She agrees and the next day Johnny installs it for her.

A week goes by without seeing anything more than a glimpse of Mrs. Simmonds on the way to work. Then, on a rainy Thursday, in walks Mr. Simmonds, flashing a ten dollar bill, which he pilfered from his own sugar bowl. A boy who was sitting by the door rushes out and Johnny tells Simmonds to hurry up and drink his drink and get upstairs behind that chained door, as the kid just ran out to inform Buster that Simmonds had come back to the bar. Simmonds is unperturbed and pulls out a .22 automatic, answering “I loaded sweetie pie last night… I can put all seven shots into your eye from across the room. I’m ignoring the monkey, but he lays a hand on me and he gets it.”

Five minutes later, in walks Buster…

The charm of “Even Up the Odds” lies not only in the wonderful first person narration of Johnny Pepper, that kind of street level urban prose that MacDonald mastered early in his career without it coming off as (too) derivative, or in the gritty, realistic world that the author creates so effortlessly in as few words as possible, but also in the almost implied feelings Johnny has for a perfect stranger, Mrs. Simmonds. Almost as if he is afraid to reveal it to the reader or even to admit it to himself, he drops a sentence here and there that is dripping with meaning, a tender hearted bartender who is utterly smitten by a beautiful woman. The final two paragraphs of this short story are wistful, evocative and nearly poetic.

“Even Up the Odds” was published in the January 1948 issue of Detective Story Magazine, a Street and Smith pulp publication that had been on the stands since 1915 and which had once been a weekly. Over 1,000 separate issues of this title were on the stands over that 33 year period, an amazing amount of popular fiction. The pulp would last only another year after “Even Up the Odds” was published, and Street and Smith buried it. The rights to the title Detective Story Magazine were sold to Popular and they revived the pulp in 1952 as a bi-monthly. Yes, 1952 seems an odd year to be starting a “new” pulp, and the magazine lasted only six issues before folding, this time forever. “Even Up the Odds” was the only JDM story to appear in the Street and Smith version of the magazine, while he had three stories in the Popular version. (I wrote a somewhat more detailed history of the magazine in my post on JDM’s “Finders Killers!”

John D MacDonald has yet to have his day in the short story sun, and one wonders if there will ever be a The Stories of John D MacDonald published anytime, ever. I would never claim such a work could rival the prose of a Cheever, and there are a lot of his early pulp stories that are just plain bad, but there is so much good out there, unpublished or in long out-of-print anthologies, that I pine sometimes that these works aren’t better known. Still, if one gathers together the anthologies that MacDonald himself put together during his lifetime, Border Town Girl, End of the Tiger and other Stories, S*E*V*E*N, Other Times, Other Worlds and the two Good Old Stuff volumes, that makes for a pretty good The Stories of John D MacDonald, even if they aren’t collected under one roof. But that “collection” would be missing MacDonald masterpieces such as “In a Small Motel,” “The Homesick Buick,” “I Always Get the Cuties,” “He Was Always a Nice Boy,” “Built for Speed,” “Cop Probe,” “First Offense,” and a slew of other deserving stories that are lost to time. Let us hope that somewhere, behind the scenes, someone is preparing such a work. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to write about these forgotten gems, mouldering away in my collection, just waiting to be rediscovered.

More Good Old Stuff is now available as an eBook, and used copies are easy to find.


7 comments:

  1. I have the January 1948 issue of DETECTIVE STORY and I'll have to read this story. I also discovered John Cheever and Irwin Shaw in the 1970's and I eagerly bought their massive short story collections when they were published. I was so impressed that I started collecting many literary magazines and now many visitors to my house are puzzled about how I have one room full of literary magazine, another full of pulps, and a third with vintage paperbacks. Odd tastes indeed but it looks like we share the same literary interests.

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    1. Hey, Walker, good writing is good writing, no matter where it is published. I'll bet that the ratio of good-to-bad fiction is pretty much the same in the literary magazines as it was in the pulps.

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  2. It's a little odd how some classic crime writers get the comprehensive short story collection nod and some don't. Although they (obviously) had different writing styles, JDM and Jim Thompson seem the 2 that should get the 'collected' or 'complete' treatment; and if not in reliable old hardcopy then at least digitally. Maybe it's that bugaboo of sheer output...At least for JDM. Thompson - to be fair, both novel and short story wise - could stink up the joint sometimes...Thanks for continuing to dig through the "forgotten gems".

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    1. Thompson was indeed very uneven, but when he was on, he was one of a kind.

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  3. That sounds good. I will have to get "More Good Old Stuff"

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  4. I just finished reading both "Old Stuff" collections. It makes me curiously nostalgic for something I never experienced. Would that there were still pulp magazines or even just more collections along these lines today. Nothing serious, just diverting short fiction.

    My one quibble with these collections is JDM's decision to change dates, monetary valuations, and even the makes of automobiles to make some stories seem more contemporary circa 1980. I'm not sure why he felt it necessary and--at another 35 years remove--I found it a bit discordant.

    Good ol' stuff, nonetheless...

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    1. MacDonald's decision to "update" some of the stories caused a firestorm at the time, at least among his fans. But he dug in his heels and did it again in the second volume. His reasoning in the forewords of the two books makes absolutely no sense. Did he not think that two collections with "Old" in their titles and with the dates of original publication in the table of contents wouldn't survive someone putting a nickle into a pay phone?

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