Monday, August 24, 2015

"The Taste of Gravy"

John D MacDonald’s first short story to be published in Playboy magazine appeared in the relatively late year of 1967, long after his work had made appearances in nearly every other major (and minor) periodical in the United States. What took him so long is anybody’s guess, but one is tempted to go back to Travis McGee’s infamous 1966 rant in One Fearful Yellow Eye, where he refers to Hugh Hefner’s philosophy as “laborious,” “interminable” and the writer himself as “pseudo-educated.” This would certainly not put the author in Hefner’s good graces, assuming that Hef ever read a McGee novel. But MacDonald’s work was sold through his agent, and the agent worked not with the magazine’s owner, but with its fiction editor, who happened to admire and respect MacDonald’s writing. “Quarrel,” which appeared in the May 1967 issue, began a series of short story appearances that were marked by a more adult sensibility than that which had been on display in, say, his work for This Week or Collier’s, not surprising given the kind of magazine Playboy was. These included the titles “The Annex,” “Dear Old Friend,” and “Double Hannenframmis,” which was published in August 1970. MacDonald then took these stories and, along with three new originals, included them in his anthology S*E*V*E*N, which came out in April 1971.

But MacDonald would write one more story for Playboy, and it appeared in the magazine’s June 1974 issue. Titled “The Taste of Gravy,” it was one of the last short stories MacDonald would ever write. Both its tone and subject matter make it a good companion for his other Playboy works, and it would have fit nicely into S*E*V*E*N (had S*E*V*E*N been E*I*G*H*T), and would have, I believe, made for a better final “chapter” in that thematically organic anthology than the existing title, “The Annex.”

Paul Catlett, the story’s protagonist, is a close cousin to “Woodchuck’s” Aldo Bellinger and to Wyatt Ross in “Double Hennenframmis”: a corporate leader of questionable morals, a man who has built a business empire using any means available, legal or otherwise. In Ross’s case it was outright larceny but here Catlett skated just inside the boundaries, building “something so big there is a lot less there than meets the eye,” and he has done this by “stealing from the wolves.” As the story opens he has just completed months of preparation to unload the company onto another group of unsuspecting “wolves,” and to emerge “with enough golden booty to last [him] forever.” He is sitting in the first class section of an airliner flying from Los Angeles to New York when he is notified by a stewardess that the plane will be forced to land short of Kennedy Airport and is being diverted to Syracuse. It is then that he notices a passenger across the aisle, a “big girl, young, with a strong pale face... her hair... dark blonde, heavy and healthy.” (A MacDonald ideal from as far back as his beginnings as a writer.) As he is heading for the security check point before boarding the replacement flight he again notices the same girl, this time engaged in some sort of dispute with a security guard at the metal detector. She is triggering the device even though she is carrying no metal, and the same thing happens to Catlett. He makes a suggestion that gets them through this delay, but it is not in time and Catlett and the girl watch as their flight takes off without them.

It lifted into the clear windy night, toward a diamond sky. He turned away and suddenly she took hold of his forearm with such shocking strength it made him gasp. He turned back toward her and saw her staring, her eyes wide and mouth slack, sagging open. He thought for an instant she was having some sort of seizure, but then he looked toward [the plane] and saw a long trail of orange flame, a dirty orange that made an arc, a gentle long curve toward the ground. There was a sudden bloom of orange-and-white flame that made him think of those television pictures from the Cape, when the booster separated and it would look for a few moments as if the whole rocket had blown up. The bigger blossom of fire continued along the same arc, while smaller burning pieces fell out of it. It coasted down out of the sky and disappeared behind a distant hill, and then a bigger flare lit up all of the night. Moments later, there was an audible "Whumpf" sound that shook the big window.

Understandably upset by the tragedy, the two would-be passengers comfort each other and head for the airport bar to calm their nerves. Through their conversation they gradually learn about each other. She is Sheila Christopher, a young woman currently having an affair with a married man in New York. She was flying there to embark on a 15-day cruise with him, hoping that when they return the man will have the courage to ask his wife for a divorce. She learns that Catlett is THE Paul Catlett, CEO of CatCo, made recently famous by a day's worth of congressional hearings investigating his shady business practices. He reveals that he is married, to an unfaithful second wife, and that his trip to New York was to put an end to CatCo by putting "gravy on the blade."

"Steal from the wolves and they come after you. There is a primitive way to get rid of wolves. You freeze a very sharp knife, blade up against the ice, with a little frozen gravy on the side of the blade. The wolves lick the blade. It is so cold they can't feel it slicing their tongues. They taste fresh blood, their own, and keep at it until they swoon and freeze. While I am far away, over the icecap and the mountains, and down the other side.”

Sheila becomes philosophical about the near miss and tries to understand its meaning.

“I have the feeling that something... valuable has happened to me. I want to sort of sit back and put it together and see what it says to me. If I go rushing about, inserting myself back into place, right where I was before, then I won't know what this meant…. we’ve got this chance to change things.”

She suggests that they pool their money, hop a flight to Biloxi, "where nobody will know us or give a damn." As Catlett considers the sudden suggestion, "he felt his heart lift for the first time in a year. He felt a hollow excitement in his belly. He reached to grasp her extended, challenging hand…”

Following that ellipsis MacDonald inserts a three-asterisk section break and resumes in a disorienting place. Catlett, with Shelia not far behind him, is walking through a canvas tunnel, boarding an airplane. They are the last two passengers to get on the replacement flight from Syracuse to New York City…

Without revealing anything further for the would-be reader, let me say that this is not fantasy or science fiction. The device is used as a means to an end, which takes up the second half of “The Taste of Gravy.” and is more about Catlett’s state of mind than any airline tragedy. Shelia is not really Shelia, but Sarah, a much more interesting character. It is an extreme example of the unreliable narrator, a literary device used in all of the stories collected in S*E*V*E*N. The big difference between “The Taste of Gravy” and the other stories in that anthology is in its ending, and it is primarily for this reason that I think it would have made a better final story than “The Annex.” Perhaps MacDonald felt that way as well, and wrote “The Taste of Gravy” as a kind of “what-if” ending to his unifying theme. And while “The Annex” was one of the author’s proudest short story achievements, maybe he thought, as I do, that it was out of place in S*E*V*E*N and belonged in a more appropriate collection such as his sf anthology Other Times, Other Worlds, where is was also the final entry.

“The Taste of Gravy” has never been anthologized or reprinted, as far as I have been able to tell. Used copies of Playboy are very easy to find online and prices can be reasonable. And of course, Playboy has made its entire run available digitally in its online archive, for something like eight bucks a month. There you can read “The Taste of Gravy” and MacDonald's other four Playboy short stories, as well as an excerpt from The Lonely Silver Rain, which appeared in the March 1985 issue.


  1. Very interesting review. I don't know what my wife and kids will say if I start buying old issues of Playboy.