Monday, October 12, 2015

"Love, Inc."

Most of the nearly 400 short stories and novellas written and published by John D MacDonald during his 30 year career appeared in the pulps. This market was his gateway into the world of fiction writing and it also became his classroom, where he learned, made his mistakes, and developed his singular style. But MacDonald didn’t start out wanting to be a pulp writer. He had higher, and by his own admission more pretentious yearnings to write “serious” fiction. Much of his early writing attempts were stories of this ilk, and not surprising for a novice writer, none of it sold. He “lowered his sights” and concentrated on the market that would buy his work, pulp fiction magazines.

But the early portion of MacDonald’s career is peppered with a few sales to the slicks, sporadic instances of earning a little better money while getting his name and work in front of a more mainstream audience. A little over a year after he started writing full time he sold a short story to Esquire magazine, a tale of a mean little trumpet player who got away with his anti-social behavior by playing a jazz trumpet that was “high, wild, sweet and true.” It was obviously something never intended for a pulp and may have been a piece left over from his early attempts at mainstream acceptance. A month later he sold a comic fantasy story -- something that may have been aimed at a science fiction pulp -- to the weekly Liberty. His first sale to Cosmopolitan, a magazine that would go on to publish more JDM than any other slick, was something he wrote thinking it would end up in a detective pulp, but was good enough to dare and send for submission a little higher up the literary food chain.

MacDonald’s last story to appear in the pulps was published in July 1953. It was his 295th short story sold, and of that number, only 40 were slick magazine sales. After that they were all slick magazine sales (excepting the occasional digest such as Manhunt or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine) because, well, because there were no more pulps.

What was MacDonald trying to do with these particular forays into modern American culture and relationships? According to his own assessment of these works, he was trying to find “some theme or approach which [did] not require [him] to affirm one of the sentimental myths of our culture.”  He felt he succeeded when he was “sufficiently sly and nimble to find little areas between the myths where there is room to edge through without having to jettison a little burden of honest intent.” Many of these works are simple escape pieces, wryly comic stories of suburban families confronting simple misunderstandings or dealing with personality differences. (See most of his early stories in This Week.) Some were crime stories, the literary genre the author became famous for, tales that perhaps would have appeared in the pulps had they still been around, but were now appearing in tonier titles such as Collier’s, Cosmopolitan, and The American Magazine. Others were serious attempts at dealing with relationships between man and woman, often seemingly broken beyond repair, delving into the pain and regret and observing the first steps of reconciliation. This latter group includes several stories I have written about on The Trap of Solid Gold, such as “The Cardboard Star,” “What About Alice?” and “Forever Yours.”

Which brings us to “Love, Inc.” a short story that appeared in the November 1949 issue of Today’s Woman. It’s a kind of a combination of the first and third group detailed above, a tale of a marital relationship that isn’t quite working, not because of infidelity or cruelty, but because one member of the partnership is focused elsewhere.

Jean and Chris Lewis have been married for all of six months and things are not going well, at least for Jean. As the story opens, Jean is standing in the driveway watching Chris drive off to work. It had been a late night. The day before Chris met a man at the barber shop and discovered he was a boat salesman. Having always been interested in owning a boat, Chris invited him home for dinner and stayed up late with him, so late in fact that the salesman had to spend the night. Had this been a onetime thing Jean would not have minded, but for Chris this was business as usual.

Jean is "a fireside girl... a quiet kid" who wants to "curl up and be loved." She's "a bit shy and hard to know... not unfriendly, just reserved." Chris, on the other hand, is another type entirely.

He was like a big, friendly puppy, the kind that wags its tail so hard that everything wiggles except the tip of its nose. And he was just as easy to hurt as a puppy. Chris adored people, all sorts of people. He was the perfect listener, his face alive with appreciation and unbounded love. She and Chris couldn't take a walk without being stopped every fifteen feet or so by one of Chris's devoted pals.

It began on their honeymoon, as they were driving on their wedding trip. Chris stopped to pick up a hitchhiking sailor, and instead of dropping him off a few miles down the road he invited him to dinner and drove eighty-four miles out of the way to drop him at his home. Of course they had to go in and and drink coffee at the kitchen table for several hours while the sailor's mother talked endlessly about what a fine boy she had. And that was only the beginning, because that's just the way Chris was.

Guides and elevator boys and bankers and restaurant owners and hardware salesmen flocked around Chris. There was one insurance salesman who had called one evening and had stayed as a house guest for two days.

And six month into it Jean is beginning to feel the wear on her. The house is a mess from last night's guest, as it always was, and she is fatigued from being up so late. "If she could have just a few days of rest, without people..." So she does something she has never done before, she calls up Chris at work and tells him a lie. She instructs him not to come home for lunch that day, as she is meeting an old school friend. The wisdom of her move is immediately apparent, as a disappointed Chris tells her that he had met his own old friend, his college roommate, and wanted to bring him along for lunch. Jean tells Chris to buy him lunch in town and immediately begins enjoying her day to herself: a nice hot bath and a nap. But she sleeps so soundly that she is startled to find Chris shaking her awake. And sure enough, his college roommate has been dragged along, for dinner and probably another late night…

“Love, Inc.” (which MacDonald originally titled “Popularity Contest”) is a slight tale, a typical example of the kind of fiction that was appearing in women's magazines of the time. The author tackles a marital problem, but one not serious enough to cause anything more than moderate unhappiness on the part of one spouse, who realizes that this is the way things are going to be. MacDonald wraps it up with a bit of a surprise and a happy ending, nothing too weighty or disturbing. It’s similar to his first Cosmopolitan sale “Pickup” and to one he would write a few years later for This Week, “She Tried to Make Her Man Behave,” both featuring oddball husbands and the wives that have to put up with them. MacDonald would mature into a better writer, not only stylistically but in the subject matter he dealt with., just as the magazines he wrote for would do the same. Compare the “dysfunctional” marriages in any of these three early stories with that of, say, 1955’s “The Bear Trap” to see how far he had come in a very short period of time.

All but forgotten today, Today’s Woman was a fairly popular magazine of its time. It was published by Fawcett, which also published Cavalier and was, of course, the publisher of the Gold Medal series of paperback originals where MacDonald began his career as a novelist in 1950. Begun in 1945. Today’s Woman lasted nearly ten years and, by the time “Love, Inc.” was published, boasted a circulation of one million issues a month. The magazine was geared to younger women between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five, which explains the protagonists of the two stories MacDonald had published there. (See my piece on the other story, “Mr. Killer.”) It leaned heavily toward fiction over nonfiction, although it featured both, and at the height of its popularity was receiving over ten thousand unsolicited stories a year from freelance writers. (That seems like a lot until you learn that The Saturday Evening Post was receiving between sixty and a hundred thousand a year!) The magazine’s popularity began to wane in the fifties and gave up the ghost in 1954. Now it lives only on ebay, when a few odd issues are put up for auction now and then.

“Love, Inc.” has never been reprinted, as far as I can tell.

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