Monday, March 28, 2016

"Common Denominator"

John D MacDonald’s science fiction received little if any critical attention during his lifetime. Besides the book reviews of his three sf novels -- almost all of which appeared in science fiction magazines -- and Martin H. Greenberg’s introduction to his 1978 short story collection Other Times, Other Worlds, I’m not aware of any serious attempt by anyone to come to terms with the body of this material. Well, there was one attempt, by Edgar Hirshberg in his 1980 biography of the author, but like much of the rest of that effort it is superficial, banal and, in many places, downright feckless. No one could realistically call it “serious.” . In nearly eight pages on the subject Hirshberg discusses the novels and only four short works, all of which were stories collected in Other Times, Other Worlds. He hashes out plots, quotes MacDonald’s Afterwards, and manages -- like he does throughout the book -- to get plot points and other details wrong.

Still, he somehow stumbles onto the truth in his overall assessment of MacDonald’s approach to science fiction, even if it is only partially correct. His second paragraph of the section reads:

What distinguishes MacDonald's science fiction from most of the other work in the same genre is the fact that he is more interested in the human results of the twentieth-century scientific revolution that he is in the revolution itself. He had something to say about the human condition in these stories, and not necessarily about science. What he was writing, then, in a sense, was what Isaac Asimov once termed “Social Science Fiction,” which he defined as “that branch of Literature which is concerned with the impact of scientific advance upon human beings.”

Since Hirshberg hadn’t bothered to read any of MacDonald’s sf short stories that didn’t make it into Other Times, Other Worlds, it is highly doubtful that he read much other science fiction, certainly not enough to allow him to be able to differentiate MacDonald’s work from that of other authors. And how is “most” science fiction not concerned with the human condition? Pick up any issue of Galaxy, or Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction and that’s pretty much all you will find. And there is plenty of JDM sf that doesn’t fit this mold, from space opera to romance to pulpy horror.

John D MacDonald’s great burst of interest in science fiction, which began in 1947 and peaked in 1949 and 1950, was coming to a very quick  end by 1951, the year he had two stories published in the recently launched sf digest Galaxy. Both tales, “Susceptibility” and “Common Denominator,” take place in a distant future where the people of Earth are exploring and colonizing the galaxy. The central governments of these two futures are nearly identical in their rigid rulemaking and Byzantine bureaucracies, with a separate bureau and agency for every aspect of government, science and social life. In “Susceptibility” the author deals with the Colonial Adjustment Bureau, as the focus of that story is on the colonization of otherwise uninhabited planets.  In “Common Denominator” we deal with three different bureaus, each in a specific pecking order.

The crew of Scout Group Forty has just returned from halfway across the galaxy, where they have encountered and brought back data on Argus Ten, a Class Seven civilization living on three separate planets. Class Sevens are scientifically advanced societies and, as such, pose a potentially high danger to Earth. The crew is quarantined and the data is scrutinized by the Bureau of Stellar Defense to determine any possible threat. It is eventually determined that the people of Argus Ten pose no threat, and indeed seem utterly harmless, if overly placid, creatures. Humanoid in design and appearance, "the bipedal, oxygen-breathing vertebrate with opposing thumbs" could pass anywhere in the universe as human.

The flesh tones were brightly pink, like that of a sunburned human. Cranial hair was uniformly taffy-yellow. The were heavier and more fleshy than humans. Their women had a pronounced Rubens look, a warm, moist, rosy, comfortable look. Everyone remarked on the placidity and contentment of facial expressions, by human standards. The inevitable comparison was made. The Argonauts looked like a race of inn and beer-garden proprietors in the Bavarian Alps. With leather pants to slap, stein lids to click, feathers in Tyrolean hats and peasant skirts on their women, they would represent a culture and a way of life that had been missing from Earth for far too many generations.

With no apparent danger of intermingling, the data is passed on to the Bureau of Stellar Trade and Economy, whose job it is to analyze a possible mercantile relationship with Argus Ten. The first trade group brings back an assortment of both useful and frivolous inventions, along with a group of Argonauts, whose benign, friendly demeanor and amusing accents cause most Earth residents to consider them as pets.

Once all of the data is reviewed by the “important” bureaus, it eventually becomes available to the Bureau of Racial Maturity, an underfunded, poorly-manned and almost forgotten agency within the government, headed by historian-anthropologist- sociologist Dr. Lambert, a "crag-faced, sandy, slow-moving" man whose concern that mankind has advanced too quickly is the bureau's main focus. Lambert hopes that records from alien civilizations will give him an answer to counteract this too-rapid development. After months and months of research he makes some findings that seem to him highly unusual: both war and crime on the alien planet are virtually unknown, and they stopped abruptly eight thousand years ago. Why did this happen? Lambert decides to make a trip to Argus Ten in order to find out…

After much serious analytical narrative, complete with charts and graphs and animated film, the denouement of the story is fairly outrageous, even within its own terms. MacDonald held some interesting beliefs regarding humanity that became more and more absolutist over time, to the point in 1978 he wrote that he believed mankind to be “a virulent infection eroding this green planet even while we use it to sustain our teeming life form.” He explored this belief in his 1955 short story “Virus H,” and even had a Travis McGee soliloquy opining this creed in A Deadly Shade of Gold. His solution in “Common Denominator” seems equally extreme.

The story first appeared in the July 1951 issue of Galaxy and was subsequently anthologized in both the Galaxy Reader of Science Fiction (1952) and Other Times, Other Worlds. Unfortunately that excellent anthology is one of the very few JDM works that has not been digitized for sale as an eBook. Still, this particular story has just become available for sale and an eStory(?) on Amazon for a mere 99-cents. Better yet, one can go to Project Gutenberg and download the story for free. According to the good folks at PG, the story’s copyright has lapsed and is now in the public domain.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Creative Trust

In 1965 John D MacDonald wrote the following to a fan who wanted to become a writer and was asking for advice.

I will tell you what I tell everybody who wants to write -- I tell them -- forget it. There are a thousand easier ways to make a living. You have to have the nerves of a gambler, and an ego the size of Mt. Washington, and enough energy to take you through about 500 seventy and eighty hour weeks in a row without a break, without getting sick or beat down. Forget it, you won’t make it.

And this is my paradox. The ones who take that advice wouldn’t make it anyway.

This kind of wary advice was repeated by MacDonald throughout his life, dissuading would-be authors with all kinds of requirements few could ever meet. Still, he wrote often about his craft in an effort to help the serious would-be writers, with practical, analytical advice that reflected his own struggles as a beginner. As early as 1950 he wrote a piece for the Writer’s Yearbook titled “Professionally Yours,” where he outlined the various ways he treated his craft as a business. He continued to produce articles throughout his career, in periodicals such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Author’s Guild Bulletin, with instructive titles like “How a Character Becomes Believable,” “How to Start a Story,” “The Biggest Stumbling Block,” and “The Editor Over My Shoulder.”

In 1974 he wrote a piece for The Writer titled “Creative Trust,”  which goes a long way toward explaining MacDonald’s own approach to creating believable stories. I’ve quoted from it in the past, but though I would present the article here in its entirety. It appeared in the magazine’s January issue and was subsequently reprinted in the 1984 edition of The Writer’s Handbook.

The writer and the reader are involved in a creative relationship. The writer must provide the materials with which the reader will construct bright pictures in his head. The reader will use those materials as a partial guide and will finish the pictures with the stuff from his own life experience.

I do not intend to patronize the reader with this analogy: The writer is like a person trying to entertain a listless child on a rainy afternoon.

You set up a card table, and you lay out pieces of cardboard, construction paper, scissors, paste, crayons. You draw a rectangle and you construct a very colorful little fowl and stick it in the foreground, and you say, "This is a chicken." You cut out a red square and put it in the background and say, "This is a barn." You construct a bright yellow truck and put it in the background on the other side of the frame and say, "This is a speeding truck. Is the chicken going to get out of the way in time? Now you finish the picture."

If the child has become involved, he will get into the whole cut-and-paste thing, adding trees, a house, a fence, a roof on the barn. He will crayon a road from the truck to the chicken. You didn't say a word about trees, fences, houses, cows, roofs. The kid puts them in because he knows they are the furniture of farms. He is joining in the creative act, enhancing the tensions of the story by adding his uniquely personal concepts of the items you did not mention, but which have to be there.

Or the child could cross the room, turn a dial and see detailed pictures on the television tube. What are the ways you can lose him?

You can lose him by putting in too much of the scene. That turns him into a spectator. "This is a chicken. This is a fence. This is an apple tree. This is a tractor." He knows those things have to be there. He yawns. And pretty soon, while you are cutting and pasting and explaining, you hear the gunfire of an old western.

You can lose him by putting in too little. "This is a chicken," you say, and leave him to his own devices. Maybe he will put the chicken in a forest, or in a supermarket. Maybe the child will invent the onrushing truck, or a chicken hawk. Too much choice is as boring as too little. Attention is diffused, undirected.

You can put in the appropriate amount of detail and still lose him by the way you treat the chicken, the truck, and the barn. Each must have presence. Each must be unique. The chicken. Not a chicken. He is eleven weeks old. He is a rooster named Melvin who stands proud and glossy in the sunlight, but tends to be nervous, insecure and hesitant. His legs are exceptionally long, and in full flight he has a stride you wouldn't believe.

If you cannot make the chicken, the truck, and the barn totally specific, then it is as if you were using dingy gray paper for those three ingredients, and the child will not want to use his own bright treasure to complete the picture you have begun.

We are analogizing here the semantics of image, of course. The pace and tension and readability of fiction are as dependent upon your control and understanding of these phenomena as they are upon story structure and characterization.

Here is a sample: The air conditioning unit in the motel room had a final fraction of its name left, an "aire" in silver plastic, so loose that when it resonated to the coughing thud of the compressor, it would blur. A rusty water stain on the green wall under the unit was shaped like the bottom half of Texas. From the stained grid, the air conditioner exhaled its stale and icy breath into the room, redolent of chemicals and of someone burning garbage far, far away.

Have you not already constructed the rest of the motel room? Can you not see and describe the bed, the carpeting, the shower? O.K., if you see them already, I need not describe them for you. If I try to do so, I become a bore. And the pictures you have composed in your head are more vivid than the ones I would try to describe.

No two readers will see exactly the same motel room. No two children will construct the same farm. But the exercise of the need to create gives both ownership and involvement to the motel room and the farm, to the air conditioner and to the chicken and to their environments.

Sometimes, of course, it is useful to go into exhaustive detail. That is when a different end is sought. In one of the Franny and Zooey stories, Salinger describes the contents of a medicine cabinet shelf by shelf in such infinite detail that finally a curious monumentality is achieved, reminiscent somehow of that iron sculpture by David Smith called "The Letter."

Here is a sample of what happens when you cut the images out of gray paper: "The air conditioning unit in the motel room window was old and somewhat noisy."

See? Because the air conditioning unit has lost its specificity, its unique and solitary identity, the room has blurred also. You cannot see it as clearly. It is less real.


I hate to come across a whole sentence in caps when I am reading something. But here, it is of such importance, and so frequently misunderstood and neglected, I inflict caps upon you with no apology. The environment can seem real only when the reader has helped construct it. Then he has an ownership share in it. If the air conditioner is unique, then the room is unique, and the person in it is real.

What item to pick? There is no rule. Sometimes you can use a little sprinkling of realities, a listing of little items which make a room unique among all rooms in the world: A long living room with one long wall painted the hard blue of Alpine sky and kept clear of prints and paintings, with a carved blonde behemoth piano, its German knees half-bent under its oaken weight, and with a white Parsons table covered by a vivid collection of French glass paperweights.

I trust the reader to finish the rest of that room in his head, without making any conscious effort to do so. The furnishings will be appropriate to his past observations.

How to make an object unique? (Or where do I find the colored paper for the rooster?) Vocabulary is one half the game, and that can come only from constant, omnivorous reading, beginning very early in life. If you do not have that background, forget all about trying to write fiction. You'll save yourself brutal disappointment. The second half of the game is input. All the receptors must be wide open. You must go through the world at all times looking at the things around you. Texture, shape, style, color, pattern, movement. You must be alert to the smell, taste, sound of everything you see, and alert to the relationships between the aspects of objects, and of people. Tricks and traits and habits, deceptive and revelatory.

There are people who have eyes and cannot see. I have driven friends through country they have never seen before and have had them pay only the most cursory attention to the look of the world. Trees are trees, houses are houses, hills are hills -- to them. Their inputs are all turned inward, the receptors concerned only with Self. Self is to them the only reality, the only uniqueness. Jung defines these people in terms of the "I" and the "Not I" The "I" person conceives of the world as being a stage setting for Self, to the point where he cannot believe other people are truly alive and active when they are not sharing that stage with Self. Thus nothing is real unless it has a direct and specific bearing on Self.

The writer must be a Not-I, a person who can see the independence of all realities and know that the validity of object or person can be appraised and used by different people in different ways. The writer must be the observer, the questioner. And that is why the writer should be wary of adopting planned eccentricities of appearance and behavior, since, by making himself the observed rather than the observer, he dwarfs the volume of input he must have to keep his work fresh.

Now we will assume you have the vocabulary, the trait of constant observation plus retention of the telling detail. And at this moment -- if I am not taking too much credit --you have a new appraisal of the creative relationship of writer and reader. You want to begin to use it.

The most instructive thing you can do is to go back over past work, published or unpublished, and find the places where you described something at length, in an effort to make it unique and special, but somehow you did not bring it off. (I do this with my own work oftener than you might suppose.)
Now take out the subjective words. For example, I did not label the air conditioner as old, or noisy, or battered, or cheap. Those are evaluations the reader should make. Tell how a thing looks, not your evaluation of what it is from the way it looks. Do not say a man looks seedy. That is a judgment, not a description. All over the world, millions of men look seedy, each one in his own fashion. Describe a cracked lens on his glasses, a bow fixed with stained tape, tufts of hair growing out of his nostrils, an odor of old laundry.

This is a man. His name is Melvin. You built him out of scraps of bright construction paper and put him in front of the yellow oncoming truck.

The semantics of image is a special discipline. Through it you achieve a reality which not only makes the people more real, it makes the situation believable, and compounds the tension.

If a vague gray truck hits a vague gray man, his blood on gray pavement will be without color or meaning.

When a real yellow truck hits Melvin, man or rooster, we feel that mortal thud deep in some visceral place where dwells our knowledge of our own oncoming death.

You have taken the judgment words out of old descriptions and replaced them with the objective words of true description. You have taken out the things the reader can be trusted to construct for himself.

Read it over. Is there too much left, or too little? When in doubt, opt for less rather than more.
We all know about the clumsiness the beginning writer shows when he tries to move his people around, how he gets them into motion without meaning. We all did it in the beginning. Tom is in an office on one side of the city, and Mary is in an apartment on the other side. So we walked him into the elevator, out through the foyer, into a cab, all the way across town, into another foyer, up in the elevator, down the corridor to Mary's door. Because it was motion without meaning, we tried desperately to create interest with some kind of ongoing interior monologue. Later we learned that as soon as the decision to go see Mary comes to Tom, we need merely skip three spaces and have him knocking at Mary's door. The reader knows how people get across cities, and get in and out of buildings. The reader will make the instantaneous jump.

So it is with description. The reader knows a great deal. He has taste and wisdom, or he wouldn't be reading. Give him some of the vivid and specific details which you see, and you can trust him to build all the rest of the environment. Having built it himself, he will be that much more involved in what is happening, and he will cherish and relish you the more for having trusted him to share in the creative act of telling a story.

Monday, March 14, 2016

"Kitten on a Trampoline"

John D MacDonald wrote or edited seventy-nine books in his thirty-year career, many of them paperback originals, all eventually having paperback editions, and all featuring covers illustrated by the great and near-great popular artists of the era. Names such as Mitchell Hooks, Victor Kalin, Robert Maguire and Barye Phillips are well known to those of us who study and prize illustration art from the last century, and the work these artists did for John D MacDonald books is among their best. Many were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to illustrate multiple titles, and multiple editions of the same title, but there is one artist whose name towers above the others when counting the sheer number of both titles and illustrations done for JDM’s work: Robert McGinnis.

Beginning in May 1959 with his cover art for the first edition of Deadly Welcome, McGinnis went on to illustrate 48 different JDM books with 63 unique paintings. The only other illustrator to come close to that number was William Schmidt, who provided 41 illustrations for 39 different titles, and almost all of them for the final physical editions the titles have seen so far. McGinnis, like MacDonald, was a workhorse, responsible for around 1,200 paperback covers, over 40 movie posters, and scores of magazine illustrations. His style is instantly identifiable, marked by a peerless esthetic, unique, perfect composition, an intuitive sense of color and, of course, his women: beautiful, sexy and unobtainable. (The only other illustrator who could give him a run for his money when illustrating these kinds of women is Maguire.) And although he is known more famously as the main illustrator of the Carter Brown and Mike Shayne detective series, he did covers for fifteen of the twenty-one Travis McGee novels, with first edition credit on three of them (Indigo, Lavender and Tan) and first paperback edition credit for two that originally were published in hardcover (Lemon and Turquoise.) His depiction of McGee on his cover for Turquoise is a fan favorite, although the Travis McGee in my mind looks more like John McDermott’s original illustration.

There are scores of sites on the internet featuring the artwork of McGinnis. Google his name and you’ll come up with over 300,000 hits. Most, if not all of his paperback work is reproduced on various sites (none officially) and his movie posters are equally well displayed. More obscure is the work he did for magazines, primarily illustrating short stories and novellas by famous and not-so-famous authors of the day. His work appeared in The Saturday Evening Post, Good Housekeeping, The Ladies' Home Journal and Argosy, among others, and only a few of these have been scanned for sharing on the web. One of the reasons for this is that he began his career in the late 1950’s when both fiction and its accompanying artwork in magazines was on the wane. There is one illustration, however, that is widely shared and well known by aficionados, both for its artistry and sheer audacity. That is the two-page spread he did for John D MacDonald’s short story “Kitten on a Trampoline.” Published in the April 8, 1961 issue of the bedsheet-sized The Saturday Evening Post, the illustration nearly jumps off the page at the reader with its multi-pane depiction of a bouncing beauty in various mid-air poses. It is representational McGinnis, beautiful to look at, and even if his depiction of the character is overly glamorized, it certainly must have inspired many a buyer of this particular issue to read MacDonald’s short story.

“Kitten on a Trampoline” is MacDonald doing mainstream fiction, with no crime, no bad guys, and without even a tough guy protagonist. He takes a fairly preposterous premise and makes it work, placing the action in his own backyard, depicting a world that must have been as foreign to him as that of, say, a marina in Fort Lauderdale.

The story is told in the first person by protagonist Paul Fox, a twenty-five year old traveling rep for the Owens Drug Company. He’s a typically MacDonaldean best-of-the-best, the company’s most successful rep, pulling down $20,000 a year (that would be nearly $160,000 today), working 90-hours a week, unencumbered by wife or family, living life “on a dead run.” And there are costs.

But I was chronically hoarse from giving my spiel to doctors and druggists, and I tried not to notice that I was going through three packs of cigarettes a day, or notice the persistent tremor in my hands or the deepening frown wrinkled between my brows. I hadn't been sleeping well of late, and I was bothered by nervous indigestion. My weight was down, and my temper was too easily lost. But you have to keep pushing and churning if you are going to get anywhere in this world.

Paul’s territory is the entire southern half of Florida and his company is based in Tampa. The story opens with him driving with breakneck urgency up from Naples to attend a four o’clock meeting at headquarters. At a stoplight in Sarasota he notices a movement far off from the side of the road in a roped-off parking lot. A crowd of people are surrounding a trampoline, watching a young woman jumping.

I saw the girl burst up into the air, higher than their heads. With her body straight out, she made a turn so slow and so elegant it seemed that I was watching it in slow motion, and then fell back out of sight and reappeared again in a slight variation of the first turn. I knew that the girl in the sunlight was the most astonishingly beautiful thing I had ever seen... I suddenly had the horrible realization that I was close to breaking into tears. I now know it was a clue to the extent of my nervous exhaustion. Something so precious had occurred that I couldn't even put a name to it. And here I was, running away from it.

He immediately turns around and joins the crowd of observers.

It was like a wild strange dance she was improvising as she went along, with a complete grace and total control in spite of the tremendous height she was achieving. She was young, she had a burnished tan and she was sweetly and strongly constructed. Her hair was a tousled brown-red mass. She wore a sleeveless yellow-print blouse and little chocolate-colored shorts. I could see her face clearly only at the apex of those leaps when she was turning slowly. It was one of those wide-cheeked Slavic faces of a totally deceptive placidity. She had a dreaming look, a contentment, a half smile. She drifted and spun in a better world than any of us could know.

When she finishes and dismounts, Paul complements her, but the girl is disinterested and dismissive. He offers to buy her a soda and she accepts by stating "I'm thirsty" in a so-what tone of voice spoken "with a faraway spice of accent." She grudgingly tells him her name is Wanda Markava, and he asks her to wait while he calls the office to tell them he won't be able to make it to the meeting. He follows her on her long walk home and at one point asks her if she was a member of a gymnastic team. She answers by doing a few flips on the grass and haughtily tells him that she is with the circus.

I felt like thumping myself in the head. This was Sarasota. It explained some of the strangeness of her. These were the most clannish people in the world.

She tells him she is with Rossoni and Markava, a small but well respected circus, and that she is a flier, on the rings since she was five, and considered a most promising prospect. Once home he meets the extended family, watches Wanda and her uncle practice for a while on the swings, and is eventually invited to dinner among the hectic extended family.

It was the most confusing house I've ever been in. There seemed to be four or five tiny living rooms, each with its own group. In one room three old ladies were gabbling at each other in a foreign tongue while they sewed sequins to heavy new material with a dazzling speed. People were singing, some were arguing, some were cooking and some were eating. Two television sets and a radio were going with the volume turned high. I estimate I met about one out of every four of them, and usually it was only the first name. They all had muscles, vitality and violent opinions. The children seemed able to run up the walls and across the ceiling, but I suspect that was an illusion.

It's not clear what exactly attracts Paul to Wanda besides her good looks -- certainly not her temperament or personality --  but he is smitten, and after he is driven home that night the Markava's find him the next morning again watching a practice session on the rings. Wanda asks, "How many meeting can you miss?"

“Kitten on a Trampoline” was one of nine works of short fiction MacDonald published in 1961, the most he had produced since 1956. The year before saw only one novella (the excellent “The Trap of Solid Gold”) and the year after he produced only two short stories. Of course, these three years also saw the publication of no fewer than eight novels, so it’s pretty obvious where his focus lay. All but three of these short stories were mainstream, non-crime-related tales and most were published in the big slicks of the day. Nineteen sixty-one was one of the last big years of short fiction for the author, eclipsed only by 1964 when he produced eleven, and he never really focused on this form in any serious manner again.

As of this writing, Robert McGinnis is still alive, and at age 90 still working, God bless him. (He provided the illustration for only one additional JDM magazine work, a 1967 condensation of the novel The Last One Left that was published in Argosy.) As far as I can tell, he and MacDonald never met or corresponded with each other, and I have no information on what MacDonald may have thought of his work. However, in 1981 when JDM bibliographer Walter Shine was compiling a list of cover artists of the numerous different editions of MacDonald’s paperbacks, he wrote to McGinnis to ask for his help in identifying some that were unattributed. McGinnis responded “with alacrity” and ended his written response with the following request: “Thank John for me for the opportunity he created for an illustrator.”

“Kitten on a Trampoline” appeared only once and has never been anthologized or republished.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Losing One's Head

Back in 1977 JDM bibliographer Walter Shine asked the question “What is JDM’s favorite joke?” He answered the query himself with a listing of five different books wherein one particular truism had been repeated. Here are the specific quotes:

He pulled himself slowly out of the chair. “I don't condemn you on moral grounds, Morrow. Better men than you and me have done like that little old dog on the railroad tracks. I just think it was damn poor judgement for a man in your position to fediddle the Mayor’s wife.”

Herb Leighton in Judge Me Not (1951)

She set the bottle down, and fluffed her back hair, and arched her back a little, just enough to push those things out farther than God intended. There wouldn’t be any of that in prison. Not a morsel of it. They’d let you dream about it, and that was all. Probably stop that too, if they could figure out how. Sure turned out to be the little dog on the railroad tracks this time.

Del Bennicke (interior monologue) in The Damned (1952)

“Wipe your mouth, I’ll be damned if I’m going to get all mixed up in a … This is the craziest thing anybody could possibly… I’m not going to let you be the little dog on the railroad tracks, Lloyd. Because it can’t mean that much. I can’t mean that much in that kind of way to anybody.”

Sylvia Danton in The Empty Trap (1957)

“Look, you’ve got to get yourself sorted out. I mean it. It can happen to anybody, getting all hung up on some twenty-year-old quiff. Like the little dog in the freight yard, and the train nips off the end of his tail and he yelps and spins around and it cuts off his head. Never lose your head over a piece of tail.”

Leo, in “The Random Noise of Love” from S*E*V*E*N (1971)

I had seen somebody I had invented, not Mary Alice. I explained away her inconsistencies, overlooked her vulgarities, and believed her dramatics. And so it goes. It is humiliating, when you should know better, to become victim of the timeless story of the little brown dog running across the freight yard, crossing all the railroad tracks until a switch engine nipped off the end of his tail between wheel and rail. The little dog yelped, and he spun so quickly to check himself out that the next wheel chopped through his little brown neck. The moral is, of course, never lose your head over a piece of tail.

Travis McGee in The Scarlet Ruse (1973)