Monday, October 24, 2016

"The Legend of Joe Lee"

Imagine, dear reader, that the year is 1964, this very month of October, 52 long years ago. You are an avid fan of author John D MacDonald, a writer who has already published 46 books of fiction, 368 short stories and novellas in scores of different magazines, both pulp and slick, and who, only five short months ago introduced his first novel-length series character Travis McGee, who has already (!) appeared in four new novels. You’re perusing the magazine racks at your local newsstand (they still had them in 1964) and you spot the cover of the latest issue of Cosmopolitan. Nothing much of interest here -- a couple of attractive Spanish models dressed in red, and headlines for the various non-fiction articles therein, with a single come-on for a “complete” novel by Lee Colgate titled Oh, Be Careful! You vaguely recognize her name from a few issues of Redbook back in 1961 but you’ve never read anything by her, and you certainly don’t know that she is the Colgate toothpaste heiress. No need to drop 35-cents for this particular issue.

But you’re a John D MacDonald fan, and you’ve been one for years, so you are well aware that your favorite author has been published in this magazine before. In fact, you’ve read 17 of his shorter works here, including two -- “The Bear Trap” and “Hangover” -- which were among the best he had ever written, and 13 of his novels have been published (in shorter versions) in Cosmo. So you have been trained to look for a new JDM piece every time you visit this newsstand of yore. A peek at the table of contents tells you nothing, as no individual entries are listed, only subjects. On page 90 begins the handful of new stories that are seeing the light of day for the first time. And, sure enough, on that very page you see the byline “By John D MacDonald” under the title “Fiction” and the title of this particular entry, “The Legend of Joe Lee”.

By now you’ve come to expect anything from JDM in Cosmopolitan. You’ve read crime stories, bittersweet remembrances, romances, and, what they used to call “women’s stories.” The one thing you don’t expect -- that you would never expect -- would be a science fiction or fantasy story. Cosmopolitan’s readership, both before, then and now, was the antithesis of the sf crowd that spent their days reading Galaxy, Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. But here’s the thing: you don’t realize that this is a fantasy until you get to the very end of the short story. Up to that point it reads like a typically excellent John D MacDonald product, full of mood, atmosphere, characterization, and that amazingly terse style that says so much with so few words.

The point of this little reverie is to lament that fact that most of us will never have that opportunity afforded the readers of Cosmopolitan over fifty years ago. We know it’s a fantasy because it was anthologized in MacDonald’s 1978 science fiction collection Other Times, Other Worlds. And, when one reads science fiction or fantasy, especially that which takes place in a normal setting, we are always waiting for the make-believe stuff to come in -- at least that’s the way it is for me. I recall wondering just that back in 1978 when I first read the story. How neat must it have been to have been a reader in 1964 and to have been floored by how this terrific bit of fiction turned out.

This is not to say that one can’t enjoy “The Legend of Joe Lee” on its own terms, knowing full well that something impossible is going on. It is first-rate JDM, a tale of mystery, loss and regret, built around a generation of adults trying to understand and come to grips with their own teenage children, all taking place in the flat inland wetlands of south Florida. Who could ask for more?

The story is told in first person by an unnamed reporter for a Ft. Lauderdale newspaper. He has come to fictional Afaloosa County to write a human interest story to tie in with a series his paper is doing  on “the teen-age war against the square world of the adult.” He is looking over a map with two state troopers, listening as he is told the plans for that night once the sun is down and a full moon is shining. Once a month a boy from a neighboring county named Joe Lee Cuddard and his girlfriend Clarissa May Farris use an eighteen-mile stretch of county highway to drag race in the dead of night in a custom-built hot rod that can reach speeds of 120 miles per hour. The police have tried and failed several times to apprehend them but lack any kind of automobile that could keep up with the rod, which Joe Lee has named the C.M. Special, for Clarissa May. This evening the plan is to bottle up a section of the road where there is nowhere to turn off except for “the deep ditch and the black mud and the ‘gator water.” The troopers are tired of being embarrassed by this kid.

When asked why they don’t just pick up Joe Lee at home, the reporter is told that “his folks don’t know where he is, and don’t much care, him and that Farris girl he was running with, so we figure the pair of them is off in the piney woods someplace, holed up in some abandoned shack, coming out at night for kicks, making fools of us.”

While waiting for night to come the reporter fills the hours before sunset with visits to the homes of both Joe Lee and Clarissa May. Here we are treated to some of MacDonald’s best and most amazing characterization and dialogue, creating people who seem as real as you and me, echoing creations from prior novels as diverse as Deadly Welcome, The Drowner and A Flash of Green. Joe Lee’s house “was a shacky place, chickens in the dusty yard, fence sagging,” with a ancient pickup truck out back. His father, unloading cinder blocks from the back of that pickup, is stripped to the waist, “a lean, sallow man who looked undernourished and exhausted… with “pale hair and pale eyes and a narrow mouth.”

“That boy warn’t no help to me, Mister, but he warn’t no trouble neither. The onliest thing on his mind was that car. I didn’t hold with it, but I didn’t put down no foot. He fixed up that old shed there to work in, and he needed something, he went out and earned up the money to buy it. They was a crowd of them around most times, helpin’ him, boys workin’, and gals watchin’. Have radios on batteries set around so as they could twisty dance while them boys hammered that metal out. When I worked around and overheard ‘em, I swear I couldn’t make out more’n one word from seven. What he done was take that car to some national show, for prizes and such. But one day he just took off, like they do nowadays.”

The Farris home was closer to town and the reporter is able to chat with Clarissa May’s mother on the front porch while the family of six adults and a dozen children are eating dinner. She is described as “grossly fat, but with delicate features, an indication of the beauty she must have once had.”

“I can tell you, it like to broke our hearts the way Clarissa May done us. If’n I told [my husband] once, I told him a thousand times, no good would ever come of her messin’ with that Cuddard boy… You write this up nice and in it put the message her momma and daddy want her home bad, and maybe she’ll see it and come on in. You know what the Good Book says about sharper’n a sarpent’s tooth… Him nineteen and her seventeen. The young ones are going clean out of hand these times. One night racing through this county the way they do, showing off, that Cuddard boy is going to kill hisself and my child too… She was neat and good and pretty and quiet, and she had the good marks… You’re easier on a young one when there’s no way of knowing how long she could be with you. Doc Mathis, he had us taking her over to the Miami clinic. Sometimes they kept her and sometimes they didn’t, and she’d get behind in her school and then catch up fast. Many times we taken her over there. She’s got the sick blood and it takes her poorly. She should be right here, where’s help to care for her in the bad spells… When I think about her out there… poorly and all…”

That night the reporter sits in the patrol car with one of the troopers, quietly waiting for something to happen, listening to “choruses of swamp toads mingling with the whine of insects, close to my ears, looking for a biting place. A couple of times I had heard the bass throb of a ‘gator." Then, the “oncoming high-pitched snarl of high combustion.” The trooper remarks, “Hear it once and you don’t forget it.”

“... the next instant the C.M. Special went by. It was a resonant howl that stirred echoes inside the inner ear. It was a tearing, bursting rush of wind that rattled fronds and turned leaves over. It was a dark shape in moonlight, slamming by, the howl diminishing as the wind of passage died.”

The trooper gives chase, but Joe Lee is running without lights so it is impossible to tell how close they are. At the end of the eighteen mile stretch awaits a road block and nowhere to turn off. But when they arrive there they see nothing but the red flashing lights of patrol cars. They backtrack, checking every foot of the surrounding swamp to see if the C.M. Special has pulled off or crashed. Nothing.

The reporter returns to Lauderdale and, several days later, is contacted by the trooper. They have found the C.M.Special, submerged in a canal off Route 27, twelve miles south of town and are preparing to bring it up out of the water. He rushes to the scene and is astonished to see “at least a hundred cars pulled off on both sides of the highway.” As a wrecker is preparing its winch, he looks around and takes in the strange scene.

Only then did I realize the strangeness of most of the waiting vehicles. The cars were from a half-dozen counties, according to the tag numbers. There were many big, gaudy, curious monsters not unlike the C.M. Special in basic layout, but quite different in design. They seemed like a visitation of Martian beasts. There were dirty fenderless sedans from the thirties with modern power plants under the hoods, and big rude racing numbers painted on the side doors. There were other cars which looked normal at first glance, but then seemed to squat oddly low, lines clean and sleek where the Detroit chrome had been taken off, the holes leaded up. The cars and the kids were of another race. Groups of them formed, broke up and re-formed. Radios brought in a dozen stations… They wandered from car to car. It had a strange carnival flavor, yet more ceremonial…

The winch whines, the C.M. Special emerges from the dark water, and inside, behind a smeared window, were “two huddled masses, the slumped boy and girl, side by side, still belted in…”

Of course, this isn’t the end, despite MacDonald’s neat red herring of referring to the hot rods as “Martian beasts.” And while this great short story works on many levels, it’s basically about the broken relationship between a new generation and their parents, as can be attested by the sections quoted above. It’s a theme that MacDonald explored in many of his works, both short and novel length. In 1964 it was cars, and a few years later it would be sex and drugs, covered in many different works such as “The Willow Pool,” “He Was Always a Nice Boy,” and the Travis McGee novel Dress Her in Indigo.

“The Legend of Joe Lee” was anthologized twice before appearing in Other Times, Other Worlds. In 1965 it appeared in The Year’s Best SF: 10th Annual Edition, edited by author and JDM fan Judith Merril. A paperback edition of this collection was published a year later. In 1969 the story was included in another kind of anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: A Month of Mystery. The paperback edition of this work was published under a different title, Alfred Hitchcock Presents: Terror Time: More Tales from a Month of Mystery. A British edition of this paperback was published by Pan in 1973 as A Month of Mystery: Book Two.

Our imaginary reader in 1964 would have certainly found “The Legend of Joe Lee” worth every one of the thirty-five cents that issue of Cosmopolitan cost them, but he or she would have been disappointed on a different front. There is no artwork to accompany the story. In fact, except for the novel Oh, Be Careful!, none of the short stories in this issue are illustrated. By 1964 story illustration, along with the fiction it depicted, was becoming more and more passé, and illustrators were finding it harder to find work in the magazines of the times. Just as fiction became an afterthought, even in Cosmopolitan, which was once the premier fiction periodical of its time, so too did illustrations, replaced by photography and, sometimes -- as in the case of this issue -- nothing at all.


1 comment:

  1. Amusingly to me, I first read this story in 1978 as well, in the Nashua Public Library's slightly battered hardcover edition of the 10th Annual Edition of Judith Merril's YEAR'S BEST SF...shortly afte she'd more or less officially stepped away from using "science-fantasy" for her fantastic-fiction catch-all, and started using "speculative fiction"...Algis Budrys's review of the story, in his collection of reviews from GALAXY magazine in the latter '60s, BENCHMARKS: GALAXY BOOKSHELF, is memorable if short. And very positive...his review of the whole anthology is memorable and not so short...and somewhat mixed.

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