Monday, December 3, 2018

"The Organized Following of John D MacDonald"

Here’s a transcription of a short piece that appeared in the August 27, 1971 issue of Publisher’s Weekly, written by Alice K Turner, titled "The Organized Following of John D MacDonald". It mostly covers background on the then-six year old JDM Bibliophile, the journal/fanzine dedicated to the work of John D MacDonald, and contains some original quotes from the author. What’s more fascinating -- to me, at least -- is the final paragraph, which reveals the genesis of Travis McGee’s appearance in hardcover. It’s a business arrangement I was unaware of. A special thanks to author Dan Pollock for sharing his copy of this article with me.

John D. MacDonald, creator of the Travis McGee series and many another novel, made a rare trip to New York the other day from his native Florida. Publisher’s Weekly asked him how it felt to be the only living icon (as far as we know) of an organized literary fan club. It felt fine, he reported.

“It's run by this nice couple out in California, Len and June Moffat. The whole thing started in the mid-60s with a mimeographed bibliography of my work which they sent round to 50 or so people, including me. Tony Boucher mentioned it in his New York Times column, which won a lot of interest. It slowly grew into a regular 'fanzine,' which now goes to about 800 people. No subscriptions-it comes out too irregularly-but they're up to number 18."

Mr. MacDonald is himself a regular contributor to the JDM Bibliophile, as it is called. He answers letters, criticizes critiques, satirizes satires, answers questions. “I like to do it,” he explains, “and besides, it would be gross not to. As a matter of fact, it helps with the mail. People who would otherwise be bothering me write to the magazine instead. So it turns out to be a service.

“Funny thing is, I've never met the Moffats. Last time I was out in California I kept meaning to call them. Something always came up and I was always pooped. So I've never even talked to them on the phone. In a funny way, I guess I wanted to keep it that way. They have, I think, an exalted image of me which I don't want to disgrace."

People who don't write to the Bibliophile sometimes write to Travis McGee himself at Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, where, as all true believers know, The Busted Flush is ordinarily moored. McGee mail is forwarded to MacDonald. Once in a while, there is a surprise.

“One was a letter from a Holiday Inn in South Carolina which began, 'Dear Mr. McGee.' And it turned out that some guy had signed in as McGee -- address and all -- and cut out the next day. He soaked them $16 for his room, plus $23 for phone bills. It gave me the strangest feeling—as if he were real for a second or two."

Mr. MacDonald has a chuckle McGee-like in richness. “About three years ago, I had published two or three stories in Playboy, and to my astonishment around Christmastime I got a bonus check for $150 in the mail. It made me feel very strange, as though I were a Playboy bunny and someone had just pinched me on the tail, then handed me a tip. I didn't know what to do with the thing. I couldn't send it back and I didn't want to keep it. So I wrote to Len and June, asking if they could think of anything to do with $150, and they wrote back and said, 'Gee, we've been saving to get our own Gestetner, so we won't have to print up the magazine on a borrowed one and we could certainly use the money for that.' So I sent it off to them--the right move for the right check."

For fans, the address is:
The JDM Bibliophile
c/o Len and June Moffat
Box 4456
Downey, Calif. 90241

Incidentally, The Turquoise Lament, arriving October 30 from Lippincott, will be the first McGee ever to make a hardcover debut. Under John D. MacDonald's usual (but unusual) contract, Lippincott picks up the McGees after Fawcett has first issued them and pays Mr. MacDonald only $1 royalty on the first 5000 sold, after which standard rates resume. The understanding with Lippincott, according to Mr. MacDonald, was that as a reward for this financially somewhat thankless task, Lippincott would one day get an original McGee. This is it. Fawcett gets it next summer to publish as a Gold Medal book, and from now on new McGees will appear in Gold Medal first, as before.


Monday, November 26, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 11: January 1, 1948

The eleventh installment of John D MacDonald's  late-1940's newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill. A year-end piece, here MacDonald lists his favorite books just published, along with a few that were not favorites. I posted this column back in 2010, along with an afterward discussing some of the contradictions contained herein. If you like you can read it here.

Probably due to our occupation of putting words on paper, we have a tendency to evaluate 1947 on the basis of what happened in the publishing business.

The other night on the radio we heard someone say that 1947 will be remembered principally because it was the year between 1946 and 1948. We are inclined to go along with the man.

To whom it may concern -- following is a list of the books published in 1947 that we enjoyed the most. At risk of being a heretic, we state firmly that we read books not for information, not for education, not for conversation -- but merely to be amused and entertained.

Command Decision by William Wister Haines (Little Brown). A war book presenting the top brass as human beings -- and very well done.

Dirty Eddie by Ludwig Bemelmas (Viking). Maybe this shouldn't be in here. We would read Bemelmans if he rewrote Henny Penny.

Gentleman's Agreement by Laura Hobson (Simon and Schuster). This is not in the list because of the quality of the prose -- which happens to be the slick, glib, objectionable prose of the big magazines -- but merely because of an intriguing plot situation.

The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg (Random House). Though Schulberg's narrator is so similar to the protagonists of many other recent novels that he has no real identity, the pictures of minor characters are superb.

Knock on Any Door by Willard Motley (Appleton-Century). Very realistic, and, as such, representative of a dying trend in these days of increasing mysticism and symbolic prose. Rough, tough and nasty -- but most effective.

Odd Man Out by F. L. Green (Reynal and Hitchcock). Wonderful suspense in a manhunt where the ending is inevitable. Told from the viewpoint of the hunted.

The Saxon Charm by Frederic Wakeman (Reinhart). Wakeman going a bit deeper into human relationship and emotions than in his two previous novels. Though not as popular as his first two, it may be a step in the direction of a really good novel someday.

Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener (Macmillan). Would call this, along with Shore Leave and Command Decision, one of the three best jobs to come out of the war. Mitchener has something special.

Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (Reynal and Hitchcock). We have the idea that in the year 2047, this book will be read, and frequently. Of all on this list it most deserves rereadings.

* * *

And just to be unpleasant, here are a few titles we could have skipped and saved reading time. Kingsblood Royal, S. Lewis; East Side, West Side, M. Davenport; Adversary in the House, I. Stone; Proud Destiny, L. Feuchtwanger.

Other titles which we almost put on the preferred list are The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, The Left Hand is the Dreamer by N. Wilson [Ross], Hellbox by J. O'Hara, The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.

* * *

1947 was a year in which more books were printed and circulated in this country than at any time in history. And a year in which the publishing business was severely criticized for the low average quality of its offerings. Quantity without quality. Some months back we heard Freeman "Doc" Lewis, Executive Vice-President of Pocket Books, talking about the book clubs. They, of course, were partly responsible for so many millions of volumes being printed. Doc Lewis said that in the depression many book clubs were about to fail. Then some merchandising genius got the idea of making the subscriber send in a blank when he didn't want a book, instead of when he did. In other words, they put inertia to work. Inertia has sold more book club books than any other form of merchandising.

1947 was a year in which two friends of ours had books published. Ed Taylor did a nice job in Richer by Asia. We were overseas with Ed. At that time he was soaking up the background for his book. We thought he was merely preoccupied.

Also an editor, a lady named Babette Rosmond, to whom we have sold many pulp stories for inclusion in such newsstand epics as Doc Savage and The Shadow, wrote one called The Dewy Dewy Eyes. We saw her last week in New York, and she requested that around the middle of this month we walk the streets of Clinton wearing a sandwich sign to advertise the publication of her new book, which is to be called A Party for Grownups. As yet we have given her no decision.

* * *

A very happy and prosperous new year to all you people.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, November 19, 2018

The Dauntingly Prolific Beige Typewriter Keys

Here's a transcription of a John D MacDonald profile from 1978. It appeared in the November 20 issue of the long-running Canadian news magazine Maclean's, written by one Charles Oberdorf and titled "The Dauntingly Prolific Beige Typewriter Keys". There's little new here outside of the photo, which I'd never seen, but MacDonald does drop a hint as to the source of some of his plots -- Harvard Business School case studies -- and the piece ends on a rather sour note. Still, it's always nice to read one of these articles.

In 1957 an award-winning novelist and playwright, talking casually with writer John D. MacDonald, airily dismissed MacDonald's paperback thrillers as drugstore fiction. MacDonald, miffed, made a bet that within two months he could produce a book that would be published in hard as well as soft covers, serialized in a slick-paper magazine, become a major book-club selection and then filmed. The novel, The Executioners, quickly fulfilled the first three conditions and the film, retitled Cape Fear, starred Gregory Peck and Robert Mitchum.

That bet, which MacDonald now describes as "childish," shifted his career into an incredible and sustained high gear. The prolific proof: 63 titles selling an estimated 68 million copies. Condominium was on The New York Times hard-cover list last year for six months; Fawcett printed 1,650,000 paperback copies. Two days after the U.S. publication of his newest thriller, The Empty Copper Sea (McClelland & Stewart, $11.50), the publisher ordered a third printing, taking the hard-cover run to 95,000. Copper Sea is the 17th in MacDonald's Travis McGee series.

Though MacDonald dodges questions about McGee's origins, according to publishing legend the detective was conceived to embody all the fleshy fantasies of middle-aged, middle-class North American men. Surrounded by beach bunnies on a luxurious houseboat, McGee "takes his retirement in stages,” working only when he needs cash. It's the life -- teak decks, twin Hercules diesels, thick steaks and tall women. Always tall women.

Initially, MacDonald says, McGee was "too morose and Germanic,” traits that have resurfaced in recent books. The ex-Marine, ex-professional linebacker has always sounded off against the little nasties in the world around him-everything from the decline of Plymouth gin to the despoiling of the Florida coastline. But his creator admits that lately there's been "a kind of malaise." McGee is getting older and his friends keep getting killed. "Your friends serve as your identity. McGee's gotten involved with people, but I keep popping them out of his life. You say those people can be replaced, but they can't. You can't keep going around explaining who you are. So you begin to lose identity. His life keeps getting narrower, and this is like darkness." Determined to do something about McGee's isolation, MacDonald allows that malaise to deepen in Copper Sea.

MacDonald did plan to repopulate McGee's life in this book by re-introducing characters who had escaped unharmed from earlier adventures. "That's in the next book, now," he says. "I'm just into it. It's due Jan. 21.” What about Gretel, the woman in Copper Sea? "I just killed her," he responds. Stunned silence. "Sorry," he chuckles. "I got rid of her with a variation on the umbrella trick. You know, the one they used on that Bulgarian refugee in London? They stabbed him in the leg with an umbrella. Fever. Blood pressure shoots up. Then total kidney failure. Some exotic compound, probably an alkali. They still haven't figured it out. That appealed to my sense of the grotesque.”

It's typical of MacDonald to study the medical details of a minor political assassination and incorporate them into a book. Business intrigue is also a MacDonald trademark, especially in the McGee books. MacDonald studied business at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School and has an MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration. For years he mined this last alma mater for plots. "Years and years ago," MacDonald says, "there used to be ads in the mystery magazines for something called Plotto. 'Spin the wheel and get a hero,' that sort of thing. Well, those Harvard case studies were my Plotto. If you look at them from the point of view of the human beings involved, rather than for the management techniques -- which are what you're supposed to look at, of course -- they can be fascinating.”

The Harvard “B” school's alumnus is a man of florid face, square jaw and snowy hair who takes life at a pace selected for maximum comfort. Looking 10 years younger than his 62, there's still a frailty that comes from a life of minor illnesses that began with dengue caught in Ceylon in World War II. He's large of frame (as McGee readers might expect) but with the underdeveloped arms and legs of a man who has spent most of his working life behind a desk. There are two desks in his study in the large un-air-conditioned house in Sarasota where he lives with Dorothy, his wife of 41 years. One desk for each of the two books he is usually writing simultaneously -- one McGee, one not. No secretary. No typist. He produces all his own manuscripts and correspondence on a space-age IBM Correcting Selectric, which Esquire magazine once dubbed The Awesome Beige Typewriter. Human houseguests have become a problem for MacDonald since the McGee books began appearing in hardcover five years ago. He's become a subject of academic interest. A John D. MacDonald Conference on Mystery and Detective Fiction, a paper on Travis McGee as “Traditional Hero," and so on.

He's suspicious of lofty goals in life and art. “Curing yellow fever was a good thing, I guess, but that yellow fever cure is what has the world awash in people. There's really no way for anyone to prove that there's anything that's valid, that's worth doing."

Travis McGee, at his most wryly cynical, couldn't have said it better.

Monday, September 17, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 10: December 25, 1947

Here a transcription of the tenth installment of John D MacDonald's 1947-1948 newspaper column "From the Top of the Hill," published in the Clinton (NY) Courier when the family was living there.

This will be the last post at The Trap of Solid Gold for several weeks, as family commitments and duties at my day job eat into all of my free time. I hope to be back in mid October.

Ten years ago this week, the Christian world was concerning itself with the annual Yuletide celebration.

In Japan there was an air of carefully concealed exaltation, because the Panay had just sunk and the Western world had lost face.

In Germany the little boys were charmed with light but massive-looking toy tanks in which they could ride around and around. The caterpillar treads didn't work, but that was almost the only flaw in the realism.

In Austria the Anti-Semiten Bund, upset about some of the poverty-stricken fellow members, had latched onto a very good thing. It seems that the year before, 1936, an obscure woodcarver had whittled out a lot of jolly Christmas tree ornaments. These gay little trinkets depicted a tiny gallows from which swung a little wooden Juden. Two carved wooden vultures perched on the cross frame of the gallows.

Recognizing the success of the trinket, the Anti-Semiten Bund put the item into mass production for the Christmas season and on Christmas morning, in thousands of Austrian homes, the children played with their new toys under the trees on which hung those cute little expressions of social-political opinion. The poorer members of the Bund benefited largely.

* * *

Germany, as you know, is the home of our Christmas customs. St. Nicholas, the protector of children and travelers, is said to have saved the three daughters of a poor man from being sold, by giving them dowries. That is the origin of the giving of presents. Santa Claus comes from the Dutch spelling of St. Nicholas.

One Christmas custom in Germany which we would like to see adopted over here is the giving of small presents to children on December sixth. The major presents must wait until Christmas morning. If this past week has been a typical example of what we can expect every year, we plan to give, on the sixth, a small, but efficient muzzle and a set of the best police bracelets available.

* * *

Our own Christmas spirit was a bit backward this year. We heard the carols and saw the store decorations and bought some cards and still we couldn't get into the swing of the thing.

Then about two weeks ago we were down in Utica and had parked over near the YWCA. As we returned to the car, we saw four little Negro girls, about eight years old, walking on the far side of the street. They were all of a height. They were arm in arm and singing, in marching tempo, "Come All Ye Faithful". They sang it loudly, defiantly and with fervor. At that point we decided Christmas was really coming.

* * *

In an early column we said that talking to a man who had been interviewed by a Gallup Pollster had convinced us that the poll isn't a myth. As a direct result of our comment, we became a guinea pig last week. A young member of an obscure local family named Hayes (something to do with a bank, we believe) came up to the house, and we found that there is indeed nothing casual about the poll. The forms used look something like a dilly devised by the Internal Revenue people. The questions go on and on.

They trap you neatly. They ask a rough question and you sweat out the answer and lean back and then the interviewer says, "Why do you feel like you do about this question?"

The question that intrigued us the most went something like this: "What single factors do you like least about the two major political parties?"

Kick that one around for a little while!

* * *

This is the tenth issue of this column. To all of you who have expressed interest in it, given advice, suggested topics -- Merry Christmas!

And to all of you who feel we waste valuable space in the Courier, talk about the wrong things, bore you to tears -- Merry Christmas, anyway!

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, September 10, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 9: December 18, 1947

Here's the Christmas edition of John D MacDonald 1947-1948 newspaper column, From the Top of the Hill, published in the Clinton Courier. I've posted this one before, or at least most of it. It's contains a great story, a very early example of MacDonald's amazing eye for detail.

This is a true Christmas story. 

In 1941 we were working in Rochester in the Mercantile Building which is just across the main drag from McCurdy's Department Store.

In the interests of good clean fun and advertising, McCurdy's had installed that year, in a front window, one of those huge bellowing Santa Clauses, three times life size, which rocks and rolls and slaps his crimson thigh with a hand as big as a ham.

Those particular monsters were quite a novelty in 1941, and the one at McCurdy's collected crowds of people who stood and laughed along with him, mildly hypnotized by the repetitive motions. There was something mammoth and awe inspiring about him, and if you stood too close to the plate glass, he gave you a vague sense of alarm.

Anyway, we went to work quite early one morning, before the stores were open and before the streets were crowded. Probably by prior arrangement with the orphanage concerned the big mechanical Santa had been activated and there he was, roaring and rocking and slapping his leg as he looked out at the empty street.

We were about to pass him by when we saw, coming from the opposite direction, about forty moppets in column of twos herded by two Sisters. It was a nice idea, bringing the little people down to see that over-size Santa. Having watched the parents of little children try to hush their horrified screams after one glance at the monster, we had a pretty fair idea of what would happen when those orderly kids arrived in front of the window.

We stuck around to watch.

The little people slowed their steps when they came close to the window, alarmed by the bellowing alone. When they got right up to him, all discipline vanished. They were green troops in the presence of the enemy. The wailing of the kids made almost as much noise as the bellowing of the Santa. About thirty of the forty tried to find refuge behind the billowing skirts of the Sisters, and the remaining ten, petrified, stood and watched the horrible giant.

They had been led to expect a mild, fat, jolly little man with a twinkle in his eye, and here was something the size of a small bungalow which made as much noise as a locomotive.

One little man broke from shelter, and with doubled fists and pumping legs, began to make time back in the direction from which he had come. In three running steps, a Sister got hold of him, but in so doing left numerous others exposed. They lost no time getting behind her again.

It appears that in all humor there must be elements of tragedy. It was sad and funny to think of the gap between anticipation and the actuality.

At that precise moment, the mechanical Santa broke into flames.

He couldn't have picked a worse time to acquire a short circuit in his red flannels. The Sisters were equal to the occasion. By superhuman effort, they got their little wards back into a column of twos and led them to the nearest crosswalk and across the street. A man on our side of the street put in the alarm while we were still thinking about it.

One of the most horrible sights we ever saw was that Santa Claus. If the fire had stopped him cold, it wouldn't have been so bad. But it apparently didn't damage his mechanism.

While the flames roared up around him, devouring his whiskers, he kept rocking back and forth, slapping himself on the leg with an arm which had turned into skeletal wires, and the sound of his, “Wah! Hah! Hah! Ho! Ho! Ho! Ho!” still roared in the empty street.

The little people clutched each other and their eyes bulged. After much effort, the Sisters got the line moving again and they went back down the street. But every little head was turned and every small mouth sagged open.

The fire engines came quickly and, as they squirted some kind of foam on Santa, he stopped moving and the sound of his laughter was stilled.

When the curtains in the Store window were drawn across the scene of horror, we turned away and went up to the office.

*     *     *

In last week's item on the hard water in Clinton, we left out one statistic which we would dearly love to have. We would like to know the total annual cost to all Clintonians in both cash and frayed dispositions.

Apparently a municipal water softening plant would cost fifty thousand plus. That is a very respectable hunk of money. But we don't feel that it is too much. The direct and indirect cost to Clintonians of using the present water would doubtless exceed that figure over a ten year period. Thus it can be said that we pay for water softening equipment every ten years without ever getting it.

Possibly the financial blow could be lightened by pegging the tax rate higher than village requirements and accumulating a reserve over a period of a few years so that the debt burden would not be too high.

*     *     *

Will someone who knows the Telephone Company's answer to the last petition about rates please get in touch with us.

*     *     *

Traffic continues to wallow around the square in both directions. Have you ruined any fenders lately?

*     *     *

See you next week.

Monday, September 3, 2018

A Portrait of John D MacDonald

Here’s a transcript of a lengthy profile of John D MacDonald written by a staff writer for the Tampa Bay Times, one Gary Moore. It appeared in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement, The Floridian, on April 26, 1981, at a time when MacDonald had achieved a kind of fame and success he could only have dreamed of back in 1945 when he first decided to make a living as a writer. It took up six pages in the magazine and consisted of two parts: the first written in an arch, hard-boiled style as Moore prepares to interview his subject, followed by the article itself.

As profiles of this period go, it’s passable. Moore actually seems to have read a few McGee novels, although he seems fixated on the violence therein at the expense of the deeper charms of the series. There’s little new ground covered, but it’s always nice to read one of these things, especially to be reminded of just how big a deal JDM was back in the day, and to be amazed anew at just how fast his literary stature fell off the map after he died.

The John D MacDonald Caper: How a mild-mannered man makes millions from mayhem

by Gary Moore 

It was time to face facts.

I was burned out from too much booze, and the carburetor of "The Geisha Curse" (the junker Toyota I had picked up cheap after its late owner, a pilot, had dumped three marijuana bales from low altitude too near a high-tension line) was wheezing like a Kamikaze in a tail spin.

The Geisha Curse had probably known the comforts of shock absorbers, once upon a time, but those days were long gone. Just as well. The bouncing kept me awake as I barreled down Route 41, south from Sarasota through beach-bound traffic.

Facing facts, I was all for turning back. No more fool's errands. No more of this Knight In Shining Armor schlock. Hadn't I been burned enough by chasing after Truth?

Why not just pull off onto life's beer-can-littered road shoulder and sleep – under the stupefying sun, in a dreamy pit of unkept appointments? But I didn't. Somewhere up ahead of me waited a dubious appointment with Truth. And fool that I was, I was going to keep that date.

I was going to meet John D. MacDonald.

Ever heard of him? The Prince of the Paperbacks. Fitzgerald of Florida. The Writer's Writer. Maestro of the Mystery. The Whodunit King. Superauthor. Paperback Tiger …

From The New York Times to the Shreveport Journal, that's what they've called him. Over the years, no less than 171 glowing biographies of him have hit pages from People magazine to Esquire to the Siesta Key Outlook.

Now it was my turn.

Just in case you're one of the few souls who've never seen any of the 70-million copies of John D. MacDonald's 70 books, translated into 18 different languages, I will give you a little hint about what he writes. He writes hard-boiled. He writes about Tough Knights in Slightly Tarnished Armor. Knights half hungover, and half choked by the injustices of life. Knights who throw Karate punches or con county sheriffs. Modern day, detective-style Knights for whom women are pushovers but life in general is a long-odds game of craps.

Something about the way he writes, it kind of grabs you by the sleeve and yanks you into the book, like getting jerked kicking and screaming into a hay baler. His books have lots of blood. Lots.

It's like the words are swollen little plastic baglets full of blood and John D. MacDonald is massacring them with a meat cleaver all across the page. Not that it's at all clumsy, this verbal carnage. He squeezes adrenaline from a reader's pituitary gland like Picasso squeezing passion from a tube of scarlet paint.

Maybe you guessed that how I've introduced this whole thing is a stab at John D. MacDonald's style. Forget it. It's not. Let him keep his style. No hard-boiled self-respecting hero needs it. Let's just say instead that what I've shot for here is a kind of rough and tarnished approximation of his spectacularly successful tone. It translates terse: one man against the world. Very much himself. And very much alone. Hard-boiled.

It has made John D. MacDonald a very rich man.

These thoughts and many others went crawling through my hungover brain as The Geisha Curse bounced and yawed up a sandy lane hedged closely with thickets of palmettos and oaks. Where the lane ended, I looked up at a house as posh as it was strange - a stilt house - hiked high up on big pilings like some gray-weathered pier. Oak shade played on it like a treehouse, within easy spitting distance of the sighing Gulf. No beach. Just a zigzag concrete retaining wall at the edge of a short yard, holding back the surf. Lots of mourning doves and squirrels. Somewhere up in that house was John D. MacDonald.

When the Florida-staged expose-disaster novel Condominium hit the stands in 1977,
John D. MacDonald got ensconced in hardcover bestseller lists. But that's not what made him famous. That's not what earned him a worldwide fan club where even the groupies in Turkey and Japan call him "JDM." It's not why the Goteborg Post in Sweden ran a piece on "The Romantic Figure in John D. MacDonald."

No, the reason for all that is not Condominium. It is instead MacDonald's long-term prior success in a genre politely called "suspense novels." Or call them by their other name: Hard-boiled Detective Paperbacks.

"Roman Figur Travis McGee" was the way the Goteborg Post named the central jewel in John D. MacDonald's fiction crown: “The Romantic Figure of Travis McGee."

MacDonald wrote a lot of detective books before he invented the Florida beach bum-detective Travis McGee in 1963. But McGee is by far the favorite of avid MacDonald buffs. Huge of stature, brutal and honorable at the same time, Travis McGee gets people reading. He cuts a wide swath through Nazi torturers, biker maniacs, homicidal gigolos, tawny talk-show queens, voluptuous call girls, fiendish brain surgeons …

Violence in the 19 Travis McGee books races through a reader's blood like a strong shot of coffee. McGee is an unlicensed, unofficial detective. He seems to keep getting invited by people to help them recover money, or to find out who killed whom. The trails of corpses left behind him on these quests would fill a publisher's office. Often killed are the beautiful women who fall for McGee. They drop out of plots, in ways horrible and various, like flies before a can of literary Raid.

"Walk into the back of anybody's skull, be they born again, big mullah, or resident of the death house," growls Travis McGee to a Broad, "and you'll come to the edge of a swamp that stretches as far as the eye can see. It's part of the human condition."

“How cynical,” the sheltered damsel replies. But she'll learn.

Meanwhile, Travis McGee does not numb the reader with carte blanche viciousness. You couldn't relate to a man who is all vicious. The violence is relieved by McGee's world-weary concern for his fellow creatures. He does not double-cross. Sometimes, he even turns women down when they want mere superficial sexual flings. "The emotional life of McGee," he muses morosely. "A repressed libertine. A puritanical wastrel."

As if by rule, magazine articles about Travis McGee almost all mention this fictional hero's fictional abode. It is more than an abode, actually. It is the steed Rocinante to McGee-Quixote. This steed-abode where Travis McGee lives and headquarters his fever-pitched adventures is a houseboat named the Busted Flush. Moored in Fort Lauderdale, the Busted Flush came into the possession of beachbum McGee via a poker game.

Such is life.

The McGee books are ornate with the minute details of violence - calibers, concussions, fights soaked in the sounds of popping shoulder joints and the "coppery taste" of blood. Prison slang, mob hierarchies, the precise feel of hacked limbs and smashed noses. Somebody behind those words, I thought as I looked up at that gray-weathered beauty of a super-author's seaside treehouse, is filled right up to the gills with grim.

Blood-spiller to millions. They had told me he just got back from Mexico, that he would be a tough nut to crack. Travis McGee made flesh. And I had to go up there and wrest from this fire-breather some scrap of Truth. I gave a little sigh. Just like all the other times, all the other interviews. They faded together.

The Geisha Curse stood beside me with her battered door open, calling me to give it up. I sent the door smashing shut with my foot. Okay, Truth, I said to myself as I walked to the house, hearing the breakers gurgle out beyond the seawall, let's see who's toughest now.

*     *     *

The stairs - cypress, probably -- echoed beneath my feet. They led up to a wide veranda that ringed the stilt-house like a parapet.

Buried in my brain were images of other Florida extollers of The Rough Life.

Jimmy Buffett, that Key West pop-music troubadour of living wild and wanton sings of his "first scar," delivered by a crazed wino in a New Orleans bar brawl.

And if Buffett has bled what he sings, another Florida psalmist of the wild life has lived so much violence that his presence fairly shudders with it. The one time I met Harry Crews - author of such Deep South pastorals as Blood And Grits - he was just finishing a lecture in Gainesville, on a summer night at the University of Florida.

Possessed of a massive body, a helmet-like swath of forehead sheltering a warrior's beady little eyes, Harry Crews the ex-marine stretched himself with a wince and explained why he could not talk further. “See, there was several of them, and they wouldn't let me get out the door." He referred to a recent incident at an unnamed roadhouse. To light up his narrative, he unbuttoned his shirt. A monstrous black and green bruise bloomed all the way up his ribs and along the underside of one arm.

A tire iron? He wouldn't say. Word had gone around of another time when some angry men had followed him down from a high-stakes pitbull fight in south Georgia and had busted his knees. The understanding around Gainesville was that in some mystical way, Harry Crews knew life was raw, and he meant to live it. And when you read what he wrote about it, you knew he'd been there. Even if he didn't get back.

It was with this kind of stuff that I was primed, without even stopping to think about it, as I walked up the stairs into the stilt-house lair of John D. MacDonald.

"Hey, you want to hear a little Reaganesque joke?” he was laughing to some associate who had called up just as he was showing me to the living room. "You know what they call the killer up in Atlanta? Son of Sambo."

Not exactly your least racist kind of comment, but violent, anyway. Coarse. It could have lept just as easily from the lips of Travis McGee. So far so good.

But as my pocket tape recorder whirred on a glass coffee table, and he sat down opposite, surrounded by sliding glass doors full of majestic ocean view, I was marveling at him. Not as much at what I saw, as what I didn't see. What I didn't see as I looked at John D. MacDonald was Travis McGee.

Readers naturally expect them to be the same. MacDonald is forever getting letters from readers addressing him as if he were McGee. They assume MacDonald's books are an exaggerated account of his own life. How else could he have put it all down in words so convincingly?

But instead of glowering with McGee's surliness, the man who sat across from me was fairly bubbling with good humor. Rather than the craggy features one imagines on McGee, this man's face had a certain roundness, softened further by a halo of white hair. Like McGee he was tall, and his voice was deep. But violent? Wanton? Primeval?

All over the house were sculptures and carvings of animals. Especially cats. A fluffy black cat came to a glass door and looked in. Beneath the veranda, a squirrel and a mourning dove sat together happily in a bird feeder, watched by a little plaster replica of St. Francis. A washing machine was humming softly somewhere out of sight. MacDonald's wife walked out to feed a squirrel.

Travis McGee - fictional lone-wolf avenger adored by millions — never married. His whole being, when it appears via the printed word, seems to proclaim the bittersweet joys of bachelorhood - the man on horseback. Alone against the world.

Yet John D. MacDonald - loving creator of McGee's grandly defiant persona - has been happily married since 1946. His wife Dorothy encouraged him in writing. Now their grown son and his family come and visit them at their house in Mexico for months at a time. Lone wolf avenger?

MacDonald wore a neat gray velour pullover. I had interrupted not some post-orgiastic hangover recovery, but MacDonald's methodical testing of his new computer-terminal word processor. The phone would ring and he would laugh genially with some associate or another about consent-releases or contract clauses.

Geniality. It emanated from the man. If Travis McGee, lone backstreet hero would stand back cynically and make each new face prove it was not as corrupt as the rest of the world, then John D. MacDonald, stilt house creator, seemed to greet the world with the sunny, quizzical curiosity of a fascinated child.

It was like night and day. You couldn't even say that MacDonald was some bitter and frustrated Walter Mitty who was using Travis McGee for vicarious thrills. Never. Not genial John D. MacDonald.

"I got 20 years on him at least,” he said with a laugh, when asked if he saw himself as Travis McGee. "And also, my views are a little more ambivalent than his. I see things in shades of gray, where he would see them in black and white."

Out in the idyllic yard, beside the stilt house, bordered by the turquoise sea, three well-loved family cats lay buried. One lived to be 21 years old. The deep stability and security here seemed almost palpable. When had I ever sat in a house as magnificently peaceful as the one that roofs the king of printed blood and pain?

No interviewer has ever figured out exactly how much money John D. MacDonald
makes. One source quotes his latest contract at as high as $10-million, but MacDonald says that is just a maximum figure, possible only if his books see a tidal wave of sales. He doesn't like talking about money. There are a lot of crazies in the world.

He's got a house in Mexico and one in the Adirondacks. John D. MacDonald Inc. is the face he shows to the IRS. For a while he wrote only on a rented IBM typewriter - just to be able to write it off his taxes. Eleven TV shows and three movies have been made from his books. ABC has a two-hour made-for-TV Travis McGee movie in the works. Reprints even of the first novel MacDonald ever published - The Brass Cupcake, in 1950-are still selling briskly. And the pay? Don't ask. A lot of crazies in the world. That money goes into trusts for his grandchildren. Nothing left lying around the house to draw the crazies like bees to honey.

The last thing John D. MacDonald wants is to become the object of violence like you find in his books.

"What's the most violent thing that ever happened to you?" I asked the violence king.

"Hearing shots fired in anger," he replies, after musing, "and knowing that they were in the abstract or concrete or whatever being fired at me."

Abstract or concrete or whatever? What kind of violence is that?

He explains that it was in North Burma in World War II. He was in the OSS, working on a road. They heard shots fired and took cover. “I wouldn't consider it a combat experience." And that's it? No barroom brawls? No men with tire irons coming after you from South Georgia pitbull fights?

Could it be true, then, that violence has in no way been central to John D. MacDonald's actual experience? So how did his books get so full of it?

John Dann MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pa., in 1916, son of a corporation executive. There was a summer cottage on the Pymatuning River, plans laid for John's future in business school and beyond.

The raw world that fictional Travis McGee would someday muscle and smash his way through was as far away from the Pymatuning River as Mars. But into the staid MacDonald lifestyle there intruded an x-factor.

It was hard to put your finger on it exactly. Young John seemed to have an unusually strong urge to learn. Not learn how to do things, exactly. Just learn. He would go down the library shelves reading every book - an inexorable mental steam roller. Was it escapism or voracious intelligence? He didn't care.

His sensitivity was such then when he watched a neighborhood bully drown a black cat one day, the incident robbed him of sleep, and stayed with him throughout his life.

He was moderately athletic, but at the age of 12, scarlet fever put him in bed for a year. He would later tell Medical News magazine (everybody interviews John D. MacDonald) that during his childhood illness he performed "exercises of the imagination."

At 16, he wrote for a private school publication an odd and eloquent little poem. It began:

His is a bookshelf musty with age,
And the deeds of men gone by ...
... his small life is centered on
Some books, which all repay
His quiet road upon this sphere;
For from these tattered volumes here
He gathers all he's missed ...

The poem nowhere hinted who "he" was. The idea that "he" might be the someday potentate of paperback massacres would have seemed absurd. That was in 1932, when "Jack MacDonald” was voted Most Eligible Bachelor: "That popular fellow named Jack, who finds no task too hard to attack."

The Wharton School of Business, even a master's degree in business from Harvard, all passed behind him. There were jobs procured both with and without his father's contacts, usually ending soon and tempestuously. When forced to knuckle under to a hierarchy, his geniality tended to fade beneath the rebelliousness of his intelligence. He left the World War II Pacific a lieutenant colonel, but he was sick of orders from "manifest incompetents."

Then, quietly, he retired at age 30 to a $23-a-month rent-controlled apartment that his new wife Dorothy had in upstate New York, and he decided to try his hand at writing. One story he had sent back from the war had been published. His parents had once copied and passed around to friends an essay he had written.

But in none of those fleeting triumphs was there any sane grounds for him to spend four months in that small apartment, turning out 800,000 words - the equivalent of 10 average-sized novels, as later biographers would put it. And all 800,000 of those words went unsold.

He papered a whole wall with rejection slips. There was an awesomely methodical quality to him. After a while, the rejection-slipped wall grew so depressing that he and Dorothy painted it over. Everyone but Dorothy, he would later say, seemed to assume he had a postwar "readjustment problem.”

Within two years he was making comfortable money. He wrote "what I like to read," and would always insist that he had no "average reader" in mind when he turned out his tales of brutality and blood. It's just that brutality gets a reader reading. And that's what John D. MacDonald wanted. The boundaries of his art were drawn by the appetites (quite definite once you get them focused) of most-of-the-people-most-of-the-time. The hidden traceries of his plots got built along his ever increasing familiarity with the human subconscious: Tell 'em what they want to hear. And what they most want to hear (as any editor of such ax-murder tabloids as the National Enquirer can tell you) is what they most fear.

John and Dorothy MacDonald, living life as quietly and with the same confident serenity as always, moved to Texas, then to Florida. Writers can follow the sun. With the same inexorable resolve that had sent him reading his way across the bookshelves as a child, John D. MacDonald now sat down for eight-hour stints at the typewriter, day after day. Some 600 short stories followed. He could turn out a novel in four months. They included science fiction, non-fiction, and even personal memoirs. But the solid foundation of John D. MacDonald's meteoric career was still hard-boiled "suspense."

By 1963 he was such a darling of publishers that he was comfortable with the rarefied intrigues of the paperback game. When Fawcett Books lost a million-dollar detective-thriller series because the writer went off the deep end of right-wing politics, John D. MacDonald was approached to fill the void.

The Red Devil Restaurant in New York witnessed a luncheon of MacDonald, his agent, his editor, and a couple of friends. They wondered what to call the new series MacDonald had agreed to write. It would keep rolling for years, this series, maybe for decades. All planned out, in the peaceful mental crannies where John D. MacDonald mapped screaming mayhem. But this new series faced a problem:

When a guy grabs a book as he runs through an airport bookshop, and he hops aboard his flight and leans back to enjoy the latest gore in his favorite hard-boiled detective series, what if he finds ... that he grabbed a book he's already read?

Well, he gets mad, that's what. And he may even get mad at John D. MacDonald. And he may not buy any more books. All the wise presences at the Red Devil Restaurant luncheon agreed on that. Bad for profits. They knew the trade. But what can you do so these numbskulls who are grabbing books off the rack don't get fouled up? You give 'em a code, that's what. You give each book in the series a title with a different number, or with a different month of the year, or musical note, or …

A different color! The Deep Blue Good-By. Nightmare In Pink. A Purple Place For Dying ... "Have you read the green one yet?" "No, but I got that one about indigo, you know."

And the Hero. MacDonald wrote two test novels that never saw print before he got his new hero honed out just right - just the blend of philosophy and flippance that made the man easiest to want to have as your friend - easiest to read about and wish you were him. He was to have been named Dallas. Just the right heft of cowboy physical violence. Or maybe too prophetically much, as it turned out, for that year President Kennedy was shot to death by an assassin in Dallas, and nobody in his right mind - least of all a paperback potentate with his finger on the pulse of the psyches of millions - was going to name any hero after that town that year.

Undaunted, John D. MacDonald flipped through a list of U. S. Air Force bases. Just the right flavor of muscle and good American stock - eureka!

Travis. Travis McGee.

This month Free Fall In Crimson, the 19th of the Travis McGee novels comes out. They are literate, vivid, and tightly controlled. And so full of sex and violence that the blood screams through your veins like an overdose of Dexedrine as you read them.

“I like to insert violence into the books because it's about the only primitive thing we
have left, you know?" Uttered as MacDonald sits with his back to clouds of sea gulls above a turquoise cove, that statement is intriguing enough in itself. But it has a deeper message.
It says something about how a lot of fiction gets put together -- not as a reflection of what the author has verified by his own experience, but as a shrewd calculation that even the wildly improbable sounds like coldest fact if it gives the reader the right thrill. It's adrenaline, not truth, that keeps those pages turning.

This is a delicate thing to tell a reader straight out. MacDonald, the practiced wordsmith, is decorous about it: "What people want, I think, is something where you're curious to find out what happens next. And at the same time if there's some added values that keep it from being 100 percent escapist, I think it pleases the readers, because then they feel they're not wasting their time.”

Or he may wax suddenly more candid: “My problem is to present highly improbable things in such a manner as to create the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.”

Or philosophical: "Maybe ... there is an atavistic sense of needing some kind of violence, that these books can trigger a release of that ... a release of the tension of anticipation of violence that doesn't occur.

“There’s a thing that the heart guys tell us -- that in olden times when adrenaline ran through our systems we were immediately in action. We were running away from the tiger or after the girl. But nowadays, people sit at a desk and they get this great rush of adrenaline, because they're afraid, say, of being fired. And they have no way to release it.”

So these "pictures of violence," as MacDonald calls them, may indeed be a kind of drug -- a print elixir to ease your poor, antiquated caveman's brain through the suffocated terrors of your paralyzed post-industrial day. Nothing to do with Truth at all.

Yet John D. MacDonald's books seem so ... real.

The details, indisputably authentic little details, stud the action like bright jewels. Details that seem to prove he must have experienced this, he must have been there.

Even way back in his first published novel, The Brass Cupcake, which moves rapidly but with nowhere near the subtlety of his latest work, there is such a detail. The very word "Cupcake."

"Once, as a kid on the bum," says the hero of the book, “I was stuck in a county can in the coal-mine area of southern Illinois. They had their own language in that jail. Anything you got by guile - extra cigarettes, more food, a pint bottle - was called a cupcake."

Beautiful. It sets the mood just right. But what was it in the sheltered upper middle class mind of John D. MacDonald that had given him the penchant for picking up such sociological gems? Where, in the name of all the blue-collar pool halls and drunk tanks, had he learned about Cupcakes?

He replied cheerfully, "I made it up."

But isn't that somehow cheating the reader of a glimpse at real life?

"I just want to take them on a little trip out of their own existence, and into somebody else's existence, for a period of time, and return them relatively intact."

Thus says the "Florida Fitzgerald,” whose villains and heroines live in such legendary locales as Citrus City or Tampa, whose heroes may rail against air pollution in Bradenton, or inhale the bracing air of the Keys. The backdrop is as real as the smell of suntan cream. But once John D. MacDonald starts populating that landscape with nonstop lust and carnage, does he really think he's telling us about the real world?

"Of course there you get into a philosophical kind of thing. Once you start to imitate reality, then you should perforce go the whole way and present the world where truth and justice do not prevail, in which the innocent are punished and the guilty go free. But if you follow reality philosophically to that point, you've created a dissatisfied reader.

"... That trip is too close to what they're experiencing anyway."

Monday, August 27, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 8: December 11, 1947

Another installment of John D MacDonald's Clinton Courier newspaper column. Here we can see what was possibly the first sentiment of dissatisfaction with the family's newfound home town: the local water supply. 

What we are about to discuss is an old and sore subject in Clinton. Many opinions have been kicked around -- but there has been a startling absence of facts to back up these opinions. We are talking, of course, about the Clinton water supply.

In this column we intend to present a few facts. That's all. Just facts. The facts presented have been extracted from an article in the November issue of The Hotel Monthly, which, in turn, was based on a survey report by Edward Engle, a graduate of the Department of Hotel Administration at Cornell.

In Mr. Engle's classification, 0 to 3.5 grains of hardening minerals to one gallon of water results in soft water. Anything over 20 grains of minerals per gallon is extremely hard. The Clinton rating is 39 to 40 grains per gallon. It is a fair guess that there is no other community in the United States with harder water.

What does this mean to you? What does it mean to Mr. and Mrs. John Doe and their two kids in their house on Kellogg Street?

Mrs. Doe knows that she has to use a great deal more soap than her Utica friends. She doesn't know why. Before soap can do a cleaning job, it has first to coagulate and precipitate out the hardening mineral salts in Clinton water. In effect, all the water she uses must first be softened by soap before it can be used to clean. Soap is about the most expensive and least effective softening agent available. Mrs. Doe has to use so much soap to soften the water that it forms unpleasant, sticky curds which float and attach themselves to whatever she is cleaning.

Mrs. Doe has to scrub finished surfaces harder in order to get them clean. the finish doesn't last as long.

Her kids and her guests use cake soap at an alarming rate.

When she rinses her sheets and pillow cases, she leaves a mineral deposit on the threads of the fabric. When they dry she has a harsh rough surface which tends to become dull and dingy. In addition, after the mineral salts dry on the fabric, the threads are weakened and her linens have a short life.

Mrs. Doe has a pretty rough time in the kitchen. The lime action in the water wrinkles the skins of peas and beans and toughens them. The fresh green color of other vegetables is affected. Longer boiling is required and the consequent loss of vitamins and texture results in overcooked food which lacks proper nourishment factors. The tea and coffee she serves are muddy and unpalatable and she doesn't know why. Mr. Doe has long since stopped complaining about the coffee. Her baked goods have a definite texture and taste loss. Her china, glass and silver are dull, spotted and streaked. Her pots and pans have white line rings boiled onto them.

Mr. Doe thinks that Clinton winters are getting colder. He uses more oil every year in his hot water system. He doesn't know that mineral deposits on the inside of his boiler and pipes form such an efficient insulating device that he is losing up to sixty percent of the original efficiency of the heating system. Three years from now Mr. Doe is going to have to replace a lot of pipes. The bill is going to be steep.

The daughter in the Doe family is fifteen. She has hair of that auburn shade which should be very lovely -- full of copper highlights. But when she washes her hair, she rinses it in Clinton water. When it dries, there is a deposit of lime and calcium which dulls those gleams and makes her hair lifeless. The Does don't care. They don't know how good that gal's hair could look.

Mr. Doe spends a great deal of money on various kinds of shaving cream. A tube lasts him about half as long as it lasts his Utica friends. In spite of all the shaving cream he uses, the razor still feels as though someone had used it to sharpen pencils. He goes to work every morning in a foul mood, his face smarting because hard water wouldn't soften his beard.

Mr. Doe washes his own car. But it never looks right. He can't seem to get all the pale streaks off of it. Every drop of water which dries on the surface leaves a pale white ring.

If you happen to meet the Does on the street, ask them about the hard water. They will look a little vague and say, "Yes, it is pretty hard, isn't it?"

Tell them that their life here in Clinton is made bothersome in a dozen little ways by hard water. Tell them that it is a constant drain on their pocketbook.

If they begin to look interested, tell them that there are 700 municipal water softening plants in the United States serving over 940 communities. Tell them that though Clinton has one of the worst hard water situations in the country, we are not one of the 940.

* * *

Ten years ago this week:

Two British Army officers purchased 376 U.S. mules for shipment to India.

Mrs. Roosevelt took Mrs. Doris Duke Cromwell on a tour of West Virginia coal towns and resettlement projects.

At the Empire Cat Club show in Manhattan a rodent owned by a Chicago doctor won a silver cup, 40¢ in cash and a rosette inscribed "Best Mouse."

President Roosevelt asked for 3,000,000 five thousand dollar dream houses, each house to include living room, dinette, kitchen, two bedrooms, tile bath, porch, garage, oak floors, gas stove, coal furnace and refrigerator.

Princess Elizabeth posed with a dog under the shade of parasol held by Margaret Rose.

U.S. Army observers stated that Madrid is proof that bombs cannot wreck a large city.

* * *

See you next week.

Monday, August 20, 2018

From the Top of the Hill # 7: December 4, 1947

Here's another installment of From the Top of the Hill, John D MacDonald's newspaper column from the Clinton Courier. I've presented the last portion of this one before -- where JDM recounts the family's winter stay in Texas -- with additional background. If you're interested you can read it here.

We'll call this section The Old World -- Glances Over the Shoulder at what was going on exactly ten years ago this week.

President Roosevelt spent a rugged week talking to business men and politicians about the 37-38 industrial recession.

Hirohito, Emperor of Japan, was pleased to call his reign the "era of radiant peace."

Congresswoman Virginia Jenckes of Indiana proposed to the Washington DAR that the Capital's famed Japanese cherry grove be cut down and sawed up for firewood.

The Japanese Second Army was consolidating its gains in Paoting, North China.

In Moscow's Red Square Stalin reviewed 1,750,000 of the faithful and introduced his fifth grade, eleven year old daughter, Svetlana, to the public.

Dr. Arthurs Holley Compton, physicist, obtained first empirical proof of the existence of a gimmick called a "neutrino."

Three hundred and fifty railroad cars and locomotives were torch-cut into scrap near Memphis for shipment to Italy's war machine.

We were enjoying Carole Lombard and Frederic March in Nothing Sacred. Remember that wonderful right cross to the Lombard chin?

* * *

World news of ten years ago has a wry flavor. Thirty million people went blissfully about their business, unaware that the war would pop them into untimely graves. There were enough houses for everyone and five dollars would buy a grocery order that was work to carry out to the car. Let us know if you want this feature continued.

* * *

Last winter we followed the sun to Texas. It was in the nature of a gamble, because the typewriter we took along had to bang out enough saleable wordage to get us back. We were looking for a place that wasn't expensive. Believe it or not, we found such a place and we herewith recommend it to all who wince at the thought of Florida tariffs.

Go to the Hill Country, seventy miles northwest of San Antonio. It is a resort section used by the people from the Gulf cities when the summer heat down there becomes unbearable. During the winter it is pretty quiet and thus accommodations that, during the summer months, rent for two and three hundred a month can be obtained for fifty and sixty. And it is almost as warm as Florida.

We stayed at a place called Bon Aire Lodge six miles from Ingram, Texas, "the only all rock town in the U.S.." They stamp that on outgoing letters. Bon Aire Lodge isn't a lodge. The proprietor purchased the mess hall from a P.W. camp, cut it into pieces and sprinkled the pieces around on a rocky hill. He paneled the inside in Mexican pine and had local stone masons rock the outside.

We rented a cabin that had yet to be rocked. After we were there a week, a truck dropped great slabs of white and brown stone beside the cabin. A few days later some lean and dusty men showed up with chipping hammers and went to work. During the chill of early morning we furnished the coffee.

The men talked to each other in a very normal fashion. "Mistuh Lee, would you kindly hand me that rock?' They has worked together for years and it was still on a mistuh basis.

They sang while they worked. It was a song we'd never heard before. No words to it. A mournful chant, plaintive and haunting.

We were sorry when the cabin was all rocked and they moved on.

This summer, as the FM tower diagonally across the street from us was being built, we were walking near it. Suddenly he heard that same song. We found out the next day that the steelworkers who put up the tower came from Texas.

Last night we looked at the red lights blinking on the tower and thought of that plaintive song. We thought of the live oaks, the hillside goats, the Guadalupe River. We remembered sitting out in the sun in a swim suit while we hacked at the typewriter during February, March and April. We remembered the big-hatted, slow-talking men gathering, with their weathered-looking women at the stone schoolhouse during the evening to play dominoes.

If you get tired of ice and want to head down in that direction, let us know. We'll tell you whom to write to. That is, if you don't mind being envied.

Monday, August 13, 2018

"So Sorry"

Sports Fiction magazine was a fiction pulp begun in 1938 by Louis Silberkleit’s Columbia Publications, a low-rent publisher even in the world of cheap fiction in the twentieth century. The magazine never really caught on and the neglect it suffered at the hands of its owners is evident when viewing its publishing history: only 43 issues of the magazine are known to have been published between 1938 and 1951, and even that’s questionable. It rarely published the same number of issues in any given year, and it shut down completely between 1944 and 1946. I only own one issue of Sports Fiction and just looking at it one can see all the corners that were cut in putting it together: second-rate artwork, messy, uneven printing, sleazy ads -- the kind one never sees in a Popular or Street and Smith publication -- and authors even pulp aficionados might have trouble recognizing.

John D MacDonald wrote three stories that appeared in Sports Fiction, all dating from his early years as a writer, years he was living in Clinton, New York (1947 and 48). The first was a boxing story, the third is unknown to me (at least by the title: “They Never Quit” -- probably a team sport) and the middle one was about golf. These were years when MacDonald was happy to get anything published, by any paying publisher, so he may not have cared where these tales ended up. And given Columbia’s reputation, he was probably paid the rock-bottom rate of a penny a word.

But there’s something about this middle tale -- titled “So Sorry” and appearing in the magazine’s July 1948 issue -- that transcends its sports setting and the cheap magazine it appeared in. Yes, it’s about a golf tournament and the competition between several disparate personalities, told by a non-participating bystander, but the real subject MacDonald deals with here is racism.

MacDonald had done this before in a sports pulp, and for another Columbia title no less (Super Sports), in 1947 with his “Big John Fights Again,” a boxing story featuring a black boxer. I own this magazine (it’s somewhere in the house) but I’ve never written about it. John Dinan, in his excellent 1998 study Sports in the Pulp Magazines, has, and here is what he had to say:

MacDonald’s boxing story in the December 1947 Super Sports was also as good a piece of fiction as one will find in the pulp mags. MacDonald uses terse first-person style to advantage in describing the dark underside of the world of boxing as the story moves toward the BIG fight. “Big John Fights Again” is a story reminiscent of The Harder They Fall and Requiem for a Heavyweight, told from the reporter’s point of view and with a bit of a twist -- the fighter is black. Not wanting to fight, Big John tells the reporter he’s afraid of what might happen to him. The reporter na├»vely responds: “That’s nonsense; people don’t do that.” Big John responds: “Maybe not to white folks,” and proceeds to enlighten the reporter on some hard facts about prejudice.

One has to wonder, was Columbia the only place MacDonald could sell stories with this kind of subject matter? Were they rejected by others before ending up with this publisher?

The setting is the Southland Open, a big, nationally coverd golf tournament played at the Upland Club, in an unnamed city and state. The story is told in the first person by Dave Able, a representative of the Miramar Sporting Equipment company of Los Angeles. Dave isn't there to play golf, he's there to sign golfers to endorsement contracts, always hoping to find a little-known golfer who suddenly breaks big. He's been around the game for a long time and knows many of the regular players.

For readers who don't know the rules of golf tournaments (read: me) MacDonald dutifully explains it all in a long paragraph: Following a qualifying round where the player must score 80 or less, the tournament is played for three days: two days of eighteen holes, the third for thirty-six. Each player plays against one other player, a process chosen by lots. At the end of the first day the high fifty percent of the group are eliminated. The same process is followed for the second day, usually leaving around twenty survivors. After the first eighteen holes on the morning of the third day, only eight players are still standing to play the final afternoon round. First money is $7,500 (around $75,000 in today's money), second place takes $1,750, and so on.

The story opens with Dave attending a get-together in a suite at the Upland Club. Four of the golfers who will play in the tournament are there and Dave briefly introduces each one to the reader.

You know them all. Mart Snyder is a thin, dark, expressionless man with ulcers. He's been on the circuit for thirteen years now and in spite of his dead pan, he's always tied in knots. Harry Crebson is the big blonde guy who started to knock them dead just after he got out of the army. He has freckles and a grin. Hal Lovelord is a Canadian who has a vague expression, a dim wispy mustache and a deadly eye on the putting green. Jimmy Ratchelder is, of course, the plump pink little guy with the shrewd grey eyes who has made more out of tournament golf than any man in the last twenty years. It's a business to Jimmy -- pure and simple... It was practically an even money bet that one of the four in the room would knock off the $7500 they give you for being best man.

There ostensibly to commiserate with a fifth golfer who failed to make the qualifying round that day (and who’s drunk and asleep on a couch), Dave finds the four in what sounds like a serious discussion. An unknown golfer qualified that day with a score (63) that broke the club’s course record. Are they worried about a young upstart who could possibly beat them all in the tournament? Yes, but only to a point. The real problem, at least with Snyder and, especially, Ratchelder, has less to do with how he plays and more to do with who he is.

He’s a Japanese American.

The boys were talking about Tommy Suragachi of Oregon... The press hadn't noticed Tommy, a slim, nervous acting boy, until he had banged out that miracle round of sixty-three... Then the press had picked him up. He had played golf before the war and had been a caddy. He served with the infantry in Italy during the war. He had brought himself and his clubs to the tournament on a bus. He was being staked by a whole bunch of Japanese farmers on the West Coast who had kicked in a little bit apiece. Apparently it was a very little bit because Tommy Sonagachi was living in a down-at-the-heels tourist cabin a mile and a quarter from the course.

Based on MacDonald's physical description of Ratchelder he's clearly the bad guy of the story, and he doesn't disappoint.

"You men better think about the game and what it means to the country... Golf is one of our biggest national games. It will hurt the game and hurt us if a Jap wins a big tournament like this one. It may be that some of the private clubs that have tournaments now will cancel them if they find they've got to put a Jap in the club...If this Sura-something wins they'll have a national holiday in Japan. What the hell was the use of licking them if we've got to make heroes out of them?"

The three others are in varying degrees of disinterest on the subject. Big, freckled Harry Crebson laughs it off, pointing out that “Japs” were pretty handy to have around when he fought in Italy. Snyder and Lovelord emphasize the fact that it is highly unlikely that a young player could win the tournament and that all they have to do to prevent Sonagachi from winning is for them to play their best. But Ratchelder is adamant. He even suggests that the four of them quit the tournament in protest, but Snyder points out that it would only make a martyr of the young man.

"Besides," Snyder continued, "the public might take the wrong slant on it. They wouldn't realize that we were doing it to help the game. They might think we were doing it because we were prejudiced or something. I'm not prejudiced against him."

"Neither am I," Ratchelder said. "I just don't think that a Jap ought to be given a chance to win the Southland Open or any other major tournament. Maybe they should be allowed to play in some of the small city tournaments on the public courses."

Crebson winked at me and said, "Well, to hear that you boys aren't prejudiced sure makes me happy. It surely does!"

The party breaks up with Ratchelder adamant about finding a way to “get to” Suragachi in order to rattle him .

Able drives over to the motel where Suragachi is staying and finds a very nervous young man. Naturally uptight, he bemoans his chances of winning and reveals that he is well aware of the racism he is the victim of.

"I saw the way Mr. Ratchelder looked at me today. And Mr. Snyder. You can tell when people look at you like that. I've gotten used to it out on the Coast. They hate all of us out there. Most of them do."

Able manages to sign Suragachi to an endorsement contract, provided he does well in the tournament.

Of course all four of the seasoned golfers make it to the final round, along with Suragachi, who plays spectacularly despite his obvious case of nerves. And, also of course, in the final round he is paired with none other than Ratchelder, giving the older golfer his perfect opportunity to rattle his opponent with an small act of racism that the observing crowd picks up on and imitates…

“So Sorry” works well on both the level of a sports story and as a tale of prejudice, although it would be too much to ascribe any real greatness to it. Its unusual characteristics and the fact that a heavy subject is dealt with in a cheap pulp magazine story is not completely out of the ordinary. Yet the fact that the editor of Sports Fiction made a special mention of the story’s connection to “Big John Fights Again” on the title page indicates that they knew they had something a bit different in their magazine and wanted readers to know it. I wonder how many other MacDonald stories like this are out there, a serious step up from the average penny-a-word tale, unread since their publication and mouldering away as time slowly destroys them.

“So Sorry” has never been anthologized or republished.