Monday, February 26, 2018

"Double Double"

John D MacDonald had original short stories published in more than 70 different magazines over the course of his writing career. Many of these periodicals employed fiction editors who were clearly enamored of his work and his ability to help sell copies of their magazines. The record holder is Cosmopolitan, which published 36 different issues containing MacDonald’s work, from almost the beginning of his career (May 1947) to his entry onto the best seller lists in 1975. Dime Detective actually published more JDM stories -- 38 -- but three of those appeared under one of his pseudonyms alongside stories credited to him in name, so the issue count is 35. MacDonald is well represented in many other titles of the era like This Week (27), Detective Tales (26), New Detective (17), Bluebook (13), and Doc Savage (13).

Then there are the one-shots, the magazines where his work only appeared once, then never again. Some titles are curious -- publications where one would think he would have been better represented -- like Detective Book Magazine, Mammoth Mystery, Planet Stories and Thrilling Detective. Others are not surprising: Dime Western, Fifteen Western Tales and 10 Story Western (MacDonald wasn’t much of a western writer); Woman’s Home Companion, Family Circle, The American Legion Magazine, and that strangest title of all, The Sign, a religious magazine published for Catholics.

Among those one-shots is Golf Magazine, a publication that one doesn’t usually associate with fiction, sports-related or otherwise. But back in its early days, before fiction was pushed out of magazines by articles of non-fiction, Golf usually carried one work of fiction per issue, at least in 1961, the year I own copies of nearly the entire run. Most of these pieces are labeled “Humor,” which was, I suppose, an excuse for their inclusion -- heaven forbid if a golfer should stumble across anything serious while looking for tips on how to improve their swing. Begun in 1959 and published by the Universal Publishing and Distribution Company, Golf probably began containing some fiction and, like many other magazines during the 1960’s, gradually phased it out. John D MacDonald’s single effort for the magazine appeared in its June 1961 issue, between the publication of two of his paperback original novels, Where is Janice Gantry? and One Monday We Killed Them All. It is listed under the HUMOR heading in the table of contents, clocks in at a tight 2,000 words, and was titled “Double Double.”

MacDonald was a sports enthusiast -- that is obvious from his writing, where he had over 29 stories or novellas published in the now-forgotten sports pulps of the last century, with titles like 15 Sports Stories, Sports Novels, Super Sports and Sports Fiction. He also participated: he was an avid fisherman, he boxed in college and he played golf, a sport he gave up on because it was too time consuming. He wrote expertly about those sports, and also wrote well about auto racing, baseball, tennis, football, hockey, bowling, and even bull-fighting.

As I wrote in a previous post on one of those sports pulp stories, “The problem with sports stories is that if you, the reader, have no interest in the particular sport being written about, your involvement in and understanding of the story can be rather limited. This is especially true of the kinds of tales written for the sports pulps. They revel in the minutia of the competition, lovingly detailing each small nuance, and they assume a reciprocal love and general understanding on the part of the reader. Most of these stories are from the simple ‘against-all-odds’ template and are usually interchangeable with a few small adjustments here and there. My own interest in golf is negligible. My playing days are twenty-five years behind me and as for watching it on television, well... let's just say that there are better ways to waste one's time.”

Now that my playing days are more than 30 years behind me, one would think I’d need a refresher course in the game to understand “Double Double,” but that was not the case. Golf only plays a secondary role in the story -- the real focus of “Double Double” is betting on golf. For that a refresher wouldn’t do, because I never bet when I played, due to the fact that I was only slightly better than terrible and I would have ended up in penury. For that I had to do some real research, and although I didn’t come across anything referencing a game called double double, I did discover that it is a variation on the skins game, where players bet each other a specific amount for each hole. The lowest number of strokes wins the bet. In case of a tie the amount of the bet is added to the bet on the next hole. In double double, that addition of the previous bet is replaced by doubling the bet. If the bet is $1 and there is a tie, the pot on the next hole is $2, another tie and it is $4 for the next hole, and so on. Once I understood this quantum physics I was able to enjoy the story for what it was: a typically entertaining John D MacDonald short story.

The reader also needs to know how to play Nassau, but that’s fairly straightforward: it’s three bets in one: low score on the front nine, low score on the back nine and low score over the full 18.

The tale is told as a monologue, one voice throughout, an unnamed narrator speaking to his friend and fellow golfer Joe. He is setting up a foursome and he names the group: him, Joe, Ray and Chet Howell.

Now wait a minute. I know what you’ve said about never playing golf with Chet Howell again, but I tell you things are different. Certainly a guy can change. Even Chet.

Chet Howell is a MacDonald “type,” a figure we’ve seen before in stories like “Built for Speed,” “The Killer,” and “Blue Water Fury,” a big, beefy, muscular bully who is ultra-competitive, and with a mean streak that appears when he is not winning. Chet has pissed off not only Joe but another golf player in this group of friends, Johnny Garsik. Garsik was so peeved by Chet’s “riding” that he simply didn’t show up for the last scheduled outing. That left a hole in the foursome and the starter filled it with a single, a “stringy old guy" named Jonah Brewster.

… he looked to be about a hundred and ten, and like the sun had dried him out to old leather. He had a ratty canvas bag, a red baseball hat, a couple of dingy golf balls, and honest to God, Joe, he only had four clubs, a putter, an eight-iron, a four-iron and a three-wood. They didn’t match and he could have sold them anyplace for two bits each.

A rather pathetic title page
They team up, Chet and the protagonist versus Ray and Brewster, and agree to play Nassau. Brewster seems hesitant but agrees to a dollar. Chet powers a mighty drive on the first hole, prompting Brewster to remark, “My, goodness, Mr. Howell, you drive like the professionals.” Chet sticks out his chest and replies, “Call me Chet.” But Brewster’s first drive is anything but shabby. “It happened so fast I almost didn’t see it… he had a funny-looking swing with a loop at the top, and he used that old three-wood , and he belted it out there right down the middle and about a hundred seventy-five yards… ‘Pretty lucky,’ he said. And he cackled.” He manages to get down in par, while Chet “rimmed the hole for a bogey.”
On the second hole Brewster’s game quickly falls apart. “He chopped and scuffed and shanked and hacked his way down the fairway and got down in thirteen.” But Ray manages to par, while Chet bogies again. Brewster recovers nicely on the third hole, scoring a birdie two, outscoring Chet once again.

Chet’s face looked sort of red and swollen. You know how he gets. So he started storming and stomping around, saying, “Let’s make it interesting, boys. Let’s get some side bets riding on this thing.” With the side bets working, Chet started leaning pretty heavy. You know how he gets. Always trying to rattle you. It’s like he was kidding, but there was a mean edge to it. He likes to win.

And win he does, but against Ray and the protagonist, not Brewster, who continues to play erratically but always manages to tie Chet. On the tenth tee Chet makes a suggestion to the old man.

“Look at the money you’re throwing away, old man. You win a lot of holes. Make some side bets and maybe you win enough to buy another golf club, old man.

Jonah Brewster looks at Chet in a kinda uncertain way and says, “Well now, I’ve gambled some with my son-in-law. For ten cents a hole, double-double on carryovers.”

“Let’s play with dollars, old man.”

“Well now, I’ve been pretty lucky today. Double-double on the carryovers, Mr. Howell?”

“You’ve got yourself a sucker, old man. Hit the ball.”

They resume play and, of course, tie the next hole. Then the next, and the next, and the next…

“Double Double” reads like one of those old sports pulp entries that MacDonald may have submitted only to be rejected, then dusted it off years later and revised. It’s engaging, fun to read (once the mechanics of the plot are understood) and the ending is more of a surprise than I thought it would be. The editors of the magazine didn’t do much to present it, however: it begins in the back of the issue among the ads and its title page contains a single inside column, a third of the width of the page. There are no accompanying illustration. The author does get a nice credit on the last page along with two other writers.

As far as I can tell, “Double Double” has never been reprinted.

No comments:

Post a Comment