Monday, March 26, 2018

"Dead on the Pin"

Writers mostly had mixed feelings about the passing of the pulps. Many felt that those days were best forgotten. They had outgrown the pulps, gone on to more mature work. The pulps seemed like a youthful indiscretion. Some writers could only remember the hard work, the endless days hunched over the Remington, pounding words onto paper until the clanging of the metal keys was ringing in the ears. But there had been good work, too, and the camaraderie, and the creative challenge. Mixed feelings. - - Lee Server, from Danger is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines. (1993)

John D MacDonald was never at a loss for words when it came to reminiscing about his days writing for the pulps. He spoke often of the crushing workload, the the poor payscale and the sheer volume of product he needed to come up with in order for him to be able to support his family. He fondly recalled the opportunity to learn a craft he had decided to embark upon relatively late in life, and the generous and helpful guidance pulp magazine editors like Alden Norton, Babette Rosmond, Mike Tilden and Harry Widmer offered him. He even shared his recollections within the pages of fanzines such as Bronze Shadows, remembering the people, retelling amusing stories and conveying a general sense of nostalgia of an era gone forever.

But when it came to actually reading, remembering or bringing to light the short stories and novellas he wrote for these magazine, it was a different matter. The earliest clamor from his fanbase for an anthology of these tales was met with foot dragging on the author’s part. He agreed to a science fiction collection, because, hey, it was just science fiction, a bias he clearly revealed in his then-notorious afterword to Other Times, Other Worlds. But when it came to the mystery stories, it took a lot more convincing. When in 1978 Francis J Nevins, Jr wrote a paper on “MacDonald’s Early Pulp Stories,” extolling the quality of many of these forgotten works, MacDonald’s response was not enthusiastic.

As to a collection of pulp stories, I really do not know if they would work well enough at this late date. I have the feeling they are just a bit too glib and easy to be worth keeping. I would not gather them up myself for presentation with any feeling of pride and/or satisfaction. And I would hope that by the time they are posthumous, they will be far too passe for collecting.

But Nevins, along with ├╝ber-anthologist Martin H Greenberg, persisted and offered to do the “gathering up for presentation” since MacDonald was clearly unwilling to do so. JDM’s bibliographer non pareil Walter Shine, along with his wife Jean, helped supply copies of the stories and chimed in on suggestions as to which stories should be included. The list was reduced to 30, they were typed up in manuscript form and submitted to McDonald for his ultimate decision. Instead of being repulsed, JDM wrote that he was “astonished” that only three of them “did not merit republication.” (Talk about a backhanded compliment!) He agreed to move forward with the project, which eventually encompassed two volumes, published two years apart, titled The Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff (1984).

MacDonald’s reticence is clear in his introduction to the first volume, where he actually writes that he considered himself to be “taking [an] occupational risk in having the stories published.” How such an otherwise intelligent man could have so misjudged his appeal to his fans is a mystery that will never be solved. But MacDonald’s reluctance was one thing, something that was eventually dealt with, but he reacted in another, more damaging way, in that he felt the need to “update” the stories. All of the stories suffered this editorial meddling, some more than others. Several of the stories' time-frames were switched from the early postwar period to the early 1980’s. Many small references were changed, usually from then-famous personages to more contemporary ones. Prices were increased, as were income figures, and mediums of entertainment were switched, mainly from radio to television. But, he assured the reader, nothing had been done to the prose itself outside of these contemporizing adjustments.

I was horribly tempted to make other changes, to edit patches of florid prose, substitute the right words for the almost right words, but that would have been cheating, because it would have made me look as if I were a better writer at that time than I was.

The readers of The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff had to take MacDonald at his word on this assertion, as only a few readers had access to the original pulp magazines in which these stories appeared. I certainly didn’t own any of these hard-to-find and expensive-to-purchase periodicals, but I began looking and began collecting and it was years before I obtained even a small portion of the original material. Thinking that I didn’t need to re-read the stories where the updating hadn’t been obvious, it wasn’t until I actually did so when preparing to write a piece on “The Tin Suitcase” (titled “She Cannot Die” in the anthology) in 2016 that I realized that the author was way more than just a little misleading in his “hands off” claim. When I got to writing about “You Remember Jeanie” I discovered wholesale changes that completely altered the feel and atmosphere of the original story.

“Dead on the Pin” is as nifty a piece of pulp writing as you’re likely to come across, a short, matter-of-fact tale that is wonderfully told and stylishly composed. It is a work of fiction that any mystery writer would have been proud to call their own in its original form. Yet MacDonald took his red pencil to it and made many, many changes. The overall effect is not as bad as it was with “The Tin Suitcase” or (especially) “You Remember Jeannie,” but the changes are nearly all unnecessary and are detrimental to the overall quality of the telling of the tale. The original appeared in the Summer 1950 issue of Mystery Book Magazine and runs an economic 2,500 words.

Joe Desmon is a veteran of the war (World War II, in the original) who has, since his return stateside, managed the Wonderland Bowling Alleys, “on the turnpike three miles out of town.” Because of a dearth of bowling alleys in town, he works long hours, hoping for the day he can own his own establishment and order someone else to do all of the things he does now.

So it seemed like almost too much to expect when one day about three months ago this little guy showed up and asked if I could hire him to do jobs around the place. He was edging close to fifty with the top of his head up to about my chin. He was the sort of little man you would push out of your way, but not if you looked close. There were hard, blunt bones in his face and a pair of pale blue expressionless eyes and a tight slit for a mouth. He had a thick look through the shoulders, and his arms hung almost down to his knees, with big square wrists.

His name was Johnson and he willingly accepts the pittance Joe is able to pay him for brushing the alleys, mopping the floor, emptying the ashtrays and cleaning the restrooms. His only request is that he be allowed to bowl a few games when there was no other work to do. Joe looks at Johnson’s thumb and recognizes the “swollen, bent-back look of a man who has done a lot of it.” It was late, and Joe suggests they play a quick one.

Initially he’s not impressed with Johnson’s game. By the third frame Joe has scored "a fat 69" to Johnson's 27. Joe begins to get bored. "He had a nice hook but it was coming in too quickly." On the fourth frame, however, Johnson finds the pocket "for one of the prettiest strikes I've ever seen." He does the same in for the next four frames. He handily beats Joe.

Johnson does his work quietly and gets along with the rest of the staff. He is eventually allowed to give lessons, earning a cut of the fees. "Having him around eased the pressure on me, but he wasn't a fellow you could chum up to." When Joe suggests that he join one of the leagues that play at Wonderland, he is quickly dissuaded. "Just say that I don't like to bowl with people. Maybe I blow up under pressure. Put it any way you want, but don't go talking up my game. Understand?"

In the story's most satisfying and best written scene, a trio of young punks come into the alley one night and start clowning around, rolling a ball down an lane Johnson is sweeping. He avoids the ball but has the mop swept out of his hands. "Did I scare you, pop?" asks one of the boys. Johnson walks up and throws the boy into the racks. The others respond but are handily taken care of. They leave the place, minus their swagger and a few teeth.

Then, early one morning, Joe wakes up in his room to find a stranger sitting beside his bed. "Good morning, Joe," he said…”


“Dead on the Pin” is a model of economy and one of the best examples of the real quality one could find in the pulp magazines of the post war period. There’s not a wasted word, and the prose is impeccable, with perfectly structured sentences that have a unique rhythm, ringing in the mind’s ear like a kind of Runyonesque poetry. This is MacDonald at his best, or at least his best at this period of his career, so it’s a real shame that he felt the need to alter the story when it was reprinted in The Good Old Stuff. As I’ve done in previous pieces on GOS reprints, I’ll present a section of the story, first as it was originally written and then as it was altered by MacDonald. It’s the passage describing the first game between Joe and Johnson.

With my double and spare in the first three frames and his two splits and a miss, I felt pretty patronizing. When I made a strike in the fourth to make my fill on the third frame a fat 69 to his 27, I began to get bored. He had a nice hook but it was coming in too quickly.

In the fourth frame he found the pocket for one of the prettiest strikes I’ve ever seen. He did it again in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth.

He paused then and said, “Mr. Desmon, do you fire people you can’t beat?”

“What do you think I am?” I demanded.

“Just asking, ki— Mr. Desmon.”

He then plunked across the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth strike in a row, snowing me under 237 to 202.

I said, “You’ve got eight in a row. Keep pitching.”

He grinned for the first time. The grin came and went so fast that I almost missed it. He got the ninth, then blew the tenth and left the ball on the rack.

I kept an eye on him. He did his work and got along with the rest of the help. He got along by staying out of everybody’s way. After the first month I began to throw lessons his way, giving him a cut. He had perfect style, setting the ball down so smoothly that it wouldn’t dent a custard, and he was quick to pick out flaws and point them out. Having him around eased the pressure on me, but he wasn’t fellow you could chum up to.

Here’s the rewrite:

With my double and spare in the first three frames and his two splits and a miss, I felt pretty arrogant. When I got my strike in the fourth, it made my fill on the third frame a fat 69 to his 27. I started to get bored, but in his fourth frame, his ball ducked into the pocket for one of the prettiest cleanest strikes I have ever seen. His ball had been curving in too fast before that, giving him those thin Brooklyn hits.

And so while I got spare, strike, spare, he got three more of those boomers, where all the pins jumped into the pit in unison.

He looked at me and said, “Mr. Desmon, do you fire people you can’t beat?”

“What do you think I am? No. And I’m not beat yet.”

“Just asking, ki—Mr. Desmon.”

So he kept chucking them in there, and in the end he had put eight strikes in a row altogether, and he wiped me out, 235 to 202.

So I said, “Okay. And I think you could keep right on wiping me out. You’re not fired.”
He grinned for the first time. It came and went so quickly I almost missed it. He wanted to know if he could practice a little when his work was done. I told him to be my guest.

I kept an eye on him. He did his work and got along well enough with the rest of my people. He got along by staying out of the way. After the first month I began to throw some lessons his way, giving him a cut. He had perfect style, laying the ball down so smoothly it wouldn’t have dented the top of a custard pie. He could pick up the flaws and point them out and demonstrate how to cure them. He eased the pressure on me, but I never did really get to know the man.

With these changes one gets the impression that MacDonald is talking down to an idiot kid, someone incapable of understanding the nuances of the language or picking up on the obvious slang of the day. Why bother changing the sentence “Having him around eased the pressure on me, but he wasn’t fellow you could chum up to.” to “He eased the pressure on me, but I never did really get to know the man.”? What does it add to the understanding of the character or to what is happening? It certainly robs the original of its rough meter. Or how about “In the fourth frame he found the pocket for one of the prettiest strikes I’ve ever seen. He did it again in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth.” replaced with “in his fourth frame, his ball ducked into the pocket for one of the prettiest cleanest strikes I have ever seen. His ball had been curving in too fast before that, giving him those thin Brooklyn hits.And so while I got spare, strike, spare, he got three more of those boomers, where all the pins jumped into the pit in unison.” This isn’t “updating,” it’s explaining.

And did he really need to add “pie” after the word “custard”?

A few weeks ago I posted a transcription of an essay MacDonald wrote for Writers’ Digest titled “The Editor Over My Shoulder.” In discussing the role of editor the author asks the reader to imagine the writer as a tailor, designing and sewing suits of clothing in the middle of a carnival. The editor is a passerby, offering numerous bits of unsolicited advice, all analogous to what passes between a real writer and a real editor. With MacDonald acting the role of real editor with the Good Old Stuff anthologies, here are some of the pointless suggestions that apply to his own meddling:

“The pattern of that material looks awfully loud to me."

“Nobody wears that style any more.”

“It’s going to end up looking like any other cheap, readymade suit.”

“They’ll never let you into the best clubs wearing that, will they?"

“All the lapels are wider this year.”

And so on…

I would like to extend a special thank you to Trap of Solid Gold reader Keith Hann, who, after reading my pieces on “The Tin Suitcase” and “You Remember Jeanie,” decided to quantify the changes MacDonald made to the text of all of the Good Old Stuff stories. He transcribed both the originals (where available… he doesn’t have them all) and the Good Old Stuff re-do’s into separate Word documents, then used the software’s Compare function to produce a document highlighting in red all of the changes made to the original. When he sent me the comparison of “Dead on the Pin” my eyes bugged out at the amount of crimson on the page. MacDonald made over 75 changes -- some minor, many not-so-minor -- to the original text. Seventy-five changes to a 2,500-word short story. He really must have feared that the publication of The Good Old Stuff was an “occupational risk.”

2 comments:

  1. Now I have to go back and re-read The Good Old Stuff, as I'd forgotten that story.

    Thank you for all your work on this site. Always a pleasure to see a new post is up in my RSS feed.

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  2. Hey, thanks for the shout-out. Another top-notch entry as usual.

    The change that struck me the most was the replacement of the pin boy with the automatic machine. I've only ever known machines--I never knew they used to use kids for that job until I read this story--and for me that robbed the story of some of its faraway character, without actually improving it any.

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