Monday, April 2, 2018

"An Island of Her Own"

John D MacDonald's first appearance in Redbook took place all the way back in June of 1951, with a short story titled "Nothing Must Change." By this time MacDonald already had five-plus years of short story writing under his belt and was just beginning to embark upon his career as a novelist. This same year he produced books like Wine of the Dreamers, Judge Me Not and -- the very same month that "Nothing Must Change" was published -- his cold war potboiler Murder for the Bride. That there is nothing about "Nothing Must Change" that would reveal its connection to those novels outside of the name of the author should not come as a surprise considering the title of the magazine in question, which billed itself as "The Magazine for Young Adults." MacDonald never set out to be a crime writer in particular, and the fact that it is what he is most known for is more a product of happenstance and the fiction market of post-war America than of any intention of the author’s part. Still, from his earliest days as a writer, he wrote and had published stories that we refer to as “mainstream,” in that they were geared to a general audience.

And with the one exception of his final appearance in the magazine -- a reprint of the pulp tale “Killers’ Nest” (appearing under a different title in conjunction with the publication of The Good Old Stuff) -- all of MacDonald’s Redbook stories are mainstream: light, situational tales constructed around what seems to be a relative minor turning point in the lives of the everyday protagonists, always ending happily on a positive, redeeming note. Such was the case for “An Island of Her Own,” the second-to-last original story MacDonald wrote for Redbook, appearing in the magazine’s February 1962 issue. It’s publication between two dramatically different novels -- One Monday We Killed Them All and A Key to the Suite -- is further evidence of the author’s range of interests and breadth of talent.

The setting is Boca Grande and the islands of Pine Island Sound, west of Fort Myers on the gulf coast of Florida. This was a fairly primitive section of the state in 1962, with limited electric service and spotty telephone connection, and whose main industry was fishing, both sport and industrial. The first-person narrator of the story is Barney Wescott, a charter boat captain who lives aboard his source of income, the Baylady II. He’s in between charters when the story opens, swimming off the Boca Grande beach, when he is hailed by a woman on shore. It’s Mary Dawes, “one of those rangy redheads with a lot of drive and independence,” and Barney’s eagerness in swimming to shore indicates that they are more than just acquaintances. Mary owns one of the nearly 100 islands that speckle the northern portion of Pine Island Sound, just south of Boca Grande, part of an inheritance she acquired years ago from her grandfather. It contains “an ancient cottage,” a slightly less ancient guest house, an artesian well and no phone or even electricity.

Mary doesn’t live there but a few months per year. The rest of her time is spent in New York, where she is a junior partner in an industrial-design firm specializing in consumer packaging. “It’s a high-pressure operation and she is supposed to be good at it,” Barney tells the reader. Her time on her island is usually spent working, where she can puzzle things out without interruption.

Barney’s backstory is typically MacDonaldean: a former young executive working in New York, commuting from Larchmont, who has a transcendent moment of realization after his wife leaves him. He quits his job, moves to Florida and dials down his life to a low idle. “I have a healed ulcer, enough muscle to gaff a green tarpon, an unclouded mind and a restful disposition.” His desire to “set the world on fire” is far behind him, and his one unattained ambition, revealed by MacDonald only between the lines, is the wooing of Mary Dawes. (See Joe Rutland, the protagonist of 1954’s “Built for Speed” for one of MacDonald’s numerous antecedents. See also Gevan Dean in Area of Suspicion.)

It began two years before, at the end of one of Mary’s two month stays in Florida. After a day of sailing, swimming, sandwiches and sunning on the beach, they kissed, with “increasing enthusiasm” until Mary broke it up abruptly.

“Why?” I demanded. That is ever the forlorn question of the spurned male. “Why, honey?”

“Because you are a sweet guy, Barney, a very simpatico and amusing guy, and as I have just learned, a very exciting guy.”

“You’re reading the wrong lines. Those are mine.”

“And because I am not a random girl with random habits. I am a for-keeps girl, and it just isn’t in the cards.”

“Shuffle and deal again. Maybe it is.”

“No, Barney. I work at something I’m good at. I like to be good at things. I wouldn’t be good at all the being a wife. Everything I heat sticks to the pan. Children terrify me. And anyhow, I’d either have to drag you North or be a dead weight on you down here. So we stop right now, before we’ve done any kind of damage to anybody… We’ll be friends, the way we have been.”

Once the two of you have played that familiar scene, it leaves you in a kind of emotional limbo. You can’t get back to where you were and there’s no place else to go. In the two years since it happened I’ve found no one I could classify as a reasonable adequate facsimile, nobody with eyes so blue.

So, Mary has called Barney from his swimming idyll in order to hire his services. Her own boat is getting worked on and she needs the Baylady II. She also needs Barney. Her sister Liz had been scheduled to come down for a week, accompanied by someone in need of rest and solitude, but Liz can’t make it so the companion is arriving on his own. “She collects hopeless idiots and they sponge off her shamefully, and she’s sending one down because his nerves are supposed to be unraveling…” Uneasy with the idea of spending a week on the island alone with a “wounded duck,” she wants Barney living there as well.

“If I can decide right off he’s harmless, you won’t have to stay over, Barney. But I want to be ready in case he looks susceptible to tropical passion.”

“I thought you could handle anybody, girl.”

“Well, you were easy, Barney. But you don’t know Liz’s friends.”

As Mary and Barney wait in a Boca Grande bar for the arrival of the “wounded duck,” Mary reveals that she doesn’t know the guy’s name or even what he looks like. Just then then a man enters, wearing a “dark city suit” and carrying a topcoat and an aluminum suitcase. “He looked young, benign and fat.” Mary asks Barney to “herd him this way, please…” Barney does as he is asked, noticing that, close-up, the stranger is more massive than fat, and he looks at Barney with cold blue eyes. As introductions are made the man is incredulous that they don’t know who he is. Morgan Stonebarger -- The architect! He is officious, presupposing and downright rude. And he apparently didn’t know that he was going to be living on Mary’s island.

But he agrees and they motor on over in the Baylady. Mary and Barney begin to respond to Stonebarger’s orders and incredulity with increasing sarcasm, which only infuriates him more. And when they arrive at Mary’s island and enter her cottage, Stonebarger is immediately intrigued by her work area.

“... he walked by her and went to the big tilted drafting table. We both followed him. He looked at the nearly completed drawing pinned to the board. He turned and smiled at Mary Dawes. I had the curious feeling he was actually looking at her for the first time.

“A hobby, Mary?” he asked. “Or isn’t it yours?”

Her throat worked visibly as she swallowed. “It’s mine. A poor thing, but mine own. I prefer it to knitting.”

“Container for what?”

“A new hand lotion. Expensive.”

“The draftsmanship is fairly good,” he said, “but the conception is tasteless. It’s a fraudulent version of decent classic proportions. We call it Supermarked Moderne.”

“What?” she said. She looked stunned. “Who are you to -- Listen, the market research behind that design is --”

“It will sell,” he said. “Of course it will sell. There is almost no limit to the ability of the American public to absorb contrived bad taste. But the true area of integrity in design is to create something that is clean and beautiful and also salable.” He looked around at her working sketches of other projects, taped to the alcove walls. “But you do not have that kind of talent, my dear. And don’t be upset. Few do.”

At this point Mary is boiling but Stonebarger ignores her, picks up a charcoal pencil and begins making adjustments to one of her drawings, then another, eventually to all of the sketches that paper her walls.. “We eliminate this rather horrid and pointless bulge, balance this line, widen the base and at the same time give it more of a look of grace and delicacy…”

Mary explodes, orders him out of the cottage and into the guest quarters where he is to stay. Barney accompanies him and notices that Stonebarger is genuinely surprised. “I believe that I’ve actually upset her,” he said. “Maybe when she quiets down you might let her know that I would charge ten thousand dollars to a commercial enterprise for that amount of consultant design service.”

To go further and reveal more would spoil the story for anyone lucky enough to find and read it. I honestly didn’t see where this tale was going until a big reveal later on. Suffice it to say that, despite the fact that this was 1961 and Mary Dawes is, in MacDonald’s world, a relatively independent, self-sufficient female, it all ends glibly, as one would expect in both a JDM tale and for a story in Redbook.

“An Island of Her Own” was published two years before the appearance of the first Travis McGee novels, yet readers of those books will no doubt spot a particular similarity -- outside of the story’s setting in Florida and around the state’s gulf coast. Mary Dawes’ profession, designer of consumer packaging, was later used in the second McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, as the profession of Nina Gibson, sister of McGee’s army buddy Mike Gibson. Like Mary, Nina works for a Park Avenue firm and her residence in New York is a kind of a second office, complete with a drafting table and sketches pinned to the walls. Yet Nina herself sounds a bit more like Stongarger than Mary when McGee, in the apartment for the first time, studies one of her sketches, a drawing of a jar, which McGee notes was “striking… with a severe and classic beauty.”

"Do you like that one?" she asked.

"Very much."

"You've got a pretty good eye, McGee. The client didn't like it. We go around telling each other that good taste will sell. Maybe it will, at the right time and the right place. But what is truly commercial is a kind of vulgarity upgraded just enough to look like good taste. And the best ones in the business are the ones who can toss that kind of crap off naturally, and really believe it's great."

There are also echoes of MacDonald’s first Redbook story here, “Nothing Must Change.”

“An Island of Her Own” has not, to my knowledge, ever been reprinted.

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