Monday, April 23, 2018

The Beach Girls

Nineteen Fifty-Nine was another banner year for John D MacDonald, a banner year that capped a banner decade. He began the Fifties with a seemingly effortless shift from pulp writer to paperback author, and in only ten short years he had produced 23 paperback originals, 7 hardcover works of fiction, an anthology of his own work and an anthology of works by other authors. Plus, he continued writing short fiction, producing a mere 160 novellas and short stories for the magazines of the day. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start writing until he was 29.

By the end of the decade he showed little evidence of slowing down. While working steadily on the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Lethal Sex -- a project he once claimed “cost me a novel of my own” -- he knocked off four book length works of fiction: Please Write for Details and Deadly Welcome in March, The Crossroads in July, and finally, The Beach Girls in September. (The Lethal Sex would be published in December.) All four of these books are good examples of MacDonald’s breadth of talent: the great range of subject matter he could effortlessly master, the backgrounds and characters he could magically bring to life, and the amazing skill at storytelling that still holds up today as a masterclass in writing fiction. But there’s something unique in this collection of novels, something MacDonald had never attempted before. Two of these books were so similar in plot, tone and character as to be flip sides of the same coin. There’s even a character crossover, the only one I’m aware of outside the McGee series. It is almost as if the author wrote these works simultaneously (a practice he employed throughout his writing career), with each playing off the other. Or perhaps he was working on the same idea, trying two different tacks on the same plan, only to end up with two separate but very similar novels. In any event, his readers were (and are) blessed to have both of these works: Please Write for Details and The Beach Girls.

The novels were handled very differently. Please Write for Details was published in hardcover by Simon and Shuster, while The Beach Girls was a paperback original put out by Fawcett Gold Medal. The hardback was given publicity and a book tour, while The Beach Girls seems to have come and gone like a thief in the night. Please Write for Details utilized MacDonald’s favorite narrative perspective, the multi-character third person pov, while The Beach Girls utilized a method he used all the way back in 1954 with All These Condemned, where each chapter is told in first person singular by a different character. But even there MacDonald gave up on that toward the end of the book and switched to third person. Finally, the characters are from different worlds. The people of Please Write for Details are middle-class gentlefolk, spending a few weeks in an art camp in Mexico, while those of The Beach Girls are tough, hard-living, boat people, living (for the most part) on their seagoing crafts.

But the plots evolve pretty much in the same way, with MacDonald’s focus on several would-be couples in various states of difficulty, and each novel has its climax build around a great get-together: a wedding in Please Write for Details, a birthday party in The Beach Girls.

Curiously, there is no beach in The Beach Girls, and it’s never certain who the girls are that the title is referring to. MacDonald’s working titles for the novel -- Six Girls Have I; The Ketch, The Gaff and the Girl; The Girls on the Beach -- don’t give much of a clue either. The action takes place in the Stebbins Marina, a fictional locale in the fictional resort town of Elihu Beach, on the Atlantic coast of Florida, somewhere between Palm Beach and Ft Lauderdale, on the western side of the Intracoastal Waterway. What beach there is is on the far side of State Route A1A, which runs north-south along the outer barrier island, but it is barely referred to in the novel. The Stebbins Marina is an old establishment and it has seen better days. Started in 1919 by Jess Stebbins, “it grew like a mushroom patch,” and now “nothing matches, everything needs paint, everything is about to fall down.” Jess has been dead for seven years when the The Beach Girls opens, and the marina is run by his widow, Alice, a “big horse” who is sturdily built and who is now 50 years old. She operates out of a small, rickety office and lives in a small apartment up on the second floor. She’s tough, crusty and profane, and she makes just enough money off the enterprise to keep afloat, both financially and literally.

There are several docks at Stebbins Marina, and most are identified by letter and number, but the focus of the book is on the residents of Dock D, where there are fifteen slips housing ten permanent residents, plus one corporate-owned boat captained by one of the residents, 35 year old Orbie Derr, and it is he who kicks off the novel with “his” first-person chapter. He gives us the lay of the land, briefly introduces the various characters that reside on D Dock, and establishes what will become the main plot with his first sentence:

It was a right pretty night when Leo Rice arrived at the Stebbins Marina. Friday, it was. the first day of August. It was later on the same month that everything went to hell for just about everybody. Maybe he was, like Joe Rykler explained to me, a catalyst. But I've got the general opinion everything was due to go to hell anyway. things had been working up to it.

The residents of D Dock are a tight, insular and protective group, and they resent it when Alice tells Rice to tie up on the end of “their” dock. They consist of Christy Yale, Helen Hass, Anne Browder and Amy Penworthy, four “girls” who live on two houseboats: Christy and Helen in the Shiftless and Anne and Amy in the Alrightee. All four women have day jobs in Elihu Beach and all four are unmarried. There’s Joe Rykler, a twice-divorced freelance writer who lives aboard his Ampersand, Gus Andorian, a big, aging, widowed grandfather who lives on a motorless scow, and Bud and Ginny Linder, a young married couple who were in the process of sailing around the world in their Fancy Free when it was storm damaged six mile offshore and the couple were forced to come to Stubbins, tie up and get day jobs in order to pay for the repairs. Other residents of D Dock, but not present for the arrival of Rice, include Syd Stark, a playboy with possible mob connections, living aboard the relatively luxurious Pieces of Seven with a young starlet named Francesca Portoni; Sim Gallowell and Marty Urban, friends and joint owners of the Sea Gal, a charter boat; and finally Rex Rigsby, owner of a Bahamian ketch called the Angel. Rex also makes a living taking charters, but he is not considered a member of the D Dock gang, for reasons that will eventually reveal themselves.

Leo Rice arrives, motoring down the Waterway and into the Stubbins basin in an old Higgins Sedan, and it’s clear he is a novice boatman. After asking to tie up he is instructed to back into Slip 13, but he bangs into the pilings twice before Orbie jumps aboard and takes the controls from him. Orbie’s first impression of Rice is neatly written and keenly observed:

He was about forty, a big lean guy, deeply tanned, with one of those pleasant ugly faces. He wore khaki shorts and he looked as if he was in fine shape. But he didn’t look sure of himself—I mean in more ways than not being able to handle thirty-four feet of boat. Like he’d been gutted. Like some of the running parts had been taken out of him and put back in with string.

Rice explains that he just purchased the boat -- the Ruthless -- two weeks ago up in Jacksonville and he received a brief lesson on how to pilot it. He keeps to himself that first night, not bothering the other D Dockers who are sitting around drinking beer and eating hamburgers. But the plot is set in motion.

There are many characters in The Beach Girls, but MacDonald wisely chooses to focus on a select few in telling the tale.

Orbie Derr has lived all his life on or near the water and is an expert seaman. Divorced, he is currently employed as charter captain for the Lullaby, a 40-foot diesel Matthews, owned by a Pennsylvania company that makes baby furniture. During the summer months the company sends "batches of women from the office" down to vacation at a nearby hotel and they have free run of the Lullaby. It is Orbie's job to accommodate them. The reader is tempted to suspect that these may be the "beach girls" referred to in the title, but MacDonald doesn't follow this thread very closely. And lest one think this is a dream job, piloting unchaperoned women around the Caribbean, Orbie states otherwise.

It’s a mess. I got four batches last summer, and this summer it will be five. Six to eight females in each batch. Maybe they’re just fine up there, but they go crazy down here in the summer. They get drunk and they get seasick and they get sunburned so bad they get chills and fever. They run from twenty-five to fifty-five, and they aren’t hired for looks. You should hear them all squeal at once when somebody hooks a fish. The better-looking ones sometimes seem willing enough, but I know damn well that if word ever got back to Pennsylvania that Captain Derr messed around with one of them, good-by job.

It’s not uncommon for MacDonald to begin one of his multi-perspective novels with one of the secondary characters, and that’s pretty much what Orbie is. His initial chapter is his only chapter and he mainly sets the scene in the marina.

Joe Rykler has been married twice and has vowed to never do it again. A writer of how-to books, he lives on his aptly-named boat the Ampersand. At 31 he is still young enough to be playing the field and has gone on several cruises with various women.

I am big, dark-haired and look slightly unkempt at all times. This awakens the mother in them. They want to sew on buttons and cook for me. I have brown eyes and I can look very hurt. I have various lines of patter and chatter that have proved out well. Also, I am a romantic figure. I am a writer who lives and works on his boat. They are inclined to sympathize with my creative urge to write a big novel. They are saddened that I must waste my substance by writing do-it-yourself books in order to support myself and my two ex-wives.

Joe’s real objective is Anne Browder, one of the two residents of the Alrightee, but that has been, so far, unsuccessful. “It wasn’t a case of not getting to first base. I couldn’t even catch a ride to the ball park.”

Ann Browder is the newest resident of D Dock, moving onto the Alrightee with Amy Penworthy eight months prior to the action of the novel, having relocated to Elihu Beach from New York City. She is a pretty blonde with a fabulous set of legs, but she’s reserved and controlled. She doesn’t smile much, she doesn’t date and she’s politely rebuffed every advance Joe Rykler has made. When she finally agrees to go out to dinner with Joe she reveals that she came down to Florida after a horrible ending to a three-year affair with a married man. When she decided to get pregnant in order to prod him into leaving his wife, he freaked and broke it up, sending Anne to an abortionist in Philadelphia. (A remarkably frank passage for MacDonald at this point in his writing.) She can’t get over it and is resigned to the fact that she is incapable of loving anyone else.

Forty year old Leo Rice is at Stubbins Marina for a reason, and it’s not because he just happened to stop by on his way down from Jacksonville. He’s a high-ranking corporate executive from Syracuse on a mission that has nothing to do with his job. A year ago his wife, tired of being ignored by his constant focus on work, confronted him with the news that she wanted a trial separation. She and a girlfriend were going to head down to the Bahamas and she was going to try and find herself. This was a bolt from the blue for workaholic Leo, and he protested but she was adamant. They put their two boys in boarding school and she left. And in only a few weeks later she was dead.

She had committed suicide after spending several weeks on a yacht with a man who wooed her, took her money, then dumped her. After much investigation Leo was able to discover that the man was named Rex Rigsby.

Rex Rigsby is the “bad guy” of the novel and Leo Rice hunting him down in order to exact some sort of revenge is the primary plot of The Beach Girls. Rigsby is remarkably similar to Paul Klauss, the villain of Please Write for Details: a sociopathic playboy who hunts, woos and ruins woman for sport. But while Klauss was a man who played this game in order to destroy the women, Rigsby mainly does it for the money he is able to extract from them. That they are emotionally destroyed is merely a nice dividend. And of course Rigsby is moored on D Dock, in the very slip next to Leo.

While Leo’s revenge is the main thread of the novel, there is another: the end of the Stubbins Marina. For years Alice Stubbins has been holding off would-be buyers who want to tear down the place and rebuild it into a pretty, expensive showplace, “like down in Lauderdale.” One particular real estate agent, the oily George Haley, calls often, and his entreaties begin to sound more like threats, in words familiar to any reader of MacDonald’s works:

“I’ve wasted time talking sweet to you. Now I’m going to put the cards right out where you can see them. This is a crummy, run-down place. It’s a damn eyesore. It’s hampering the development of the land around it. Important people own some of the land around it. They want to see that land value go up. You haven’t got the capital to improve this place. And so, sooner or later, in one way or another, they’re going to squeeze you out of it. Right?”

And then there are various side characters who take up more or less space depending on MacDonald’s interest. All are exceptionally well drawn and humorously portrayed. There’s Captain Jimmy Meirs and his new wife Jannifer Jean, a “swamp pussy” (MacDonald’s term, not mine!) who is twenty years his junior and whose hobby is sleeping around behind his back. There are Stan and Beezie Hooper, rich, lazy owners of the big Fleetermouse. Beezie is a MacDonald “type,” scrawny, leathery from the sun and mostly drunk. And Jack and Judy Engly, owners of the charter boat Judy’s Luck. Judy’s claim to fame are her loud ululations during sex, sounds that can be heard every night throughout the entire marina. It is introduced in the first chapter and will become a major plot point toward the end.

But as in Please Write for Details, it’s the couples MacDonald is most interested in writing about in The Beach Girls, and as in that earlier novel he focuses on three.

Ann Browder agrees to have dinner with Joe Rykler that first night when Leo Rice arrives at Stebbins Marina. This is a bolt from the blue for Joe. It is over dinner where Joe finally learns Anne’s story: her love affair, her abortion, her relocation to Florida. But Ann seems to have an ulterior motive for the date. After Joe admits that he is only after sex, that after two failed marriages he doesn’t believe in love anymore, Ann brazenly suggests that they repair to the Ampersand to sleep together.

“I wouldn’t want it to mean anything to you, Joe. That wouldn’t be fair, because it wouldn’t mean anything to me. You understand it wouldn’t mean anything to me. It would be like pretend. But I wouldn’t want it to be messy. I couldn’t stand that. Or a stranger. It has to be somebody I like. I want it to . . . change what I am, just a little.”

The couple’s lovemaking, however, is a failure, at least as far as Anne is concerned. In a passage as frank as anything MacDonald had written up to this point, Joe relates the “ordeal”:

We were there together possibly two hours. I tried. God knows I tried. And she did too. I am sure of that. But when she shuddered in my arms I knew it was neither excitement nor passion, but rather the reflexive tremor of the sacrificial animal. Though she tried to pretend, I could sense the regret, the remorse, the quiet despair—and the consciousness of shame. And when her breathing was rapid, it was merely the result of effort. Her rhythms had that erratic imbalance of contrivance rather than need. And when finally, in an admission of defeat, I went on to my own completion, it was but a sour spasm, lonely, meaningless and unshared. We lay deadened in the empty darkness until she gave a great sigh and climbed over me and found her robe and put it on. I got up and pulled my Bermuda walking shorts on, and turned on the light. Even muted, it was far too bright. We avoided each other’s eyes.

The failed cure, however, does have a very real effect on Joe, one that will provide his thread of the plot for the remainder of the novel. As he watches Ann walk away, down the dock toward the Allrightee, he is transformed:

And my heart burst. The tired old Rykler heart. Burst and sprayed acid into my eyes, misting the stars. I wanted to spend the next thousand years with her. So I tried to cope with the unexpected, unwanted invasion of Cupid. The little winged bastard had given up his bow and arrow and snuck up on me with a bazooka… You are a very cynical fellow, Rykler. You bear the wounds of two horrible marriages. That is a nice leggy blondie and you had the acquisitive urge to roll her over in the clover, and you did. Mission accomplished. End of incident. Love is a word on greeting cards. Love is not for you, Joseph. Eternity is a dirty word. She probably leaves hair in the sink, burns the toast and has a loose filling. She is glorious. She is what it is all about.

Alice Stubbins, at age 50, would seem an unlikely candidate for MacDonald’s love interests, but here he departs from his usual practice of focusing on twenty-somethings and writes about romance between people older than he was (43) when he wrote this. Alice has a fairly typical MacDonald backstory: married young and happily to a construction worker, blessed with a child, but it all went to hell somewhat suddenly. The child died at age 11 (reasons not divulged) and, after 22 “good years” of marriage, her husband Mike was killed in a construction accident. So at age 39 she found herself alone and in Florida, fishing off a dock at the Stubbins Marina, where she met Jess, who was nearly 25 years older than she was. He eventually proposed and, out of sheer loneliness, she accepted. The sexual part of the relationship is humorously recounted by Alice:

About the physical part of it, I didn’t know what to expect. After the ceremony he kissed me quick and timid. I knew I didn’t feel any more response to him than I would to your granddaddy, but if he figured that was part of the bargain, I wasn’t going to hold out on him. I needn’t have worried about him. By the end of the first week I had some pretty strong suspicions of what had killed off his first two wives. And my responses were all in order. I wasn’t complaining a bit. After twenty-two years with a man like Mike, you build up fires that never go out. Jess loved to have me joke him about his virility, expressing awe and alarm. He’d stick his chest out and swagger up and down. After our first couple of weeks he slowed down to the pace of a sailor on leave.

The marriage lasts only three years before Jess becomes ill and dies, and he leaves the marina to Alice. At first she had great plans to fix the place up, but she never gets around to it and now she just gets by, only fixing things that must be fixed and barely surviving financially. But she has grown attached to the residents of the Stubbins Marina, and is especially friendly with those of D Dock. And more than just friendly with Gus Andorian.

Gus is a retired steelworker, a widow approaching 70, who lives alone on a scow called the Queen Bee. Alice describes him as “big and thick and solid as a tree.” He moved to Florida after his wife died, much to the consternation of his six married daughters, who periodically come to visit him and attempt to convince him to come back and live with them. But Gus is having the time of his life, free from the control his wife had over him. As Orbie recalls in the first chapter, “she was a little bit of a thing, and she had strong ideas about drinking, swearing, spitting and gambling. She kept the lid on Gus.” The lid is now off, and Gus and Alice are having a relationship.

It began one evening when Alice twisted her ankle and Gus, passing by, rescued her and carried her up to her apartment over the marina office. After a clumsy attempt at first aid, something magical (and, in 2018, very politically incorrect) happens:

He knelt, admiring his handiwork, and then looked up at me. There was a sort of a click you could almost hear. And in the next second he sprang like a lion. I fought for maybe two whole seconds. Afterwards he wept, bashed his deep chest with his fist, demanding I call the police and have him locked up forever. He shouldn’t be free to assault innocent ladies. Finally I got it through his thick skull that the lady didn’t mind a bit. His whole craggy face turned into one vast mask of surprise. “Yah?” he said. “Yah.” So he came back to bed.

Once Alice has made the decision to sell the marina, her ongoing relationship with Gus is left is great doubt.

The most interesting relationship, and the one that MacDonald himself is obviously most interested in exploring, is that between Leo Rice and Christy Yale.

Christy is another MacDonald “type,” a woman who, wracked by doubts about her own physical appearance, masks her unhappiness behind the makeup of a clown. She has a clear antecedent in the character of Judy Jonah in All These Condemned and the similarly-named Christy Hallowell in Dead Low Tide, the “compulsive clown” who jokes her way through life with wisecracks and buffoonery. For while her body from the neck down is incomparable -- a “jim-dandy,” as she herself readily admits -- her face is something else:

This too-round face, devoid of any suggestion of a romantic gauntness. An afterthought of a nose, so inconsequential as to look embryonic. Mouth enough for a girl and a half. Eyes of a funny shade of green under furry black brows set into a face so asymmetrical that the left one is noticeably higher than the right… like Mickey Rooney, from the neck up.

A lifelong resident of Elihu Beach, Christy has her own tragic past, a fiance who died while serving in the military, “over there, on a hill with a number instead of a name, and when they’re dead you can’t tell whether it was a police action or a war.” She is resigned to a life of spinsterhood, with the occasional dalliance, until she meets Leo Rice.

It follows a fist fight between Leo and a marina tough over a bumped boat, where Leo is handily beaten to the ground. Christy takes him back to his own boat and tries to take care of his wounds. She has an ulterior motive, in that she wants to find out what Rice -- an obvious landlubber -- is doing piloting a boat and tying up at the Stubbins Marian. Leo is cagey, and turns the tables on Christy, asking her why she is perpetually clowning and telling her she is prettier than she thinks she is. This leads to a night of heavy tears and soul searching once Christy is back on her own houseboat, and the reader is now clear on whose romantic relationship will steer the balance of the novel. Leo eventually spills the beans on why he is there, telling Christy that he started out thinking that he would kill Rex Rigsby but is now uncertain of what exactly he will do. Christy, for her part, is worried about any confrontation between a 40-year old Leo and the very fit Rigsby. It all leads up to a birthday bash for Alice, the turning point in the novel, where Alice reveals to everyone that she has decided to sell the marina, and where Leo plans to finish what he came here to do.

Despite its obvious contrivances and dated morality, The Beach Girls is a lovely novel, beautifully plotted and imaginatively written and structured. MacDonald clearly has real affection for his characters here, especially the women, who he treats with respect and dignity, even though many are idealized. The motivations seem realistic and the setting, despite its rundown condition and precarious survivability, is presented as a kind of poor-man’s paradise. The writing is nearly without flaw and the novel contains some really transcendental passages. Here’s one from late in the book that gives none of the plot away:

The breeze died. The high white sun leaned its tropic weight on the gaudy vacation strip of Florida’s East Coast, so that it lay sunstruck, lazy and humid and garish, like a long brown sweaty woman stretched out in sequins and costume jewelry. The sun baked the sand too hot for tourist feet. Slow swells clumped onto the listless Atlantic beach. The sun turned road tar to goo, overheated the filtered water in the big swimming pools of the rich and the algaed pools of the do-it-yourself clan, blazed on white roofs, strained air conditioners, turned parked cars into tin ovens, and blistered the unwary. A million empty roadside beer cans twinkled in the bright glare. The burning heat dropped a predictable number of people onto stone sidewalks, of which a predictable number died, drove the unstable further into the jungly wastes of their madness, exposed the pink tongues of all the dogs in the area, redoubled the insect songs in every vacant lot, set the weather-bureau boys to checking the statistics of past performance, and sent a billion billion salty trickles to flowing on sin-darkened skins.

If I have one reservation about the novel it would be MacDonald’s near-cartoonish handling of the violence depicted. These are rough-and-tumble characters, especially the men, and they are strong, determined, and quick to fight when angered. But when they do, the damage done is so inconsequential as to seem to have come from a television western. Leo’s early fight on D Dock is brutal, and given his physical disadvantages, the beating he takes would have landed him in the hospital emergency room rather than back in his bunk sipping a highball mixed by Christy Yale. Still, that’s a small complaint for an otherwise immensely enjoyable reading experience.

There’s an interesting pattern in MacDonald’s structuring of the book, one that would seem to be sporadic and was, perhaps, due to outside influence. The first nine chapters of the novel are all written in first person singular, with the chapter title identifying the name of the speaker. But in chapters ten through twelve, he switches to third person -- these are the chapters describing the events of the big birthday bash. The chapter titles are “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Birthday to You,” and “Happy Something.” Did the author come to a point in the writing where he felt unable to continue with his original idea, or was that the plan all along? It’s not really that abrupt and it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book, but it is curious and unique in the MacDonald canon.

The final chapter -- titled simply “Chapter Thirteen” -- is an epistolary wrap-up of the events and characters of the novel, written by Joe Ryker several years after the great birthday bash. Joe is writing to an editor of his who stayed with him two weeks after the party. He begins the letter:

I can understand your feverish concern about what happened to all the people you met down here. It is because you are a very neat man, and you have to have everything tied up. It is the same reason you over-edit my copy.

If this isn’t MacDonald poking fun at an editor who may have sent The Beach Girls back to the author demanding a tidy ending to the book, I’ll eat my hat.

For most John D MacDonald fans, it is the setting of The Beach Girls that will draw the most interest. A marina featuring permanent residents situated on the Atlantic coast of Florida obviously has resonance with the Travis McGee series, and many go searching for similarities. Hugh Merrill, in his JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter tried to make a big deal out of this, claiming the the author “cannibalized” his early works in the creation of his famous series character. Cannibalization is a term coined by author Raymond Chandler, used to describe his process for writing several of his novels (like The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely) by taking the plots of earlier short stories he had written for the pulps, combining them and turning them into longer works. MacDonald did nothing like this, even when he reused plot points and character traits. He never had trouble in plotting any of his books and was quick to discard any number of pages or even chapters if something wasn’t going right. Outside of the fact that The Beach Girls takes place in a marina, there are few, if any, similarities to the McGee series.

The first edition of The Beach Girls was published by Fawcett Gold Medal and featured a cover illustration by Milton Charles, his first of a John D MacDonald novel. He would go on to illustrate the covers for Slam the Big Door and the 1960 reissue of Murder for the Bride. It features two swimsuit-clad young ladies (one only partially depicted) presumably sunning on a beach, while in the background are boats and a building that bears not the slightest resemblance to the Stubbins Marina. This cover went through five printings, all the way up to May 1970.

The blurb on this cover is rather curious. It reads “Under the bright Florida sun, six willing girls would find love, one sinister man would find death.” Outside of spoiling the end of the novel, I’m scratching my head over the number of “girls” who found love. There are only two of the main characters who do so; Alice has already found love when the novel opens, and one minor character is mentioned in Joe’s final chapter letter. Being generous and including these four, who are the other two? Readers are encouraged to let me know...

The book’s sixth printing took place in August of 1972 and featured the peerless artwork of Robert McGinnis, the illustrator whose work eventually graced 48 John D MacDonald books with 63 unique illustrations. There are six girls depicted on the cover, no one is obviously any specific character (certainly none of them are Alice) and there is a big schooner hovering in the background. The only sailboat in working condition on D Dock is Rex Rigbsy’s Angel, so I’ll have to assume it’s that. This cover lasted a total of six printings, through December 1978.

Finally there’s William Schmidt’s effort, first appearing on the December 1981 printing, the book’s twelfth. Like all of Schmidt’s other JDM covers, it features a detail of the plot imaginatively conveyed, this time in the reflection of a pair of broken sunglasses. It appeared on four separate printings, up through August 1987, after which the book, along with nearly all of JDM’s stand-alone novels, went out of print.

Since MacDonald decided to have The Beach Girls published in paperback (unlike Please Write for Details) it was barely noticed by the critical press of the time. In fact, the only contemporary review I was able to find of the novel was by JDM stalwart Anthony Boucher in his New York Times column. He liked it, writing “Another of fiction’s observant anthropologists visits one wild party… a curious social microcosm which MacDonald analyzes with insight and affection… primarily this is a novel of character and interplay, and a good one.”

Still, MacDonald had made such a name for himself by this point in his career that he really didn’t need reviews -- good or otherwise -- to sell books. By 1988 Fawcett had printed over a million copies of The Beach Girls. But three months before the novel was even published -- in June 1959 -- MacDonald signed a long term exclusivity contract with Fawcett, agreeing to publish all his paperback originals through the publisher, and any paperback version of a hardcover through Fawcett’s reprint arm, Crest. Fawcett had already characterized the author as “the most consistent bestseller in paperback history,” and the fact that his longtime friend Knox Burger was back with the publisher probably sealed the deal. As MacDonald explained to columnist Witney Bolton in July of that year, “I set up this exclusive arrangement with Fawcett because I have become convinced that they, through packaging, promotion, distribution and a carefully planned reissue program can best serve the relationship I have tried to establish between myself as an author and the ever-increasing number of readers who buy paperback books. I feel that the man who pays 35 cents for your book is worthy of as much bitter effort as the man who pays $3.50 -- and he is much more numerous."

The Beach Girls was one of the rare John D MacDonald novels of this period to be denied publication in a popular magazine. The Crossroads before it and Slam the Big Door afterward both appeared in Cosmopolitan, but Please Write for Details didn’t and neither did Clemmie the year before. I’m guessing that these particular novels were far too frank for a newsstand publication, especially ones that enjoyed a large readership through subscription, given the pornography laws of the day. As I’ve written, The Beach Girls was far franker in the areas of sex than anything MacDonald had ever written up to that point.

Like most of MacDonald’s standalones, the book was out of print for much of the past 25 years, but recently ebooks of nearly all of MacDonald's work have been “published” and are readily available through the normal channels. The last time I looked The Beach Girls was selling for only $4.99 on Amazon (for the Kindle). The few used copies of the various paperback editions available on Amazon are quite overpriced, and even the lower priced volumes one can find on eBay are more expensive than the average used paperback should be. Whatever way you like to read, however, I heartily recommend this book.

2 comments:

  1. It's funny you should mention the front cover blurb, as I'd missed that from being so baffled by the back cover blurb. Authors don't write their own marketing copy of course, and certainly there's a lot of MacDonald books (along with many other books of the era and general genre) that have fairly sensationalized summations, but the one for The Beach Girls is just outright baffling.

    "But why did he choose our beach? He could have gone ten miles up the strip and all of us could have lived happily ever after--with no questions asked. But Leo Rice did ask questions and now it seemed to us that we were dirty. That our drinking, our love-making, and our forgotten pasts were evil. We had told ourselves that we were modern, free women until Leo Rice came along. Until the twisted emotiuons and buried hatreds ended in brutal murder."

    The tricky part in all this is that it sounds like a perfectly plausible MacDonald approach. He was well known for his moralizing touch, after all, and especially the part about being "modern, free women" so clearly echoes McGee's later contempt for the Playboy bunny set.

    Between the back copy and the name of the novel itself, I always had the impression that it was going to be some tedious sermon, MacDonald at his worst. For that reason I skipped it again and again, until I was pretty much out of his books left to read. Imagine my surprise when I found that the copy turned out to be pretty much a load of bull. There's certainly no Sin Island-type community all pent up with regret, just waiting for a puritan to come by with a moralizing light to cleanse everyone; the Anne Browder plotline is the closest, but she's still anyone but a woman crushed under the weight of untamed hedonism. And one gets a completely wrong impression of Leo, while the rest of the men are left out entirely.

    Strange all around. Great book though. Thanks as always.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Keith, and thanks for pointing out that back cover blurb. It is about as inaccurate and unrepresentative as one could be. Did the person who wrote that even read The Beach Girls? I mean, it has nothing -- NOTHING -- to do with what happens in the novel. And as for making the book sound like a bit of MacDonald moralizing, how ironic that it appeared on what was, up to that point, MacDonald’s bawdiest novel ever.

      They probably thought that they were selling what was, to them, an undefinable novel. In your case -- and how many others? -- it did just the opposite.

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