Monday, May 7, 2018

"The Giant Who Came to Our House"

John D MacDonald wrote 27 short stories that appeared in the weekly newspaper supplement This Week, spanning a 16 year period from 1950 to 1966. I’ve written about most of these brief tales, fiction that included situational comedies, family issues, youthful reminiscences and, yes, even crime. Considering the vast circulation of This Week -- it was included in scores of American Newspapers from 1935 to 1969 -- more people probably read John D MacDonald stories in this magazine than in any other. As I wrote in a previous post, “[This Week] started out being carried by 21 newspapers with a combined circulation of more than four million. Over the the next thirty years the magazine’s growth was explosive: eleven million issues per week in 1955 and a high of over fourteen million by 1963. These numbers dwarf those of contemporaneous newsstand slicks -- four million got a periodical into the big leagues, with only a few like Life (5.6 million) and Reader’s Digest (ten million) exceeding that.”

The quality of these various stories ranged from the fairly inconsequential (“I Love You (Occasionally),” “A Matter of Life and Death,” “Who Stopped That Clock?”) to superior works of popular fiction, like “End of the Tiger” and “Blurred View”. Between those two extremes were the so-so stories, interesting on a fairly superficial level but leaving little or no lasting mark. “The Giant Who Came to Our House,” which appeared in the May 5, 1957 issue of This Week, probably falls into this category: it’s engaging, creates a wistfully-remembered childhood past, and tells an easy lesson. But it’s really more interesting as a dress rehearsal for a superior short story MacDonald would write six years later.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” is told in flashback, a man remembering an incident from his childhood, unimportant on its surface but lasting in the mark that it has left on him. In this regard it mirrors previous works like “Looie Follows Me” and “The Bear Trap” and would provide the template for that six-years-later story, “End of the Tiger.”

It happened on a Sunday long ago, on one of those hot still days in late summer. I was ten that summer, and it was a bad summer for me because of my father. It wasn't that I was ashamed of him. I just felt sort of let down. I think my mother felt the same way, but there wasn't anything we could do about it.

Billy Barret’s problem with his father Sam began way before that Sunday incident long ago. Sam had run his own “mercantile store” in town before partnering up with another local retailer, an obnoxious feed store owner named Ed Wadley. Wadley is a kind of character familiar to readers of MacDonald’s work: big and beefy, loud and obnoxious and given to using demeaning names to others (he refers to Sam as “Shorty”). Readers of “Blue Water Fury” and “The Killer” will recognize him immediately. The two argue constantly about the direction of the business and Wadley always wins those arguments, many of them taking place at the Barret home and in front of Billy. But the incident Billy is recalling took place outside of the business relationship and involved a third party, an outsider to the family.

Harry Sturmer is a circus performer, a seven-foot-four, three hundred and twenty pound giant whose stage name is Big Tex. Out of work and penniless after his circus closed unexpectedly and robbed of his stash of money, he wandered by the Barret place -- a large house and a yard big enough to fit a barn and an apple orchard -- asking for work. Billy’s mom Sarah took pity on him and, needing to replace their other handyman, hired him on at a dollar per day. Harry sleeps in the barn and, between chores, writes to circuses around the region looking for work. Billy’s recollection of the giant is characteristic MacDonald: tersely but tellingly descriptive, evoking a deeper character in as few words as possible:

His voice didn't sound the way a giant's should. It was thin and kind of rusty sounding. All in all, I guess he was a disappointing sort of giant. Unfinished looking. And nothing fit just right. He was powerful, but slow and awkward and clumsy. His face was long and he had a sad look and he sunburned easy. Every time I asked a question, he had to think over his answer and then he made it short.

Billy gets used to having Harry around the place and over time comes to admire him. So it is no surprise that the “incident” the story is built around takes place at Harry’s expense and involved the noxious Ed Wadley.

On that particular Sunday Wadley is over and he and the Barrets are out on the porch talking, with Billy playing in the yard and Harry doing yard work out near the driveway. The contentious conversation is, as always, about the store and at one point Wadley makes a point loud enough for everyone -- including Harry -- to hear:

"Now honestly, Shorty, how much respect am I supposed to have for the business judgement of a man who'd hire a freak to take care of the work around this place?"

There was a strange silence. The whole afternoon seemed to stop, even the birds. I was close enough to barely hear my mother whisper, "That was rude, Ed Wadley. Very rude. You've hurt his feelings."

But Sam Barret was silent.

And my father didn't do anything. He didn't tell Ed Wadley to get off the place. I felt sick inside. I wanted to make it up to Harry somehow, but there just wasn't any way I could think of.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” ends happily, as one would certainly expect in a Sunday morning read from 1957, and its themes and concerns go deeper than most of the previous stories MacDonald wrote for This Week. The subject of prejudice and standing up for oneself surely trump tales of marital misunderstandings and household pets. But the story, seen now from the perspective of time and an understanding of MacDonald’s entire writing career, reads more like a dry run for the superior “End of the Tiger.” The author obviously liked these childhood tales told from the perspective of a grown man and he continued to write them throughout his career. He even tried it after “End of the Tiger,” less than a year after the publication of that great story, with another This Week effort, “Wild, Wonderful Old Man,” with much less success. And as good as “End of the Tiger” was -- and is -- it paled against JDM’s greatest recollection tale, “The Bear Trap.” Now that was a piece of writing.

“The Giant Who Came to Our House” has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted, but it can be easily read by anyone with access to an online newspaper database, either at home or through your local library. Microfilm archives of most US newspapers are readily available and many of these dailies carried This Week. Some examples are the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Star.

No comments:

Post a Comment