Sunday, March 14, 2021

‘Condominium’: MacDonald’s Dreadful Lemon Skyline

 

Book critic Jonathan Yardley enjoyed a long, fruitful and influential career, working at a variety of different newspapers from 1964 to 2014. These included the Miami Herald, the Washington Star, and the Washington Post, where I read his work every Sunday in the paper’s Book World supplement. In 2003 he began a once-a-month column in the Post titled “Second Reading,” where he reconsidered books from the past and wrote about obscure novels that should have been treated better in their day. That column introduced me to more great writing than all of the English classes I ever took in high school or college.

Yardley was also a great champion of the writing of John D MacDonald, beginning when he was the book editor of the Miami Herald and on into his time at the Star and the Post. His articles on JDM were relatively long, well thought out, and displayed more than a passing knowledge of the writer’s work. Back when I started this blog in 2009 the first link I ever included in my “JDM on the Internet” section over in the right hand column was his JDM piece from the Second Reading series titled “John D MacDonald’s Lush Landscape of Crime”.  I also included a quote from it at the top of the column, a near-perfect summation of MacDonald’s qualities as a writer.


That piece contains several quotes from the article transcribed below, Yardley’s first about JDM, written right before Condominium was published in 1977. “‘Condominium’: MacDonald’s Dreadful Lemon Skyline” was published in the Miami Herald’s Sunday supplement Tropic on March 6, 1977. It contains one glaring error (The Dreadful Lemon Sky was not the first McGee to have its debut in hardcover) but otherwise displays a better-than-usual job of journalistic research for someone who had never read MacDonald before.


Condominium: MacDonald’s Dreadful Lemon Skyline

By Jonathan Yardley


After three decades of using Florida as a backdrop of his detective novels, John D MacDonald is taking a hard look at the state's "geriatric ghettos" and environmental destruction in his book Condominium.


Back in 1953, in an otherwise forgettable little novel called Dead Low Tide, John D. MacDonald devoted a few paragraphs to the willy-nilly growth along Florida's West Coast - in particular, growth by riparian rights. With characteristic understatement he described that as "turning water into land and putting houses on it.” He also described the nightmare that haunted some residents' dreams:


"And you pray, every night, that the big one doesn't come this year. A big one stomped and churned around Cedar Key a couple of years back, and took a mild pass at Clearwater and huffed itself out. One year it is going to show up, walking out of the Gulf and up the coast, like a big red top walking across the schoolyard. And the wind isn't going to mess things up too much, because people have learned what to do about the wind. But that water is going to have real fun with the made land, with the sea walls and packed shells and the thin topsoil. It's going to be like taking a good kick at an anthill, and then the local segment of that peculiar aberration called the human race is going to pick itself up, whistle for the dredges, and start it all over again."


That "big one" crashed around in MacDonald's mind for nearly a quarter-century. This year it hits land, in a genuine blockbuster of a novel called Condominium. It's a huge book, and it seems a lead-pipe cinch to be a huge popular success. Its publisher, Lippincott, has printed a first edition of 50,000 copies and has committed itself to a publicity and advertising budget of $75,000. More importantly, it is a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club - which means that it will be offered, on a hard-to-refuse basis, to the club's more than one million members.


MacDonald has written millions of words and sold millions of books during his three decades as a professional writer, but Condominium is going to be a "breakthrough" novel for him anyway. It is going to get him out of the mystery and suspense territory he has occupied so profitably -- notably with his 16 Travis McGee novels -- and into the far broader field of popular fiction. It seems a better-than-even-money bet to get to the top of the bestseller lists, and it will be a socko-boffo disaster movie if MacDonald's agent sells it to Hollywood on the stiff terms he is asking.


Of somewhat more parochial interest, Condominium also is going to establish MacDonald as the pre-eminent “Florida novelist.” Some, casting a jaundiced eye over the competition, would say that's not much of an honor, but that's not the point. Condominium is the culmination of an astonishingly productive writing career in which Florida -- its land and water, its residents and drifters, its businesses legitimate and illegitimate -- has been a central concern. Since he moved to the state in 1949, MacDonald has been observing and writing about the state's affairs more penetratingly than any other writer of fiction; in Condominium he simply brings it all together.


The novel is about just what its title promises; it's called Condominium rather than the snappier Condo because, as MacDonald puts it, the abbreviation "doesn't travel well outside Florida.” The highrise in question is Golden Sands, on a Gulf Coast strip of sand called Fiddler Key - it could be Sanibel, or Longboat Key, or Siesta Key, where MacDonald lives, or almost anywhere in Florida:


“Golden Sands was an eight-story building. The parking garage, the entrance foyer and the manager's office and apartment were on the ground floor. The floor above that was called the first floor. There were seven apartments on each floor, and, because of penthouse patios, only five apartments on the top floor. Forty-seven, plus the manager's efficiency. It was a pale concrete building, one apartment thick, shaped like an angular boomerang. It stood on four cramped acres of land, its rear convexity backing up on an impenetrable jungle of water, oak, palmetto, mangrove and miscellaneous vines and bushes. Its concave front faced the constant noisy traffic on two-lane Beach Drive, and, at a greater distance, the space between two taller beachfront condominiums, and beyond them, the wide blue Gulf of Mexico."


The novel is long, complex and densely populated; its cast of characters is by far the largest MacDonald has dealt with. From its ominous opening chapter to its climax when the "big one," Hurricane Ella, walks in off the Gulf, the novel introduces us to a wide variety of people and problems. Chief among the former are the residents of Golden Sands, most of them retired, and the fast-money types who have built the highrise on a shaky foundation in order to skim off the highest possible profit.


MacDonald is reluctant to concede that Condominium is an angry novel, even though corruption of several kinds is chief among its many concerns; he says only that it was inspired in part by "a certain amount of irritation with the social structure - a tax structure which discourages the debasement of the environment rather than protects it.” He prefers to describe it as "a story about the retired people” in which they are treated “as persons rather than symbols," and when he is asked to summarize the novel's themes he says:


“The book is basically about the problems of the geriatric ghetto and also about how the disasters of nature tend either to enhance or solve the problems of mortals.”


In all likelihood Condominium is going to be seized on by certain readers not merely as an attack on shoddy, environmentally exploitative business practices but as a condemnation of Florida itself. It is true that MacDonald is among the state's tougher and more perceptive critics-in-residence, but his tough words are tempered by affection. “I've always recognized that Florida is a slightly tacky state," he says, and then adds: “...you love it in spite of itself.”


It was love at first sight, in fact, that got him here to begin with. By 1949, MacDonald had established himself firmly enough as a writer of suspense fiction so that he and his wife, Dorothy, could live off his income from it, and they began looking for a congenial place to settle down. “We thought maybe Taos would be a nice place," he says, “so when we went to drive out there we decided we'd drive around the edge of the country. We drove down as far as Vero Beach and came over across to Clearwater, and it was so clean and sparkling and bright, we said, 'Why not?' We stopped and found a place and rented it and put the kid in school.”



When their son was ready for junior high school the MacDonalds moved to Sarasota to take advantage of its school system, and seven years ago they built a magnificent waterfront house on Siesta Key that MacDonald describes as "an old-timey type house up on pilings with veranda around it and a tin roof.” They have been around long enough to remember the state as it was before the big population explosion began in the '50s. MacDonald recalls the natural pleasures of those days fondly - "It was nice to be able to go out to Midnight Pass and catch bluefish until your tackle was all torn up and your arm was falling off” – but he bristles at suggestions that the Tampa-Sarasota area was a sleepy cultural backwater. What he remembers is "a very, very sophisticated environment,” inhabited by people of intellect and urbanity.


One thing that is important to understand about MacDonald as a critic of Florida and its culture is that he is a delighted observer of the human comedy, no matter where it takes place. As a result, much of what in his work at first seems sarcasm is actually humor, written with obvious pleasure in the odd quirks and nuances of an odd world. Take, for example, this passage from a 1959 novel called The Beach Girls:


"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 slumped 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 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."


As that suggests, MacDonald has a tendency to exaggerate -- sometimes for comic effect, as there, and at other times for dramatic effect, as in Condominium. His view of Florida's future borders on the apocalyptic, the novel makes clear, and he admits as much. “I've been questioning people lately," he says, “and it's very strange. You say, 'Do you have a feeling that something really horrible, something we can't even imagine, is going to happen?' and they say, 'Yes - and soon!' I think there's such a thing as visceral wisdom, animal wisdom, and I keep rechecking my own gut feelings, because I don't want to become a victim of the same paranoia."


MacDonald finds it ominous, for example, that from the veranda of his house “I think we've seen two really clear sunsets in the past year," and he talks despairingly about the air pollution drifting south from Polk County. He is pleased about the state's expanding environmental programs, but his pleasure is tinged with a rueful realism: “The population pressure increases geometrically whereas the state's effort to save things is a linear progression. You can never elicit wholehearted popular support for these programs because most of the population is too new to see the problems."


So why does he stay here? Because he has roots, a house, and many good friends "who were friends before I became notorious, those 'who knew you when."  And obviously he stays because, no matter how short his patience with it may become at times, Florida offers marvelous material for fiction — and MacDonald, more than any other novelist, is making use of it.


That is especially true of the Travis McGee novels, most of which are set in the state. As millions of readers know by now, each novel has a different color in its title (to help readers distinguish among them), and many of the colors have a distinctly “Florida” tinge: lemon, blue, orange, yellow, tan, turquoise. McGee, the anti-heroic hero, is one of the more beguiling creations in suspense fiction, a good-humored skeptic with, like MacDonald himself, an inbred dislike for the apparatus and entanglements of mass society. This is how he characterizes himself in The Deep Blue Good-By, the first novel in the series:


"...I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."


This determinedly free spirit operates out of a houseboat named the Busted Flush, which is moored at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale. He keeps a box filled with spare clothes and cosmetics for the pretty young things who often drop in, and if there's a combination of a pretty young thing and a hint of injustice, he's into action as a self-appointed avenging angel - usually at a price of 50 per cent of the recovered goods. His scrapes are fun, and often scary, but the real pleasure to be found in the McGee novels lies in MacDonald's comments on the Florida scene, as expressed through McGee. Here's one from The Deep Blue Good-By:


"It was one of those Florida houses I find unsympathetic, all block, tile, glass, terrazzo, aluminum. They have a surgical coldness. Each one seems to be merely some complex corridor arrangement, a going through place, an entrance built to some place of a better warmth and privacy that was never constructed. When you pause in these rooms, you have the feeling you are waiting. You feel that a door will open and you will be summoned, and horrid things will happen to you before they let go. You cannot mark these houses with any homely flavor of living. When they are emptied after occupancy, they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away."


Here is one from Darker Than Amber:


"South of the City of Broward Beach, along A1A, is where the action is. The junk motels, bristling with neon, squat on the littered sand, spaced along the beach areas, interspersed with package stores, cocktail lounges, juice stands, auction parlors, laundromats, hair stylists, pizza drive-ins, discount houses, shell factories, real estate offices, tackle stores, sundries stores, little twenty-four-hour supermarkets, bowling alleys and faith healers."


And here is one from The Dreadful Lemon Sky:


"...It was easy to read the shape and history of Bayside, Florida. There had been a little town on the bay shore, a few hundred people, a sleepy downtown with live oaks and Spanish moss. Then International Amalgamated Development had moved in, bought a couple of thousand acres, and put in shopping centers, townhouses, condominiums, and rental apartments, just south of town. Next had arrived Consolidated Construction Enterprises and done the same thing north of town. When downtown decayed, the town fathers widened the streets and cut down the shade trees in an attempt to look just like a shopping center. It didn't work. It never does. This was instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores.”


The Dreadful Lemon Sky, published in 1974, is the 16th of the McGee novels and in at least one respect the most important - it was the first to make its original appearance in hard covers rather than paperback. That didn't mean it was a better novel than the ones that went before (though certainly it's one of the best of the McGees), and it didn't mean that MacDonald had finally "arrived," but it did give a certain legitimacy to his work that, in the eyes of some readers, it had theretofore lacked. It meant that a book of his could be displayed in the bookstores right next to the ostensibly more "serious” works of fiction, and it meant that he would be given more widespread and thoughtful review attention.


That novel and Condominium are, one could say, the triumphant attainments of a writing career that had curious and far from propitious beginnings. MacDonald, who was born in 1926, was steered to Harvard Business School by his father. After graduation he held a series of jobs and was fired from one after another for having “unpalatable opinions" about his employers; he was, as he recalls it, "a brash fellow, you might say.”


His break came, improbably enough, during World War II, when he was serving in India as a major in the Office of Strategic Services: 


“I was in the OSS and the mail was in one hundred per cent censorship. Our people suggested that we just avoid any nonsense -- don't say where you are, the climate, the food, anybody else around you by name, just don't tell about your present environment at all, if you are ailing just don't mention any diseases -- it makes a pretty tough letter. I wrote several of those, and then I wrote my wife a story in a letter. She was doing some typing for a guy who was trying to be a writer. She sent it off to Whit Burnett, who accepted it for Story magazine and paid me $25 for it.”


When MacDonald got the news he thought: “Wow! I can do one of those a day. That's $125 or $150 a week right there." It didn't work out quite that simply. MacDonald returned to civilian life in September 1945, and it was not until the end of 1946 that he had become self-sufficient. He estimates that he wrote some 800,000 words in that period, the overwhelming majority of which never saw print.


Perhaps that was just as well, for MacDonald acquired an objectivity about the words he writes that stands him in good stead. The final manuscript of Condominium contains approximately 168,000 words, but MacDonald says he actually wrote closer to 500,000. In his files he has fat sections of the book that were thrown out because they didn't fit or he simply didn't like them -- and if he has any regrets about what gives every appearance of wasted labor, he gives no signs of them.


The sum of MacDonald's life's work has long since passed the point most writers can comprehend: more than 60 novels and 500 short stories in just over 30 years. Admittedly, most of the novels are short, but two a year is an awesome rate - all the more so when you add 17 short stories a year to that. He is able to produce so much because he is an intensely disciplined writer - a professional in the truest and most admirable sense of the word. He puts in a 40-hour week at his rented IBM Selectric typewriter in his spare and semi-isolated upstairs office, and he rarely runs into writer's block -- although, interestingly enough, he had a problem with that this winter. "My new McGee book is halfway done,” he says, “and I'm just stalled on it. Condominium seems to be going to do so well that I want this McGee book to be better than any of the others."


As that remark makes plain, MacDonald takes great pride in his writing, in the books that he wants readers to think were "easy to write." But pride is one thing and hubris is another. MacDonald knows what he does is good but he has no illusions that it is great, and he is impatient with readers and critics who try to find more than is there in his work or any other suspense writer's:


"It's kind of a mistake on the part of critics to give our work things like the front page of The New York Times Book Review. We're doing folk dances, and it's just as incorrect to make this type of work into something it isn't as it is to make too much of the Gravity's Rainbow kind of thing. One is overvalued because the critic finds some elements of literacy in it, the other because he can't understand it.”


MacDonald pays attention to what his competitors in the genre are doing; inasmuch as readers constantly confuse John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald, “I'm glad he writes so well.” He is more interested, however, in writers of ostensibly broader preoccupations - he mentions John Updike, Vance Bourjaily, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Williams - whose prose has “felicity, an element of aptness.” He reads widely, and he has sharp opinions: “I just cannot read people like Leon Uris and James Michener. When you've covered one line, you can guess the next one. I like people who know the nuances of words, who know how to stick the right one in the right place. Sometimes you can laugh out loud at an exceptionally good phrase. I find it harder and harder to find fiction to read, because I either read it with dismay at how good it is or disgust at how bad it is. I do like the guys like John Cheever that have a sense of story, because, goddam it, you want to know what happens to somebody. You don't want a lot of self-conscious little logjams thrown in your way.”


MacDonald tosses these and other opinions around right and left, but his manner is neither dogmatic nor arrogant. He is a self-confident person, comfortable with himself, and with his life. He talks easily, in a resonant voice, pausing often to think or to laugh. He is low-keyed and self-deprecating, and he is still sufficiently unaccustomed to his new eminence to take an infectious delight in it.


Back in January, as I was getting ready to end our interview, I noticed what gave every appearance of being a copy of Condominium on an endtable in his living room. I expressed puzzlement, because the bound copies were not then ready. With a touch of embarrassment, MacDonald admitted that he had received a copy of the dust jacket, and had wrapped it around another book “just to see what it looks like.” With a laugh, he removed the jacket and showed me what was inside. It was a copy of Rich Man, Poor Man.

Monday, February 22, 2021

"Homecoming"

It was almost six years ago that I wrote a long piece on John D MacDonald’s 1958 novel Clemmie, a non-crime paperback original that was third in a series of books that explored middle-class standards and social mores “in the jungle of the suburban backyard.” Like its two predecessor novels -- Cancel All Our Vows and The Deceivers -- Clemmie’s plot revolves around marital infidelity, here a suburban husband alone at home for the summer who falls for a younger woman. It’s one of MacDonald’s better efforts.

The end of that posting was taken up with a lengthy discussion on a 1964 short story titled “Homecoming”. I learned about this story while studying the finding guide for the University of Florida’s John D MacDonald Collection -- it was listed thusly: 

Clemmie (Author's title: "Homecoming") - Knight Article (tear sheets, 5 pages). Vol 4 Issue 6

This was a complete mystery to me: I had never heard of any part of Clemmie being published in a magazine and there was no listing for “Homecoming” in Walter Shine’s Bibliography/Biography. I eventually obtained a copy of that issue of Knight -- a west coast men’s magazine -- and discovered that “Homecoming” was not credited to MacDonald but to one Richard Maxwell. But when I read the story it was clear to me that it definitely came from Clemmie, although altered throughout and, in places,  in a decidedly different writing style. Here’s an example I cited, first a paragraph from “Homecoming”:

He could hear grunts and thuds, and the rhythmic meaty splat of fists on flesh… A wide, heavy young man had wedged a taller man into the angle formed by the brick walls. The taller man’s arms flopped and dangled. His face was a bloody smear. The shorter man stood in close, his head lowered, his shoulders rolling in an almost sexual rhythm as he slammed sickening, murderous blows into the tall man’s middle.. Mike stepped in and put his arms through the man’s elbows, bringing his hands up and locking the fingers... The beaten man sagged into the corner.

Compare this to the original passage in Clemmie:

He could hear grunts and thuds and, in remorseless rhythm, the meaty splat of fists on flesh. He moved gingerly toward the sound... A short, wide man had wedged a taller man into the angle formed by a fence and the side of the bar. The taller man's arms flopped and dangled. His face was a darkened smear. The short man worked on him with the rhythmic tenacity of someone chopping wood... Craig locked his arms through the man's elbows... The beaten man, no longer supported by the tempo of the blows, had sagged into the corner.

This fight scene, where protagonist Craig Fitz first meets Clemmie in the novel, is followed by a scene that is a reworking of the county fair outing where another fight (of sorts) occurs. “Homecoming” then ends abruptly with the couple leaving for Mexico.

I didn’t know what to make of this. This was either JDM writing under a never-before-revealed pen name or it was an act of plagiarism by Maxwell, a writer who had a few other credits in men’s magazines of that era. The pen name possibility was not out of the question: this period of MacDonald’s career -- just as he was about to launch the Travis McGee series -- was a time of economic uncertainty for the author, described in his September 1964 essay for The Writer, “How to Live With a Hero”. Not only had the creation of a series hero been something he’d vowed never to do, the year before had seen him stooping to doing a novelization of a Judy Garland film, I Could Go On Singing. Perhaps rewriting a few scenes from an old novel under a pen name was needed to pay some bills.

But the style of “Homecoming” was all wrong: flat, clumsy in places, and completely unnecessary unless JDM was trying to disguise his source. But I had no way of knowing.

Recently, however, I’ve gained access to the Clemmie file from the JDM Collection and can now report that “Homecoming” is most definitely an act of plagiarism. Here’s the story:

“Homecoming” was published in the April 1964 issue of Knight, a periodical which began life in 1958 as Sir Knight. A glossy that featured nudity in much the same vein as most of its contemporaries, Sir Knight -- edited by Steve Madden and Richard L. Sargent for Sirkay Publishing -- also published fiction, but the authors’ names are unrecognizable and are probably pseudonyms.  Of the names in the premiere issue, only one of seven ever appeared in a different magazine, and that was Adam, another men’s magazine probably published by the same outfit. Sir Knight lasted until 1962 or 1963, when it became simply Knight, increased its shelf size (10 ½ x 13) and began purchasing work from some name writers, including Henry Slesar, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, William F. Nolan, Norman Spinrad, and even Tennessee Williams. But no-names still abounded, and Richard Maxwell had stories in many early issues of Knight.

On April 15, 1964 a JDM fan living in Macon, Georgia wrote the author a one page letter and included “Homecoming,” torn from the magazine. It read:

Dear Mr. MacDonald,

For some time I have been one of your most eager readers... I became "hooked" on your stories six years ago when I read Clemmie. Since then I have read more than thirty of your books and have regretted that I couldn't find more.

Because of this interest I suppose it was predictable that the enclosed story, "Homecoming", sounded so familiar when I read it. I decided that the similarities between this story and Clemmie were too obvious to be coincidence. There was the same fight scene broken up in the same way, the same girl dressed in the basque shirt..., the same love scene in her apartment, and the same fight at the carnival. Aside from the plot, the dialogue and descriptions were so similar that they were clearly recognizable.

It occurred to me that "Homecoming" might  be a story which you had written under a pen name. Now that I have compared the two in detail I don't think so. It seems to me that the portions of the story which were not related  to Clemmie were written in a distinctly different style.

I am sending you the clippings of this story because I know that you will be interested if you are not Richard Maxwell. If I'm wrong and the story is yours, please forgive my interference. In any event, I am extremely curious and would consider it a great favor if you would let me know.

The following week MacDonald received a second letter, this time from a fan in Van Nuys, California, alerting him to the same story. This reader had no doubt about the legality of “Homecoming”:

Last month I picked up a copy of Knight Magazine, a big magazine out here, and one of the stories is clearly pirated from your novel Clemmie. Hell, some of the scenes, especially the carnival scene are practically word for word. So, I figured you might want to see it. Maybe a thing like that wouldn't bother you, but, if it was me, I'd get so damned sore I'd want to sue everybody in sight. In any case, I tore out the sheets containing the story and am sending it along...

Before receiving the second letter MacDonald forwarded the first to his editor at Fawcett, Knox Burger, along with this cover letter:

Dear Knox,

I am enclosing a letter just received from a [reader] in Macon, Georgia, with which he forwarded to me tear sheets of a story called "Homecoming" by one Richard Maxwell published in the April 1964 issue of Knight.

It looks to me as if the gentleman is right. This does seem like a little more than the sincerest form of flattery.

However, to get an independent opinion, could you please have one of your folks make the comparison test.

How we proceed from there, if it is as flagrant as it seems to be, I would not know. The last time it happened it was with Manhunt, I believe, a rewrite of a story that was in Cosmopolitan, and a fellow named St. John or some such wrote us that he had been taken in by the plagiarist, and would buy no further from him, and regretted the incident.

If you agree, that would be ample in this case too.


He also responded to the letter writers, and both responses contain some interesting detail of that period in the author’s career. To the Macon fan he wrote:

No, that was not mine and I am very grateful to you for sending it along.

It certainly looks like a lot more than coincidence. To give the guy every benefit of the doubt, sometimes these things happen as a result of a photographic memory disguising itself as inspiration...

As long as you are an Eager Reader (God, how I cherish the clan!) I am taking advantage of you by inserting herein an advertisement. On your local stands by now should be the first two novels of my Travis McGee series titled The Deep Blue Goodby and Nightmare in Pink. There are more to follow, and we have high pitiful hopes for the success of the series. If you happen to like them, take note that we need every tub-thumper we can get.

He included a different “advertisement” in his letter to the Van Nuys reader:

Last week somebody up in Georgia sent me that thing, and I sent it along to Knox Burger. I think it plagiarism. Here is perhaps a lousy rule of thumb for these things, but, if the guy could have maintained the "style" in the uncribbed portions, then it could have been a case of photographic memory at work, inadvertently lifting things that went along with his own persuasions. But it is so damned leaden in between the thieving I must assume he was aware of exactly how he was jazzing it up...

I am doing a long novel for Doubleday, and I am right in the middle of it, and it covers three highly improbable areas -- the automobile industry, the resort convention and the pro gold tour. I have a cast of thousands. I think they will have to put a detachable program in the front of the book. I hope DD will stick with my title, because it fits all three endeavors. The Blood Game. Thanks.

Knox Burger

The final letter in the file is one from Knox Burger to MacDonald’s agent Max Wilkinson. It is both amusing and revealing of just who Richard Maxwell may have been.

I enclose tearsheets from the April issue of Knight, together with a copy of Clemmie. Author Richard Maxwell has cribbed MacDonald's story from pages 48 to 80, and tailored his plot and some of his actual prose into a short story.

A tough letter to them asking payment in the amount they paid Maxwell would seem indicated; we have caused marks to be made showing actual correspondences between book and story. If you want, I'll stop in and see them or call them while I'm out there. They publish on Melrose Avenue, which has strip joints, awning wholesalers and high colonic irrigation parlors. It would be nice if you could find out who Maxwell is, and if it's his square monicker.

I have just talked to Scott Meredith, who knows this operation, and tells me that the whole masthead is largely a bunch of pseudonyms, and the actual editor is Richard L. Sargent, apparently a real name; Meredith also suspects that Maxwell may be a pseudonym for Sargent, which is sort of a cute situation, isn't it?

Maybe you ought to send a carbon of the letter to the business manager. The magazine apparently stemmed from a printing operation.

Unfortunately there are no follow-up letters in the file, so I don’t know how or even if Knight responded. It’s telling, however, that according to FictionMags, there were no further stories by Richard Maxwell after April 1964, either in Knight or in Adam, both of whom continued publishing well into the 1970’s. (Granted, FictionMags’ publication histories for both magazines are quite spotty). So perhaps getting caught led to retiring the name Richard Maxwell. I wonder how many of his earlier stories were cribbed from others, perhaps including more MacDonald.

The correspondence also brings to mind two other mysteries surrounding JDM. First, the plagiarized story or stories that appeared in Manhunt. Talk of this incident has been going around for years, and writer Ed Gorman often wondered just who it was that had been guilty. I’ve never been able to find out, but now knowing that it was a Cosmopolitan story that was stolen narrows it down somewhat. Still,  MacDonald wrote 17 stories for the magazine, so it’s going to take some work.

The other mystery revolves around The Blood Game, the “big” novel MacDonald spent years writing, from 1958 to 1972, only to have it remain unpublished. It’s not as if the author quit in the middle of it or was unable to come up with a version the publisher would accept. The JDM Collection’s finding guide reveals that the project went as far as having galleys produced, indicating that the publisher was ready to go ahead. But it never happened. Hopefully the answer is to be found in the Collection; I’ll need to do some more digging.

Letters quoted are courtesy of the John D. MacDonald Collection, Special and Area Studies Collections, George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida.

Monday, January 25, 2021

MacDonald Had a Pen

 

The following brief review of The End of the Night was published in the August 28, 1960 edition of the Miami Herald as the opening section of Beatrice Washburn’s regular Books in Review column headlined "MacDonald Had a Pen". It contains some original JDM quotes on modern child-rearing that he believed led to the formation of characters like Kirby Stone, Sander Golden, Robert Hernandez and Nan Koslov, the four members of the fictitious Wolf Pack.

Up in Sarasota lives John D. MacDonald, ex-Army lieutenant colonel who turns out books almost faster than a tape recorder. This is not to imply he needs one. No mere machine could keep up with Mr. MacDonald's mind which has produced more than thirty books in the last ten years.


It seems as though every time a batch of books arrives on the doorstep there is a MacDonald—both paper and hard covers. His last one The End of the Night (Simon and Schuster, $3.50) is, in our opinion, the best of the lot.


It is the tale, expertly told, of four young people who whip across the country in stolen cars, murdering, destroying, kidnapping, killing right and left. The four have come together by accident, from different walks of life.


One is a college youth from a good family, social register background, nice manners. One is "a caricature of the brute in man." One is a youth with, sharp, shallow face, hopelessly talkative, nervous, restless. One is a girl of the sub-moron variety.


This is one of those violence books you can't put down because the author has gone deep below the surface, of ferocity and unmeaning malignity to try and find out what has sparked this wolfpack of apparently sane young people.


"Monsters?" asks MacDonald. "If this type is a monster we have created him. He is our son. We have been told by our educators and psychologists to be permissive with him, let him express himself freely. If he throws all the sand out of his sandbox he is releasing hidden tensions. We deprived him of the security of knowing right and wrong.


"We let sleek men in high places go unpunished for amoral behavior and the boy heard us snicker. We labeled the pursuit of pleasure a valid goal, and insisted that his teachers turn schooling into fun. We preached group adjustment, security rather than challenge, protection rather than effort.


"We discarded the sexual taboos of centuries, and mislabeled the result freedom rather than license. Finally we poisoned his bone marrow with strontium 90.. sat back in ludicrous confidence expecting him to suddenly become a man.


"Why are we so shocked and horrified to find a child's emotions in a man's body -- savage, cruel, compulsive and shallow?"


In crime-suspense, Mr. MacDonald cannot be equaled. This time he has produced a thoughtful novel. Incidentally, if you ask him for advice, he might tell you to take a business course to become a writer. He took his bachelor's degree at Syracuse University, a master's degree in business administration at Harvard


Monday, December 21, 2020

"Kids on Wheels"

 


It’s been over two years since I’ve written a piece about a specific John D MacDonald story, “So Sorry” back in August of 2018. I’ve moved away from doing these kinds of postings for two reasons: a general lack of interest in short fiction in general and the lack of availability of most of these tales. But every once in a while something comes along that merits talking about. And believe me, for a JDM fan, short story collector and aficionado and amateur bibliographer, this is something that merits talking about.

I’ve written often about my early days of JDM fandom, when I assisted JDM’s “official” bibliographer Walter Shine in trying to hunt down ten published short stories that could not be located. Specifically, these were stories that -- according to the author’s own records -- were sold to publishers but no record of where they appeared could be found. There were no notations in MacDonald’s records and he received no tear sheets from the publisher, and, after years of searching by any number of early bibliographers, no evidence of their publication could be uncovered. These were, for the most part, stories that were sold to pulp publishers, either Popular Publications or Columbia, and issues of pulps can be rare (especially in the case of Columbia). Since the publication of the JDM Bibliography/Biography in 1980 most of the titles have been located, either by Walter, other JDM fans, or by me (“Big League Busher” and “The Gentle Killer”). But ever since the Bibliography’s publication, there has never been -- to my knowledge -- the discovery of a JDM story that completely escaped discovery by MacDonald, Shine or any of his helpers. That just changed.


A few days ago I received an email from a JDM fan and Trap of Solid Gold reader who lives in Greece, Petros Papagiannidis, informing me that he had come across a short story that was not on my list, titled “Kids on Wheels” and published in the June 1954 issue of The American Legion Magazine. Now, MacDonald was no stranger to that publication: in 1951 his very best Christmas story, “The Cardboard Star,”  appeared in the December issue. But there was never even a whisper of a second story purchased by the Legion. The MacDonald records are a complete blank regarding “Kids on Wheels”.


I immediately went to the Finding Guide for the JDM Collection at the University of Florida and matched up the first sentence of the story in the listing of MacDonald’s unpublished works and there it was, originally titled by the author “The Most Terrible Time of My Life”, written in 1953 and containing 4,000 words. No indication whatsoever that it had ever been sold.


The story is told in first person by one Davie, no last name given, who is in his early teens. He pals around with four other same-aged kids from school and all ride bikes. Then, one by one, the others begin to acquire motor scooters. I don’t think it was legal for under-16 kids to ride motor scooters in Maryland where I grew up, but apparently it was in 1950’s Florida where the story takes place. Eventually every one of the five own their own motorbikes except Davie. He tries to get his parents to agree to let him get one but is met with refusal, especially from his father. 


“Davie, you are not going to have one of those damn things. Florida has got the narrowest roads, the craziest drivers and the fastest traffic there is. I am not going to mount any son of mine on one of those scooters so that some vacationing creep from Dubuque can bunt him off into the boondocks and mush his head against a palm tree. Let's have no more nonsense, Davie. My God, a bike is bad enough."



The scooters begin to distance the other boys from Davie, and they eventually exclude him from their group. He mopes and sulks and becomes essentially friendless, spending most of his spare time reading in his room. Eventually the father relents and a scooter is purchased, but not without a long list of rules from the father. So even though he is accepted back into the group, the rules he has promised to obey gradually cause him to be ostracized once again. 


Then one day a policeman stops him while riding home from school, and later that evening another one comes to the house…


“Kids on Bikes” is a good story with a surprisingly adult ending, and one wonders why it appeared in The American Legion Magazine. This was almost certainly not the first market MacDonald’s agent sought to have the story published in, and he probably didn’t get paid anything near what he was getting from some of the other magazines he sold to in 1954: Cosmopolitan, Collier’s, Argosy, This Week, and even Bluebook. I’m sure this is a case of a story getting rejected multiple times and MacDonald mistakenly filing it away as unpublished. 


The good news is that my friend Petros discovered this story on the Internet Archive, where anyone with a computer or smartphone can read it for themselves. You can get there from here:


https://archive.org/details/americanlegionma566amer

Now I have to wonder about any other stories that may be out there and undiscovered. Maybe that oversized claim of 500 stories might be true… or not.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Everybody Knows Something is Wrong

 


This article appeared in the October 15, 1967 issue of the Miami Herald, between Yellow (and The Last One Left) and Gray, and was featured in the newspaper’s Sunday supplement Tropic. Titled “Everybody Knows Something is Wrong,” it reads like a McGee aside, and in fact features McGee prominently. It’s interesting to note that this was written only three months prior to that annus horribilis, 1968.


John D. MacDonald of Sarasota is one of America's master mystery writers. His 55th book, Three for McGee, will be published Nov. 17 by Doubleday - a hardcover edition containing the first three books in the Travis McGee mystery series, The Deep Blue Good-by, Nightmare in Pink and A Purple Place for Dying. Novels 56 through 61 are in varying stages of completion.


Everybody Knows Something is Wrong

By John D. MacDonald


There is a fellow named Travis McGee who lives aboard his houseboat, The Busted Flush, in Fort Lauderdale, and manages to sidestep the processors and go his own way at his own pace. I used to have the illusion that he was a fictional character, and that I had invented him and thus, in the nine novels I have thus far written featuring him, I could make him do whatever I happened to think of.


My illusion dropped dead a month ago when I met with a pack of frighteningly bright high school kids from Tallahassee who came to Sarasota by bus to go to the Asolo Theater and the Ringling Museums. At their teacher's request I met with this experimental group in the gardens of the Ringling Museum for questions and answers about writing, about McGee and so on.


They got onto the reality and unreality of fictional characters, and one staunch girlchild said firmly, “I know Travis is real." And, bemused, I asked her what made her so sure. She said, “Because, if you didn't believe he was, Mr. MacDonald, you couldn't make me believe it either.”


And in my moment of reluctant revelation I realized how many times my books about Travis McGee have come to a sickening halt when I attempted to make him take certain actions inconsistent with his private and personal beliefs. He plants his feet. “No sir, boy. Not me."


McGee resents being processed, programmed, fed through the machinery by experts trained in handling people rather than persons.


He knows that the dentist, the post office, the county, the IRS, the airline hostess, the librarian, the highway engineer, the supermarket, the city government, the census bureau, the banker, the advertising agent, the automobile agency, the hospital and the mortician are all intent upon using him as a statistic, as one atom in a manageable mass, and then studying him, weighing him, measuring him, predicting his actions on some huge probability table.


They use manuals and trade journals and computers and statistical methods and psychological testing devices to predict mass reaction, and handle mass demand on a totally impersonal and totally efficient basis.


It irritates him to have society take away his face and dump him into the great hopper labeled Standard Operating Procedure.


But don't try to tell him that in a densely populated urban culture it has to be that way, that people must be turned into a commodity, or we would have chaos. Don't try to tell him that if the processors tried to measure the uniqueness of each human personality, the wonderful specialness, the delicious inconsistency of every one of us, all the memory banks would start smoking, the sorters would spew out a snow-storm of punch cards, and all the complex technology of our culture would grind to a sickening halt.


McGee knows that. But he reserves the right to resent being sorted and graded on the basis of "sameness" rather than on the basis of uniqueness. It makes him feel degraded, and he reserves the right to do his little bit here and there to startle the processors out of their compulsion to flatten and deaden all human contact, thereby creating a cumulative indifference and unawareness, as well as a truly frightful boredom.


The other day he had to go over to the Courthouse to get his two-year Florida driving license renewed. The girl behind the window was a pallid, colorless, competent mouse who took the old license without glance or greeting, put it beside her typewriter and rolled the new license blank into the machine. As she typed flawlessly and speedily, McGee studied her, thinking that about 24 years ago a nurse had announced her arrival to a nervous daddy.


There had been for her the enormous and frightening adventure of kindergarten, first grade, high school, first kiss. Everything she had on was the result of her going into a store and making a selection, evaluating appearance and price. And every morning she looked at her quiet little face in her mirror and brushed those teeth, and God only knows what myths and despairs, fantasies and hopes, depression and joy moved through that subdued and secret mind.


So as she finished the typing, pulled the duplicates and put his copy on the ledge for his signature he said, “That blouse is a very good color for you.”


The eyes that looked at him were like recording lenses in some kind of equipment. The blink was an electronic click. They saw a thing standing there renewing a bit of paper.


“What, sir?"


"I said the color of your blouse is becoming. It's a good color for you, Miss."


She looked down at herself and then back at him in a kind of blank astonishment, a transition stage from processor to person, and blushed, and the eyes were the eyes of a person then, and the mouth became a girlsmile instead of a slot in the machinery. “Thank you," she said, in a barely audible voice. McGee paid the renewal fee and walked away, aware of having struck another small blow in the war against regimentation. He knows that the sterility of mass methods degrades the dignity of the processor as well as the processed.


I think that the readers who are so hearteningly flocking to the banner of T. McGee are expressing a hunger to escape the irritation and boredom and humiliation of being just another commodity in a commodity-oriented society.


But what IS it within us which is so affronted by the benign paternalism of the computer? Any exercise of simple logic must excuse the necessity for increasing amounts of regulation and order in a land where we grow at the rate of ten thousand new souls a day, a Laredo a week, a Toledo a month, a Chicago a year. Regimentation is good for you!


The resentment is not intellectual. It goes deeper. It is way down in the roar of the blood, flex of muscle, steaming of glands. This is because the urban capture of mankind is a contemporary phenomenon.


Imagine that the whole pre-recorded and recorded history of the race during the past two million years were condensed into one year.


For eleven months and three weeks we roamed a savage world, hunting and running, fighting and breeding. Last week we began to build our own shelters and stay in one place and plant crops.


It is now midnight. At lunch time today some nut began to write down the first words. At eight o'clock this evening Christ was born and died. At quarter to midnight we began to power clumsy machines with fossil fuels. Within the past five minutes have come the miracle drugs, atomic fission and fusion, aerospace, television, transistors, computers. In the last five minutes our world population has increased by one billion.


So are we in revolt against a computerized society, or have we merely hustled ourselves into an ordered, artificial, constricted environment too rapidly for our natural bodies (so admirably designed and so long used for flight, attack, climbing, digging, hiding, slaying) to accept the safety, the inertia, the little cubicles and politenesses and repressions of our urban removal from the savage urgencies of two million years?


When we look at ourselves as individuals, caged by our own cleverness, each of us as out of time and place as a tiger on a raft, it is easy to see how desperately hard it is to contain and subdue the wildness in so brief a time.


We call it "the tension of modern life.” Chain the primitive part, tie it down, and then it breaks out in despairing ways: heart attacks, ulcers, nervous breakdowns, addictions, all the psychosomatic woes, perversions, depravities, ugly mischief.


When we form groups, this same sickness of the caged creature takes other shapes.


I find it very wry and entertaining to translate group efforts into these same terms.


The legions of Birch, who demand a return to the rigid moralities of pioneer America, and a stunting of the federal government, and an end to "the erosions of our freedom," are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!


The hippies, with their mind-changing drugs, flashing strobes, body paint, deafening music, and their demands that we make love, not war, and that we dig the flowers, are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!


The bands of young Negroes burning the guts of the old ghettos, sniping at cops and firemen, declaring war on Whitey, demanding equal opportunity and freedom and color television for all are saying: Let's put an end to this stifling regimentation!


Communists blame capitalistic oppression for all the urban miseries of man. The Nazis blamed the Jews. The democracies blame the Red conspiracy. The first Hearst blamed the yellow races.


Everybody knows something is wrong, and everybody has an eerie and formless nostalgia for something he has never known. And because we have no choice except this neon jungle, this asphalt wilderness in which we have entrapped ourselves, when we get together in groups we pick out something or someone specific we can safely blame, and we whomp up a group hate and a group action, and then we have a chance to use those ancient muscles and ancient glands and ancient reflexes in some imperfectly rationalized way.


It does no good for Whitey to say to the Detroit rioters, “Look, man, being on this side of the fence doesn't change a thing. There's just as much frustration, just as much despair, just as much formless longing, just as much envy. And when you get sick and miss your payments, they grab back your wheels just as fast.”


No matter what group or class or category any one of us is in, we find that we are a part of the hated symbol of somebody else's unfulfilled longing.


And the more we find ourselves being “processed," being measured and managed, counted and administered, placed in numerical groups and sociological categories, protected from old diseases and newly invented ones, the more serious and desperate and compulsive becomes the urge to bust out.


There are a great many imitation ways of busting out, ways that make the demands on muscle and reflex that the savage planet made on us when we were the wild roamers.


Sky diving and skin diving. A long solitary voyage in a small sailboat. Riding giant waves on little plastic boards. Racing big noisy beasts on wheels, on water, or airborne. Fighting small wars in far places. Knocking over banks and gas stations. Picking fights in bars. Learning judo. Bullfighting. Wire walking. Triple somersaults on the high trapeze. Lion taming. Hunting Cape buffalo with a handgun. Pro football.


But the imitation ways are, each for its own reasons, limited to a percentage few.


So a man, without ever moving out of the same office building, puts up a desperate battle to capture the elusive promotion. In his veins is the same blood, right down to the last fractional analysis, which flowed in his ancestor of a million years ago who put up the desperate battle to capture the plump young gazelle. And when the heart blows up, it is blamed on the tension of working under a sadistic boss.


This is not a paen to exercise, per se. There is a considerable difference in glandular secretion and emotional involvement between a man jogging around the block before breakfast out of a sense of duty, and a man jogging through thickets wondering if the sabertooth tiger has circled and is crouched waiting for him somewhere just ahead. Waiting for a tennis serve has not the same total effect on the organism as waiting for a sharp stone to be hurled at the head.


This, I suspect, is the vicarious fascination which Mr. T. McGee holds for many people. Amidst all the clickey-tick of the memory tubes and print-outs and data recovery, McGee has found the sabertooth tiger and the sharp stone. He has managed a bust-out which makes the regimented man wistful because his response to it is deep and primal.


McGee is a boat man, so he is not constrained to stop at the red lights and never cross the double yellow line. He is "processed” only when he permits it as a necessary part of some far more interesting pursuit. And though he likes things, he is not possessed by things. And his love life - one of those last bits of the original and primitive life experience which has not been blurred and perfumed and anaesthetized into forgetability, as with birth and pain and dying - is not overburdened with any responsibilities except the emotional.


McGee, as a loner, conducts his own kind of wry and bemused little revolt against the processors and the programmers. To fold, bend or spindle the punch-card bill which is in error would be crude, and probably ineffective. McGee finds it more useful, and more fun, to take the corner of a razor blade and cut out a few more oblong holes similar in spacing and identical in size to the ones already in the card. Then he writes his complaint on the card itself, in the comforting knowledge that the sorting machine will spew it out and an actual human being will pick it up out of the reject slot and read the message.


He keeps a box of fairly heavy, envelope-sized steel plates in a storage locker. When junk mail gets too voluminous, he puts these plates in the First Class Permit envelopes along with a polite card which gives his name and address and asks that he be removed from the mailing lists.


He divides people, regardless of race, creed, color, age, background or status into two groups, the very small group he is happy to spend time with and the very large group he isn't. He believes you get that one lap around the long track, and each one has to run his own race in his own way for his own reasons, and it is absurd to spend your time, while running, criticizing the other people on the track for their style of running, or how they take the turns, or how slowly or quickly they get up when they trip and fall.


McGee is a non-conformist in only a limited sense. Sometimes he finds it simpler and easier and quicker to accept the processing than to resist it. He thinks obstructionism for its own sake is a waste of good time, and when you waste time you are wasting life itself if you are not wasting it in a way that pleasures you.


He believes that any human endeavor which requires more than two people to consummate is not worth attempting. The reluctant exceptions are some theater, some ballet, some music. He does not believe in committees, will not sign petitions, and would not stand in line for any award, spectacle or bonus he has ever heard of.


There must be a great yearning among men to live in this same way, yet too many reasons why they cannot. We ride our inevitable assembly lines past those who study and measure and process us, and never find a way to hop off, never find the ways to use ourselves up as we used to, for hundreds of thousands of years, before our clever monkey-brains found the machines to make everything easier and safer.


I do not promulgate the myth of the Noble Savage. In all the centuries of wandering, and for most of the 40,000 years of village cultures, life was cruel, dirty, oppressive and very abrupt. Until a few moments ago in time, the life expectancy of those who survived the infant years was only 30 years. Starvation brutalizes. Untreated disease brutalizes. Superstition degrades.


So here we are in the bright morning of civilization, heading inevitably toward the elimination of all monotonous labor. Guaranteed food and shelter for all. Further prolongation of life. Ever-increasing leisure. By means of little tapes, the machines are now making machines. A bright, flip-top, disposable, asceptic world, safe for all.


We could walk around smiling, were it not for the lurking primate, the unused creature electric with survival reflexes, demanding terror, anger, hate, violence and victims. So, blocked off from the jungles and plains where we bred and roamed, we compensate with gas ovens for people, napalm, the battered child syndrome, conspiracy born of the fear of conspiracy, labor camps and thought police, rape and riots, drugs and despair.


The computer came along before we were really ready for it. It can think, in a very limited and simplistic way. It will get better at building structures of logic. And because we control the computers, we will have them enforcing these very logical concepts upon ourselves. It would work if the mind of man were logical, but it is not. We have toted along all our barbaric centuries with us, and we carry all the past in our heads in the form of strange dreams and magic, fantasies and confusions, yearnings and images.


Our logic consists of making a sudden violent emotional judgment, and then thinking up a list of sober, sedate, objective reasons for the opinion already arrived at.


The more often the computer refutes these visceral judgments, the more we will resist it. But it, like all targets of hate, is without blame. We were enticed into all these sterile areas with all primitive passions intact, seduced by our intellectual selves into believing man could be transformed into urban man overnight - sedate, wise, considerate and gentle.


The temptation, of course, is to seek refuge in these sterile relationships, to use the imposed mechanics and regulations of our over-ordered culture as a way to hide ourselves from one another, or a way to deny the hang-up we suffer. For example...


I was on a scheduled flight several years ago, coming back to Florida from a trip to New York to dicker about a book. It was an off day in an off week in the off season, and it was a prop-jet aircraft. I would guess there were no more than 11 passengers aboard. I was alone at a window seat on the starboard side to the rear of the passenger section, well behind the wing.


At dusk over the Carolinas, the sunset was fantastic and unreal, a broad band of deep hot red from one edge of the horizon to the other.


There was no one in the double seat in front of me. One of the hostesses, a pretty dark-haired girl who looked of Italian or Spanish heritage, stopped and knelt with one knee on the aisle seat in the double vacancy just in front of me, and, with one hand on the back of the seat in front of me, and the other on the back of the seat in front of that, she bent over and stared out at that sunset.


Her face, in profile, was visible to me over the back of the seat. The furnace-red light shone through the port onto her gentle young Mediterranean face.


She remained that way far longer than the cursory inspection most people give sunsets. Her expression was somber and thoughtful, and then she began to smile to herself. It was a small, soft curve of parted lips, a smile that reflected an intimate memory of some kind, or an anticipation.


I had the feeling of an inadvertent invasion of her privacy, as when you happen to see the face of a sleeping stranger. But I watched her, and she turned her head quickly enough to catch me watching her. The softness of look and mouth faded, and she backed up briskly and stood in the aisle, and gave a few assertive little pats to her uniform. She looked at me again, this time with the bright social smile of her training, and with eyes that looked at me but did not see me. She saw Commodity, Job, Training, Processing, Routine.


“May I get you a drink, sir?"


Yes, Mediterranean girl touched by a sunset's beauty, you may get me a drink which in some specialist's electronic computations, allowing for direct costs plus a percentage of service overhead and allowance for space and weight aboard, cost the airline 32.758c.


Maybe it means nothing, or everything. If everybody went around trying to relate to everybody on a totally personal basis the result would be total chaos, and a complete nervous and emotional exhaustion for everyone.


But lately it seems that even the fragments of empathy and identification grow ever more rare.


It is easier to deal with people as commodities.


And safer.


He (she) might be some kind of a nut. I (we) might get involved.


Charlie, you aren't safe on the street in broad daylight any more, I swear.


Wonder why.