Monday, May 18, 2015


The other night I did blow up like a broken rocket. A man I have always thought rather pretentious and silly, and who sells mutual funds, greeted me when I walked into a party with the friendly question, “When is your next smutty book coming out?” Then he turned to the man next to him, a fellow I did not know, and said, “John makes a nice living writing dirty books.” Maybe he was trying to be cute. I don’t know and didn’t care then and don’t now. So I shook my head sadly and said, “You are sick. You must have sexual hangups that need professional attention. Incidentally, how many widows and orphans have you screwed lately, churning their accounts, rousting them from one fund into another at that nice eight percent in front?” While he got white as a sheet, I told his buddy that my acquaintance made a good living off innocent and unsuspecting investors. The stranger walked hastily away. I was threatened with suit. I told him to go right ahead and sue, but stay out of dark parking lots or I wouldn’t leave him with enough teeth to pronounce “smutty.”

-- John D MacDonald, from a 1969 letter to a friend, as quoted by Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter

Of course, John D MacDonald never wrote a “smutty” book or story in his life, and even in the late 1960’s when some of his short work started appearing in Playboy and Cavalier, no objective reader would make such a claim when compared to other authors of the period. But this rather fanciful and self-serving recollection does prove that MacDonald was extremely sensitive to the fact that he did write about sex, and that it was part of what he did as a writer of modern fiction. He never seemed fully comfortable with this aspect of writing and his handling of the subject matter in his early works bordered on the near-Victorian for a writer of this era. In 1981 he wrote “I am personally offended by books in which the author dabs in a bit of raw sexuality here and there to attract the pimpled trade… Nor do I think explicit or specific sex acts need be described. Everyone knows what they are.” But he did write them, only in his own oblique and distanced style, in ways that may have disappointed “the pimpled trade,” but are quite obvious to the experienced adult. And several of the stories that appeared in S*E*V*E*N -- “The Random Noise of Love” and “Woodchuck” come to mind-- are as frank and descriptive as one would expect from any other author writing in the late 1960’s.

Which brings us to Clemmie. Published in July 1958 it is a book in which sex plays a major role, perhaps more so than any of his other novels, but it is not really a novel about sex. It is, to paraphrase the author himself, a novel about middle class standards and social mores, codes and rules in “the jungle of the suburban backyard,” and which focuses on the critical years of upper-middle class adults, at a time when “they feel as lost and misunderstood as they did when they were children.” If all of this sounds overly weighty, MacDonald’s mastery of narrative and his ability to tell an engaging story quickly overcome any possible objections to the lessons he is trying to teach the reader. Clemmie is a novel of uncommon power, brilliantly written and swiftly paced, accomplished by an author who had learned from his previous mistakes.

Call them what you will -- social novels, morality novels, adultery novels -- these particular works by the author began back in 1953 with the publication of Cancel All Our Vows, a book that was to have been the first in a series, which in fact it was, only that series took years to complete. It includes Contrary Pleasure, The Deceivers, and A Key to the Suite. Each book was an improvement on the previous effort, at least in its dealing with this particular subject matter, and Clemmie is certainly the frankest of these books up to this point. It is also quite different, in both its leading character and the situation he finds himself in. Gone is the “other couple” from which the protagonist finds his sexual companion (Cancel All Our Vows and The Deceivers), gone is the hero as a member of suburbia (although much of the novel takes place there) and gone is the protagonist as someone seeking to fill some unknowable void in his middle-aged life. Craig Fitz is a bit of a cypher, a hero who engages in little of the introspection of Fletcher Wyant in Vows or in the social alienation of Carl Garrett in The Deceivers. He falls into his affair by accident and enters in with little thought about its morality or consequences. He seems to take little joy in any of it at all, but becomes trapped by a mistress who is far more strong willed than he is, and he ultimately has little control over the relationship or the direction his life begins to take.

The initial situation is similar to that in The Deceivers, in that Craig’s wife is out of the house for a period of time. But unlike Joan Garrett who is in the hospital for a week undergoing surgery, Maura Fitz and the couple’s two daughters are vacationing in Maura’s native England for an entire summer, leaving Craig alone and, as he discovers, unmoored. The two met when Craig was stationed in London during the war, there is a typically interesting backstory of how they met and fell in love, married and returned to live in the United States. Their hometown of Stoddard, its location unidentified, bears a strong resemblance to any of the Mohawk Valley industrial towns where MacDonald once lived and that were the settings for his earlier social novels. And while the Fitz’s still live in the city, in “a narrow, ugly, two-and-a-half-story house in a decaying neighborhood,” all of their friends have moved out to the suburbs, specifically the suburb of River Wood, a new and expensive village that Craig feels is unaffordable for them.

He works for the Quality Metal Products Division of the U.S. Automotive Corporation, a middle manager in charge of production efficiencies for the company that makes “die castings, small forgings and stamped metal products for the automobile industry, for household appliances, for outboard motors, for chains of auto parts stores.” It is a job he is good at but has no real love for, and MacDonald will develop this facet of the novel into a secondary plot featuring a new plant manager named Paul Ober who has come to make changes and possibly endanger Craig’s own position there. In this respect Clemmie can be lumped in with all of the aforementioned novels -- plus A Man of Affairs -- as one of the author’s “business novels,” and there is some excellent and fascinating background into the workings of industrial America and its managerial class. Take this wonderfully sharp observation on the corporate ethos of Quality Metal:

U.S. Automotive was known throughout the industry for ruthlessness on the executive level. Competition between top men was savage. According to company policy, you did not stay in one place for long. You were promoted or weeded out. This lack of paternalism on the executive level seemed to keep the total operation, all twelve plants, more profitable. Paul Ober had arrived to take over... His assignment to Quality Metal Products was an indication of the dissatisfaction of the Board with plant operations.

This theme of corporate survival is fully developed alongside Craig’s fall into adultery and receives equal time as more than just a parallel plot. It is part and parcel to his slow and unthinking surrender to the abandonment of his social values.

That Craig Fitz seemingly possesses little self-awareness is more evident to readers of MacDonald’s previous novels on adultery, where there is much soul searching, excuse making and rationalization by Craig’s antecedents. In Clemmie there is no symbolic red barn or maple tree, no stand-in for a simpler time. The novel opens with Craig having after dinner drinks at the River Wood home of some friends, and his return home to an empty house evokes the most direct evidence we are given of restlessness in the man.

There, in the summer darkness of the small square bedroom of the ugly house on Federal Street, Craig turned restlessly, body weary, but his mind roving the backyards of memory, looking into corners, peering under things, searching for some unknown thing, thinking he would recognize it when one he saw it. His whole life seemed like a journey that could never be relaxing to him because there was constantly in the back of his mind the certainty that he had left something undone. There was some essential he had forgotten to bring, or there was something he had neglected to turn off, or on, or something he had forgotten to lock... He knew that this feeling had been with him for the last few years, but it had been far back, barely on the fringe of awareness. With Maura and the girls around, life was sufficiently full, with little time for the loneliness of subjective thought. He wished they were back…

What am I doing here? What has happened to everything? What has happened to us? Something had gone out of it the last few years. Something had gone out of the marriage. You weren't such a great fool you expected the magic to last forever, but you wanted a little more than was left. More than just the stylized responses…

And so it happens that on a Friday a co-worker named Chernek, whose wife is also away, suggests that he and Craig go out on the town that evening after work, to “get tight and act loose.” Craig has just met with new plant head Paul Ober and has been given the unusual task of coming up with a way to eliminate his own position -- theoretically, of course. Craig agrees with Chernek and they end up in a downtown bar where they lose count of the drinks and eventually get thrown out. Chernek then takes Craig on a fifteen minute ride to a part of town few middle class industry types ever visit. “It was the oldest part of the city, down near the sour smell of the polluted river, an area of old warehouses, missions, fleabag hotels, derelict bars.” Chernek is looking for a whorehouse he vaguely remembers, but is so drunk he attracts the attention of some passing cops, who arrest him. Craig has managed to hide, but without a car he begins walking home and eventually comes upon a fight in an alley, which he manages to break up before one of the participants is nearly killed. There is a girl there, the companion of the beaten man, and her brusk, uncaring attitude to the victim startles Craig. She takes his money and watch (so they won’t be taken from him) and goes with Craig to a nearby lunchroom to call for an ambulance. She speaks with “a finishing school flatness” that had “a husky polish rubbed there by money.” She is Clementina Bennett, otherwise known as Clemmie.

She had a trim little figure. Her hair was shiny black, and red-ribboned into a high pony tail. She wore a basque shirt with narrow, horizontal red and white stripes, lusterless black pants that came midway between knee and ankle and were slit at the sides, flat sandals with red straps. She walked with utter confidence; pony tail bobbing, small buttocks flexing under the tight pants, arms swinging, sandal heels clacking on the tile floor.

She is direct, forthright, immediately familiar and seemingly fearless. After a cup of coffee together she is calling him “Fitzie” and ordering him to “pay the girl.” And she launches into her favorite “game,” going into “character,” although at first this character is her and her alone. And considering what happens in this novel, she is remarkably prescient. When Craig asks her “Where to?” we get the first of many such exchanges between the two.

Clemmie: "Ah, some dim café, my love. With muted music. And people without faces. Where we can continue this mad affair between the innocent child and the conservative elderly type."

Craig: "Flattery will get you nowhere."

Clemmie: "I will use all my elfin charms to lead you on and destroy you. Former friends will avoid you. They'll say poor old Fitz. The dangerous forties, you know. Fell in with a bit of fluff and they drummed him out of the club. Tore off his Rotary pin and broke his six iron. Pitiful thing for his wife. Poor Laura. Splendid girl. Salt of the earth."

Craig: " Maura, not Laura."

Clemmie: "Honestly? Brother, I'm hot tonight. All ESP."

Craig: "What happens to me after this mad affair?"

Clemmie: "Isn't it obvious? A broken man, slouching down shabby streets, begging on corners. Everything gone but the memory of me and how once we burned with a hard gemlike flame. Remember the night, darling, when you gave Fritz five thousand marks and the orchestra played for us until dawn?"

Craig: "Hans, dearest, not Fritz."

Clemmie: "Hey, I think you could play my game too.. Come on, play some more."

And so it goes… They head to another bar in a slightly better part of town and then Clemmie asks Craig to walk her home. On the way he learns that Clemmie is the only child of a rich man who sent her off to a French boarding school when she was young and daddy was “on wife number three.” She is living in a converted warehouse partly to piss off daddy and partly to avoid having “stuffy neighbors.” She has a nice trust fund income that her father can’t touch and she is obviously still very bitter about being sent away to school years ago. "If [Daddy] didn't want to spend his senility alone, he should have thought twice before sending a lonely kid off to schools on other continents."

In her enormous apartment, complete with twenty-five foot ceiling and huge canvases of abstract paintings, Clemmie reverts to “the game” again, subtly but firmly placing the decision of sex between them in his hands. Craig hesitates and we get a bit more of his shallow introspection.

For a long time he had watched all the young girls. He had seen them on the summer streets, arms locked, giggling, calves ripe as pears, walking close with sweet billow of breast and hip, full of their own promise and their secret lunacy... there had been the imaginings that stirred him... These were all the tireless rovings and imaginings of the mature male...But this was not one of those. This was odd. In this there could be trouble, In this very way a man might contemplate murder, not only weighing the chances of secrecy but trying to guess at the eventual effects of his own feeling of guilt...During all the years of marriage Maura had been enough. Not enough to quell the imaginings, yet enough to make any overt act of infidelity worth less than the risk. And so, during all the marriage, he had not strayed. But he did not pride himself on that. He knew, objectively, that there had been but very limited opportunity.

And so, slipping into character Craig succumbs.

They made their love on the coldly modern couch under the great window. She was sinewy, supple, taut with her eagerness. The only suggestions of softness were in lips, breasts, and hips. It seemed more combat than love, and upon his symbolic victory she gave a long cry of anguish as though he had thrust a dagger to her heart.

That’s John D MacDonald at his smuttiest.

Clemmie is clearly a damaged girl, as we gradually learn. Her strong will and tempestuous nature mask a past that includes abandonment (father) and sexual exploitation (ex-husband). In fact, MacDonald’s description of her husband’s “personality” is fairly graphic for the author at this point in his writing. As Clemmie herself recalls,

“Oh, the tender mystery of a first love. The love of a young girl for a brave and gallant man. My little heart went pitty-pat, pitty-pat. He liked to be amused, you know. And after he'd exhausted every method he could think of of amusing himself with the little love-struck fifteen-year-old girl, he got his kicks by getting her blind on brandy and loaning her out to his friends. And he had a lot of friends. And they had friends. But somebody had the sense to pry me loose and pop me into a rest home. I recovered. Completely."

But Clemmie’s self-absorption and infatuation with Craig are really the byproduct of her being sent to Europe when she was a child, and her focus on older men is an obvious search for a father figure. The domesticity and middle class values represented by Craig are, while being openly mocked and rebelled at by Clemmie, the kind of security she craves the most. But not at the expense of her own willfulness and need for excitement. As Craig will learn.

The Friday night fling turns into a weekend adventure, while Craig suppresses “the dim stirrings of conscience” and “the fear of consequence.” On Monday he is back at work, looking a bit “gray” according to his secretary Betty James and he tries to put Clemmie out of his mind. But of course he can’t, and by Tuesday night they are back together again, heading out -- at Clemmie’s insistence -- to a county fair. This is the first of several JDM set-pieces in the novel, wonderfully evocative depictions of both the banality and danger hiding along the edges of middle class life in 1950’s America, expertly and vividly written by one of the great social observers of the last century. It is this kind of writing that earned him his well-deserved comparisons to John O’Hara.

They arrive and walk down the crowded midway amid the sounds of "the talkers, the music, the mumbling of the crowd, the ratchety slam of the rides and the yelp of the women." They play one of their "character" games as they ride the rides, play the games and sneak off behind a tent to kiss. While riding the bumper cars Clemmie attracts the attention of a "group of young and husky boys, sleeves rolled high and tight over bulging bronze biceps." They single her out and thump her mercilessly with their cars, much to Clemmie's delight and Craig's growing jealousy. As they leave the ride, one of the boys who had joined in the bumping begins to follow them, "thumbs tucked in the belt of his jeans, arm muscles tensed for display, hair and brows burned to the color and texture of straw." He follows them to a square dance that Craig refuses to participate in, so Clemmie dances with the boy. Afterward he suggests that Clemmie join him and his brothers out in their car for some bootleg corn whiskey they have stashed there. Craig is adamant that they refuse, but Clemmie is insistent. She drinks far too much and is barely sentient, and when Craig’s tries to take Clemmie back to the car the boys’ predatory instincts come to life. "They were hard young animals, sensing the helplessness of the bitch in heat." A fight ensues and Craig is barely victorious. Clemmie is out like a light, and when he gets her back to her apartment, he rapes the unconscious girl. "He used her the way they would have used her had they won, with savage selfishness."

The evening is enough for Craig to tell himself that the affair must end, and he does his best to avoid Clemmie’s calls, even when they come to his office. In attempting to get her out of his mind he accepts an invitation from his secretary -- a divorced mother of two young children -- to go on a picnic that Sunday, and he also accepts an invitation from a co-worker’s wife to attend a last-minute neighborhood backyard barbeque. And this is the second great set piece of the novel and MacDonald’s greatest suburban-party-devolving-into-madness scenes ever (or at least up to this point in his career).

All but one of his social novels (Contrary Pleasure) has one of these scenes. Fueled by almost unbelievable amounts of alcohol, they feature leering husbands, gossiping wives, at least one hot number for all the husbands to leer at, and one or two objects of pity. Anyone arriving the least but late is always “one or two drinks behind” the other partygoers, and their first drink is always a strong one, so they can “catch up.”. The 1950’s seemed the apogee of this phenomenon, although I can remember more than a few in my own suburban back yard when I was a kid in the early sixties, and MacDonald seemed to capture them with a special insight. In Cancel All Our Vows it takes place in the Wyant’s backyard and features a hot young wife in a revealing sun suit for all the boys to oggle. The constant drinking leads to arguments and, eventually, to the outing of Jane Wyant’s “accidental” tryst in the lake. In The Deceivers Carl Garrett attends a more modest dinner with neighbors and friends where the gossip extends to the comings and goings of the woman he himself is having an affair with, and he is nearly undone. Naturally he gets stinking drunk, embarrasses himself and rekindles the affair he had just broken off. Even The Executioners features a suburban party, taking place after Sam Bowden returns from his nearly comic attempt to hire some criminal muscle to rough up Max Cady. His drunken self-pity gets to the point that wife Carol has to slap him across the face.

But the scene in Clemmie is longer and, by degree, more accomplished in the sheer breadth of its social misanthropy. MacDonald’s great gift as a writer is his ability to create character without any judgemental description but by letting that character create themselves by their actions and words. And there are two characters in particular who are in attendance at this cookout to whom the author pays particular attention. The first is his object of pity, a divorcée named Anita Osborne who is already several sheets to the wind when Craig arrives. Abandoned by her husband two years earlier, Anita has been left alone in her big, childless suburban house and is not handling it well.

Anita had not properly gauged the change in her social status, not at first. She had been a slender, graceful woman of thirty-six with prematurely white hair, a golfclub tan, a knack of dressing well. She had apparently believed that her social life would go on as before and, sooner or later, she would find another man and remarry... But ever since the divorce, there had been a gradual disintegration of Anita. The invitations were far less frequent. Friends made efforts to introduce her to eligible men, but the men were always less than suitable.

She began to become slightly frantic. She had the white hair dyed blonde. Though she had paid a great deal for the change, and though it had been carefully done, it served only to harden the lines of her face and made her look suddenly and shockingly older. She began to drink too heavily. When she drank her conversations became larded with sexual innuendoes. She greeted friends with such extreme cries of surprise and affection that she became almost hysterical. She began to buy clothes more suitable for a junior miss. The poised and gracious wife of Tom Osborne no longer existed. This woman was a menace, a lonely and frantic human being who, though she was trying dreadfully hard, seemed to expend all her efforts in the wrong direction. Everyone knew she was moving constantly closer to a breakdown, and no one seemed to know what to do about it.

Late into the night of drinking Anita slips in the bathroom and hits the tub, knocking out her two front teeth. Another partygoer takes her to the hospital.

The other character is Floss Westerling. Floss and her husband are the only couple who don't hail from River Wood. In fact this young couple are not even Stoddardites but are here on a multi-location extended summer vacation, and in Stoddard for a week visiting relatives. At one point in the evening Craig finds himself seated next to Floss and he asks her a question.

He had taken his finger out of the dike. Her talk washed over him. She had a sprightly way of expressing herself, but it only partially masked the whine of her discontent. They had a month vacation and it was half gone. They had three small children... She had put her foot down when Dave had wanted to bring them along. What kind of vacation would that be? Dave's mother took the kids, but they had to pay for a full-time practical nurse to help her, and a good one, so it had taken the money for the nurse instead of the vacation they had planned... She complained about how the kids had her so tied down she'd lost her golf game. She complained about how dull the vacation was. She had wanted to go to Las Vegas. She complained about how she would be forty before she could pack the youngest off to boarding school, and what was there left after that? She spoke in an amusing way, in a young and husky and defiant way, but it was a paean of woe.

That paragraph alone is worth the price of the book!

So of course the increasingly inebriated Craig and the restless Floss become attracted to one another, or develop “an awareness,” in MacDonald’s reserved wording. Craig sees Floss as a kind of an antidote to Clemmie and Floss is only too willing to play the suburbanite game, with all its required language, posturing and rationalizations. It’s a beautifully written scene that extends not only to its initial verbal foreplay, but to a sweaty and pathetic attempt to couple behind a shed in the large back yard, eventually leading to a night in the typically seedy motel, complete with “a rancid cabin that smelled of linoleum and a harsh disinfectant.”

The scenes with Floss Westerling are, frankly, the best in the book, a book already filled with terrific writing and biting, observant social detail. The one night stand is Craig’s attempt to purge himself of the Clemmie disease with a similar kind of homeopathic irritant. He somehow manages to get through to Friday and has found the time to put together the action plan Paul Ober has ordered. When he meets with the new plant head, however, the plan isn’t even looked at. Instead he is told that Ober has hired a consulting firm to have two hotshots “observe” plant operations, and one of them will be working out of Craig’s office. It’s a further sign that Craig’s position at the plant is in possible jeopardy. Most executives in this position would work all the harder to try and impress, but for Craig the urge for self destruction is too great and the lure of Clemmie irrationally strong.

The novel is only halfway done at this point but Craig has barely begun his downward spiral. There are several more incredibly well done scenes that capture the time and place, including a party at Clemmie’s featuring several well-imagined artists and beatniks. There is a meeting between Craig and a headhunter for another company named Johnny Maleska that is utterly cringeworthy. There is the Sunday picnic with secretary Betty James with Craig, who is just barely able to hide his boredom and where Betty ultimately embarrasses herself in a scene that evokes real pity in the reader. And there is a morning after scene following a three week drunken spree with Clemmie that is just amazing reading and, where Craig discovers that he has committed the ultimate sin in the MacDonald moral universe. You’ll have to read the book to find out what it is.

In fact the book is simply filled with expertly written depictions of American middle class life in the 1950s, so much so that it could serve as a kind of anthropological record of this era. Of course, MacDonald didn’t live or write in a vacuum, and there were other novels written in this decade that covered similar ground. The ones that come most readily to mind are Sloan Wilson’s The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, John McPartland’s No Down Payment and, the sterling short stories of John Cheever. Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant Lolita, while written two years earlier, had its American publication the same year as Clemmie, and subsequent efforts like Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road and even Wade Miller’s Kitten With a Whip seem to owe a debt to this novel. And while MacDonald himself would return to his crime novels after writing Clemmie, he did eventually return in 1962’s A Key to the Suite, one of his finest works in any genre.

If I have one bone to pick about Clemmie it is in the development of Craig Fitz, a main character as amorphous as any he ever created. I think I can see what he was trying to do in moving away from the previous male protagonists in his social novels, making his adultery less a product of a specific grievance, either against spouse or job or society, or all three, but the end result is that the reader doesn’t come to care much for the man. As annoying as some of the rationalizations of Fletcher Wyant and Carl Garrett were, at least you understood their problems and could accept the reservations they had about their affairs, but Craig Fitz just seems to get pulled along, not really caring about anything, doing Clemmie’s bidding regardless of the consequences, with little real introspection. I’m sure MacDonald intended this, but to me at least it seems as if he has left something out of the novel.

Clemmie was a paperback original, and It marked the author’s return to Fawcett Gold Medal after a couple of years with both Dell and Popular Library. Its first printing in July 1958 was followed by a second a year later and a third in 1961. His return to Fawcett was probably the result of editor Knox Burger’s own return to the publisher, a man with whom MacDonald had a longstanding friendship. But of course the fact that it was paperback limited its ability to reach a serious audience, and so it is never mentioned in the same breath as those other great books. The only contemporary review of note was by the reliable Anthony Boucher in the New York Times, who gave it a couple of sentences in his column and seemed lukewarm to its qualities, calling it an “effective, if occasionally lurid story.” It wasn’t until 1975 that a reviewer seemed to grasp the brilliance of the book, when Jim Harrison, writing in the same New York Times Book Review wrote “[Clemmie is] a desperate, harrowing novel about a man inadvertantly driven to his limits… It is a desolately uncomfortable novel of passion.”

Clemmie went through 14 separate printings through 1988 for a total of 1,220,000 copies, all with Fawcett and it sported only three basic covers. Printings 1 through 7 featured an iconic Barye Phillips illustration of the title character, her back to the audience and wearing nothing more than a man’s dress shirt and a pair of red heels. It is a reasonably accurate portrait of Clemmie, although the hairstyle, meticulously described in the novel, is a bit wrong. The Clemmie depicted in printings nine through 13 -- illustrated by an unknown artist -- is completely wrong, both in the hairstyle and facial features. This looks more like Clemmie’s grandmother than Clemmie herself. The fourteenth printing (and last up through 1988) depicts a better but still inaccurate version Clemmie, illustrated by William Schmidt, the artist who did new versions of nearly every JDM novel in the late 1980’s. This is certainly an 80’s version of Clemmie and looks nothing like the girl described in the novel.

Although MacDonald’s previous two novels (The Executioners and The Deceivers) both enjoyed contemporaneous publication in magazines in condensed form, Clemmie was not so lucky. Perhaps it was too raw (smutty?) for any general circulation newsstand periodical of the time. But Clemmie did eventually make its way into a magazine, in what has to be one of the strangest cases ever of JDM appearing in print. Here’s how I found out about it.

While perusing the Finding Guide of the University of Florida’s John D MacDonald collection I noticed something I was completely unaware of. While scanning the list of holdings for the various JDM novels I came across the following entry for Clemmie:

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

I had no idea that Clemmie ever appeared in a magazine: it was not enumerated in the Shines’ Bibliography and I had never heard mention of it by any other JDM collector. The title “Homecoming” made no sense to me when trying to match it up against anything that had happened in the novel, and the magazine it appeared in -- Knight -- sparked only a dim recollection. It turned out to be a west coast men’s magazine that had been published in the 1960’s and it featured some other notable authors, such as Tennessee Williams, Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad. I did a little research and discovered that Volume 4, Issue 6 was published in April 1964, a full six years after the publication of the novel. Strange…

The next thing to do was to attempt to locate a copy of the issue, which I eventually did and at a price I normally wouldn’t otherwise pay, but this was gnawing at me. Why hadn’t I ever heard of this? When the magazine arrived I immediately went to the table of contents and scanned down the list of authors. No John D MacDonald! After uttering a few unprintable words, I then went looking at the titles. There was a “Homecoming” but it was by a writer named Richard Maxwell. Who the hell was he? I turned to the story and began reading.

The first thing that caught my eye was the artwork. To the left of the full page color illustration of a bare breasted woman drinking with an older man was a black and white scene depicting a man fighting two thugs, while in the background there was a tent and a ferris wheel. The county fair scene! OK, this must be Clemmie, but what gives with the byline?

“Homecoming” begins at the Lakeview Country Club following a high school homecoming game. The protagonist is named Mike Paxton and he is a former football star of the school, now several years into adulthood. He is bored by the older alumni and the younger recent graduates and he seeks to escape by heading outside. There he hears the sounds of a fight behind the shrubbery and goes to investigate. At this point the language becomes very familiar to a reader of the novel.

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 a put his arms through the man’s elbows, bringing his hands up and locking the fingers... The beaten man sagged into the corner.

I pulled out my copy of Clemmie and read the familiar passage:

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 was certainly a scene from the novel, but as I continued to read the prose seemed different. It was flat and not recognizably MacDonald. This was the scene where Craig met Clemmie, and sure enough in “Homecoming” Paxton meets the beating victim’s girlfriend here named Cyn, for Cynthia. (“They call me Cyn, of course. S-i-n, usually.”) And as the story progresses there are a lot of bits thrown in from the novel, from the playacting between the two main characters, to Cyn’s physical description and wardrobe (both females are wearing a basque shirts) to their first coupling seeming “like combat.” Paxton and Cyn eventually hook up and they head out to the county fair (here simply a carnival). The abduction and fight are straight out of Clemmie, and “Homecoming” ends abruptly here, with Paxton and Cyn heading to Mexico.

I didn’t know, and still don’t know what to make of this. The first thing that crossed my mind was that MacDonald published this excerpt from the novel under a pseudonym, one that had never before been revealed. But upon further thought this seemed unlikely. First of all, except for some of the passages that are lifted directly from the novel, the prose does not read like MacDonald. Second, if MacDonald had wanted to write a “smutty” story for a somewhat seedy men’s magazine the same year he had launched his greatest creation (Travis McGee, of course) he certainly could have come up with something more imaginative than a rehashed group of scenes from a six year old book. Read any of his short works published around this time ("End of the Tiger," "The Straw Witch," "Blurred View," "Cop Probe," "The Legend of Joe Lee," to name just a few) and one can instantly recognize MacDonald’s signature style, apparent nowhere in “Homecoming.” Besides, Richard Maxwell seems to have been a real writer, albeit a marginal one and one who mainly contributed to second and third tier men’s magazines. He was a contributor to Adam and Man Junior with titles such as "Bad Day at Tonkawa" and "Method for Murder," all published in the early 1960’s. Otherwise I can find very little information on this author.

Without any further revelations on the subject, my own personal thinking on the subject is that Maxwell plagiarized MacDonald’s work. This would not be the kind of plagiarism that happens when a writer draws on his own memory of other works and inadvertently writes it as his own. The example I cite above shows how closely Maxwell hews to MacDonald’s original prose. I had long heard of a MacDonald plagiarism case where someone was caught doing just this kind of rewrite in the pages of either Manhunt or Justice magazine, but these were only third-hand stories and the author was never identified. I wonder now if that author was Richard Maxwell? It’s certainly a subject for further research. Question number one would be: how did tearsheets for this story end up in MacDonald’s hands?

Clemmie has long been out of print in paper, although used copies are very easy to find at affordable prices. An eBook version is now available for $9.99. A highly recommended novel, not only for its plot, its characterizations and its writing, but as an exceptional time capsule containing a not-so-long-ago world that now seems like a million years in the past.

Monday, May 11, 2015

JDM on His First Novel

There is a Chinese proverb that translates like this: “A book is a garden carried in the pocket.”

I think my first garden had quite a few weeds in it. It was published in 1950… That first book was The Brass Cupcake, seventy-four books ago, and probably about 90,000,000 copies ago. It was written as a novelette for either Harry Widmer or Mike Tilden over at Popular Publications. My agent was then Joseph Thompson Shaw, who was licensed to carry a sword cane on the streets of [New York]. He had heard that Fawcett was beginning a new line of original paperbacks and he asked me to increase the length by some twenty-five thousand words so he could show it to Dick Carroll, the editor. It is easy to stuff twenty-five thousand unneeded words into a manuscript and have it come out as sturdy and substantial as junket or cobwebs. I tried inserting more plot incidents, and it began to sound like a reject script for The A-Team. So I started from scratch and wrote a new story about new people and then inserted a paragraph to justify the title. It is a practice I still use with the McGee books. When a book is done I wander around the house until I can come up with a title, and then I hemstitch it into the book as neatly as possible, so the seams won’t show. Don’t tell the public...

At Fawcett the familiar group back in the growth years of Gold Medal were Bill Lengel, Dick Carroll, Ralph Daigh, Knox Burger and Leona Nevler...

I did a sufficient number of books for Gold Medal to become classified as a paperback author. That always seemed to me to indicate some kind of fragility in the area of the spine. It did not matter at all that of my first twenty-five published books, thirteen were in hard cover before they were in paperback.* I had become typecast. I used to fret about nonsense like that, but one day about fifteen years ago I suddenly realized that instead of fretting I should be happy to be published at all, anywhere. Many try, and a few make it.

Now when I go over in memory the list of the people who have published me… Fawcett Gold Medal, Fawcett Signet, Popular Library, Dell, Pocket Books, Pyramid -- in paperback, and Greenberg, Appleton-Century-Croft, Simon and Schuster, Doubleday, Lippincott, Harper & Row and now Knopf in hard cover, it makes me sound flighty. All I can say in my defense is that the only people who change publishers more often than the writers are the editors.

-- from John D MacDonald’s speech at the Bouchercon XIV convention, October 23, 1983.

This number is a huge exaggeration. Of the first twenty-five published books, only five originally appeared in hard cover. In fact, MacDonald would have to have fifty-five books published before he could make the “thirteen” claim.

Monday, May 4, 2015

"The Gentle Killer"

Back in 1981 when I was still in my twenties, John D MacDonald was still alive and writing, the JDM Bibliophile was being published twice a year, and Walter and Jean Shine had just published the most comprehensive bibliography of MacDonald’s writings to date. It was a major achievement, unmatched in its scholarship and abundance of new information. It is still the most important bibliographic work ever done on the work of JDM.

But The Bibliography wasn’t a perfect work, nor was it complete. There were omissions, mis-identified stories, a few typos, and works that could not be located. The latter problem was addressed on page 108 in an addendum listing ten stories that, according to MacDonald’s own records, had been sold but whose publication could not be verified. The majority of these titles were written and sold when the MacDonald family was living in Mexico in 1948 and 1949, and nearly all of them ended up in the pulps. The list included the story’s title, the publisher who paid for it and the beginning of the story’s first sentence.

Several months later Walter Shine issued a call for help in his JDM Bibliophile column. He needed someone within close proximity to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC to head down there and spend several days going through the library’s vast collection of pulp magazines in an effort to try and find any or all of these missing stories. I had a letter in the mail to Walter before the end of the day.

Walter had arranged for the library to have close to 40 boxes of specific pulp magazines transferred from their annex in Landover, Maryland to the Periodical Reading Room in the Adams Building in DC. Once they were there I showed up in my barely-running 1965 VW Beetle and began systematically going through the table of contents of every single pulp they had supplied. It took me several long days to complete the project and in the end I was not able to locate any of the missing stories. I wrote a long, dissapointed letter to Walter outlining all of my efforts, detailing everything I had canvassed and offering my services for anything else he needed me to do. It began an epistolary friendship between us which lasted for many years. Walter even forwarded a copy of my letter to JDM himself, who responded favorably, calling my letter “extraordinary” and writing “As I read it I kept hoping he would come up with something that is still missing.”

Fast forward to 2015, almost 35 years later, and another one of the stories has finally been located.

I say “another one” because, of that list of ten missing stories, several were located by others in subsequent years. One, which had been sold to Bluebook, ended up appearing in the magazine’s bastard step-child Bluebook for Men. One which was sold to Argosy somehow ended up being published in an early issue of Cavalier. But in the end there were six stories that were still missing in action. Until now.

A few weeks back I was looking around on eBay and came across an offering that at first made no sense to me. Some seller was trying to unload an issue of All Sports, an obscure (to me) pulp that was published by Columbia Publications. It was the November 1948 issue and was advertised as containing “The Gentile Killer” by John D MacDonald.

Well. After I finished laughing out loud I began searching my memory for any JDM story about David and Goliath, or perhaps a modern day spy story featuring a Mossad assassin. But the state of Israel had only just been founded by November 1948 and I didn’t recall MacDonald ever dabbling in biblical fiction. No, I soon realized that this must be one of the missing stories, correctly titled “The Gentle Killer.” I could scarcely believe my luck, and despite having an opening bid far in excess of one I would usually entertain, I bit the bullet and placed my offer. I won it, I now own it and I have read it. Walter Shine, wherever he is, is surely smiling.

The opening sentence, which was supplied to me during my long-ago search, has stuck in my memory all these years, its ringing vernacular singing like urban poetry.

We had hacked up the Cleveland purse, the short end of it, and a week later, after bailing out the convertible and paying the back alimony to Myrna, the leech, and catching up on my rent and adding a few necessary numbers to the wardrobe, I was down to a slim fifty bucks; the next bout for the Tailor was set up for three weeks ahead, and there was my other bum, Jo Zamatchi, eating off me while his busted hand knitted.

The first person narrator is one Danny Watson, a boxing manager and “the Tailor” is Tailor Rowe, one of Danny’s boxers. His next two sentences are as equally evocative of the boxing world’s milieu.

As a direct consequence, I was giving the Beach the jaunty ‘hello’ and making like I had an in on the sweepstakes which is standard procedure when you feel the wolf fangs, but usually fools nobody at all, at all. Every time I thought of the fifty bucks it seemed smaller and it seemed like every time I turned around there was fat Barney Gowdy clinging to my lapels and breathing in my face, indirectly advising me of what he had had for lunch.

Barney is a bookie and opportunist, a character who “had been pitching pennies at the cracks in the boxfighting profession ever since the days of John L.” He’s been trying to corner Danny for weeks in order to present a proposition to him. A fellow manager named Whitey Burd lost the rights to a boxer he owned to Barney in a poker game. Barney isn’t a manager and has no interest in owning this or any other fighter. He can’t sell the contract outright without attracting the unwanted attention of the IRS, and since this boxer is an “up-and-comer” his value in the black market is limited. His proposition: He and Danny trade fighters. Danny gets a younger contender with good chances and a longer career while Barney gets rights he can more readily sell. Danny asks for 24 hours to think it over.

He first visits the Tailor, who is home and indulging in his off-ring hobby, magic tricks. When he presents the idea Tailor says “Okay by me, Danny.” When Danny asks if he is sore at him Tailor looks at him blankly.

“Should I be? All I care is I got somebody who gets me fights. I figure I got maybe two more years, maybe three, before I get out. I’ll see you around, won’t I. Hey, watch this one. See here? I got a coin. A quarter. I hold it tight in my fist and I pass the other hand over it like this…”

He then goes to the other fighter, a young man named Spencer Leslie. He immediately likes the looks of the man, noticing his “thick, square hands with strong bones… He was one of those boys with a small head set close against his shoulders, a big chest, no hips at all and a springy way of walking… He had a snub nose, a nice grin, and cold grey eyes.” (One of these days I’m going to catalog every JDM character who has gray -- or grey -- eyes. It will be a very long list.) Danny notices that the table in the center of the room is covered with books and there’s a slide rule on one of them. When Danny asks what all of the books are for, Spencer replies that he is studying mechanical engineering, and that he had gone to college after the war to study it but was unable to concentrate and got tossed out. Now he studies on his own.

When Danny broaches the subject of the tradeoff, Spencer is fine with it, and when Danny asks if he really likes boxing, we get the following exchange:

Spencer: “That’s a toughie, Mr. Watson. I hate it until I get into the ring and get a glove in my face. The the only thing I want to do it drop the other guy; I hate him until I hear that ten count and then he’s just another guy.”

Danny: “That’s a good way to be, Spencer. If you haven’t got that, you never make much of a fighter. The press boys call it the killer instinct.”

Spencer: (Grinning) “That’s a harsh word.”

The deal is accepted and the fights begin. The duo travels from Toledo to Detroit to Chicago to Memphis, with Spencer winning every match. By the time they return to New York the press is “screaming about the boy,” and Spencer has earned so much money that Danny “nearly needed a suitcase to carry the dough in.” He gets out from under his alimony obligation by making a lump sum settlement with ex-wife Myrna, buys “eight or nine” new suits, pays the IRS and is still able to put several hundred into his checking account. “All was well with the world.”

Then he runs into Whitey, the manager who previously owned Spencer. When Danny commiserates that it “sure was tough losing that boy,” Whitey grins at him “in a nasty way” and tells Danny that he has been lucky. He reveals that the poker game loss was fabricated and that he paid Barney “five bills” to set up the smokescreen and broker the trade. Whitey now owns the Tailor. Danny asks Whitey what is wrong with Spencer and is told, “Why don’t you ask him, sucker? Or maybe you could try to fix him up to train at Stayman’s Gym.”

Whitey says no more, and when Danny asks Ike Stayman if he could arrange for Spencer to train at his gym, he is rebuffed. “You keep that crazy man away from here.” Danny is left to ask Spencer himself about this mysterious problem…

 “The Gentle Killer” is a solid, representative example of MacDonald’s work of the period, a seven and a half page story told with crisp, direct prose and a realistic first person narration that practically rings in the ear. Its evocation of the period and, especially, the marginal world of boxing, boxers, their managers and other hangers-on, is expertly done by a writer who had evidently studied this world well. Unfortunately the tale is marred by a glib ending that practically comes out of left field (if I may mix metaphors -- and sports) and was also representative of a lot of the author’s pulp work. Still, the overall work is commendable and well worth reading.

MacDonald was well represented in the sports pulps of the postwar period, and if we add up all of them their totals are only eclipsed by his mystery and science fiction efforts, at least if we go by the type of pulp magazine they appeared in. His work appeared 26 times in various sports pulps from 1947 to 1952, and the fact that they are obscure, even in the world of obscure JDM short fiction, owes less to the quality of those stories than to the nearly ephemeral quality of the sports pulp magazine. With the possible exception of the love pulps, the sports pulps are one of the most ignored and least collected of pulp fiction magazines. John Dinan, in his excellent 1998 study Sports in the Pulp Magazines, points out that virtually none of the fiction historians -- pulp or sports -- have given any attention to this category of work. In his preface he notes that Ron Goulart in his Cheap Thrills “devotes a paragraph to the subject,” Andy McCue in his Baseball by the Books: A History and Complete Bibliography of Baseball Fiction “devotes not a word to pulp sports fiction in spite of the claim of ‘completeness,’” and Michael Oriard’s American Sports Fiction, 1868-1980 provided only “a few pages” to the sports pulps. He goes on to say,

If all this is not enough to demonstrate the absence of research into the sports pulps, one has only to look into the world of current-day collectors or researchers and their interests. What are their interests? The hero pulps, the rare titles (like Strange Suicide Stories or Civil War Stories), the outré weird menace or horror pulps, detective pulps with some of the big-name writers (Chandler, Woolrich, Hammett, MacDonald, et al.), or the early works of writers who later would earn a larger reputation than could be provided by writing for the pulps (like Louis L’Amour). Certainly not the sports pulps.

If All Sports magazine seems like an obscure pulp -- and it certainly did to me -- note that, according to Dinan, Columbia Publications produced an estimated 130 issues of the title from May 1940 to February 1951. The Adventure House Guide to the Pulps, published two years after Dinan’s work, expands that range from October 1939 to September 1951 but admit that they don’t really know when the magazine began or ended. For a magazine to be popular enough to have lasted for over 130 issues and to have become completely forgotten by all but a handful of collectors, well… that’s the history of sports pulp magazines in a nutshell.

When I discovered this title I was understandably elated. I had plans, after posting this essay, to contact both the University of Florida, where the John D MacDonald collection is housed (and where “The Gentle Killer” is still listed as appearing in an “unknown publication”), as well as the online database Fiction Mags Index, one of the most comprehensive collections of magazine contents anywhere, put together by volunteers who have indexed most of their magazine collections for posterity. I was astounded to find that this issue of All Sports had already been documented, by one Monte Herridge, who had listed the “missing” story in his entry of the issue. My chance at celebrity had been thwarted! Well, at least it’s out there. And thanks to my tech buddy J.J. Walters, it is now included in my now completely comprehensive JDM short story list, which you can access under the Trap of Solid Gold Resources in the right hand column of this blog.