Monday, July 4, 2016

"Salute to Courage"

I do not hunt. We do not kill snakes. Dorothy carries housebound bugs into the great outdoors for release but is pure hell on a clothes moth. We trap whitefoot mice in our Adirondack camp and hate doing it. We both enjoy sports fishing. And we are both aficionados of the bull ring. Were the horses unpadded, we wouldn’t be. I am not interested in arguing these inconsistencies with anyone.

-- John D MacDonald, The House Guests, 1965

John D MacDonald’s long love affair with the sacrificial ritual of bullfighting began with the family’s first stay in Mexico, starting in late 1948 and ending in the summer of 1949. And while this period of his life was likely the first chance he had to witness the spectacle first hand, he probably  held romantic notions toward it through his adulation of the works of Ernest Hemingway, whose Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises both reveal that particular author’s own respect for the sport. While living in Cuernavaca during those early years of his writing career MacDonald and wife Dorothy traveled to Mexico City several times to witness toreo in the newly built Plaza de Toros, then (and still) the largest bullring in the world. One of the books in JDM’s personal library was Rex Smith’s 1957 study Biography of the Bulls: An Anthology of Spanish Bullfighting, which ended up as part of the author’s estate sale. A bullfighter is a peripheral character in his 1952 novel The Damned and several of his other novels contain references to the special qualities of the matador, including The Empty Trap, A Tan and Sandy Silence, A Deadly Shade of Gold and Bright Orange for the Shroud.

MacDonald wrote at least two short stories about bullfighting. The first was titled “Tank-Town Matador” and it appeared in the July 1949 issue of Argosy. The second appeared in one of the sports pulps, the April 1951 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories. MacDonald called it “The Lonely Journey,” but the FSS editors changed the title to “Salute to Courage.”

Those not familiar with the standard fare of the sports pulps may think nothing of a story about bullfighting appearing in the pages of one of these periodicals, but it was in fact a great rarity. In John Dinan’s excellent 1998 book on sports pulps (Sports in the Pulp Magazines), he categorizes the kinds of sports written about in one of the seminal sports titles, Street and Smith’s Sport Story Magazine. He tabulated 478 stories about baseball over the magazine’s 20-year run, 363 with boxing as background, 259 about football and 117 about tennis. There are multiple instances of sports such as car racing, bowling, swimming, bicycle racing, lacrosse and even ski jumping serving as the subject matter for the contents of this pulp, but not one story about bullfighting. In a check of my own modest collection of sports pulps, bullfighting also comes up a blank. After all, it is questionable that most of the readership for these kinds of pulps would have had any interest in the unique, specialized artform of the corrida de toros. In fact, most latinos don’t consider it a sport, but more of an artform, an aesthetic and emotional experience that, when conducted by a superior matador, is a transformative experience. In 1932 Hemingway wrote, “Bullfighting is not a sport. It was never supposed to be. It is a tragedy. A very great tragedy. The tragedy is the death of the bull. It is played in three definite acts.”

MacDonald certainly felt this way, and it explains how an author with strong interests in conservation and ecology could embrace the form.

“Salute to Courage” is a coming-of-age story, more interesting in its observations of  the details of a young man’s first bullfight than it is in narrative or characterization. Its plot is obvious and its conclusion foregone, but mood and a sense of anticipation and fear are well imagined and executed. And it comes close to relaying a sense of the torero and the capture it has on its audience.

Seventeen year old Augustin Galvez lives with his family in an adobe hut near a small village eleven miles outside the city of Oaxaca. He awakens one Sunday morning and finds the hut is empty, his sister Rosalinda down at a nearby stream, his parents and three other siblings at early Mass. He begins to run toward his sister but quickly slows his pace as he remembers that this is a special day, one requiring great dignity. As he walks he sees the rest of his family approaching up the dirt road, his younger brothers and sisters oddly shy toward him. "Yesterday Augustin had been a familiar one with whom they could romp and play. Today all had changed. Today Augustin Galvez would enter the bullring at Oaxaca."

Augustin’s father had once been a matador, fighting under the name Banderillero, and he fought alongside the immortal Ramon Gaona before being gored in the leg by a great black Miura bull. As the family reaches Augustin he father takes him aside.

"It has been many years, eh? Perhaps it is all a selfishness on my part. To have a son do what I could not do. I had a certain skill with the banderillas, no more. My son, you have fought well the calves at the tientas. You have grace. I do not know if you have courage. I have taught you how to know the bulls, how to watch for their faults and virtues. But knowledge is nothing without courage. Today we will learn."

Father and son take the bus to to the city and are met by the Señor  Pimental, whose son Peralta is also fighting today, a young prodigy who has developed a following after killing three bulls in previous matches. There is a third matador on the bill, Vizcainas, another young novillero (novice) who Señor Pimental refers to as "a clown." Augustin is told that everyone coming today are here to see his son, but there is a small contingent of fans from Augustin’s village as well.

Vizcainas is the first to fight and Pimental’s description of him is borne out. The novillero’s passes are fluid but he works too far from the bull to elicit any excitement from the crowd. When the final portion of the fight, the faena, begins, it is apparent just how bad Vizcainas is.

It was a miserable faena, combining an inept torero with an unstable animal. All he could do was chop the beast to the left and to right with the small cape, without grace, without great danger, without any poetry. He went in soon to kill and he tried to thrust the sword and run away at the same time. He killed miserably in the fifth attempt and left the ring with an enormous chorus of whistles and catcalls.

Then it is Peralta’s turn, and Augustin sees why he has become popular with the crowd so quickly.

He was a puro fanatico, with passes that were too fast, too jerky, too unpractical -- yet working close to the animal every second, gaining tremendous emotion through the almost visible flare of his dedicated personality. It was only in the kill that he had grace... The sword sank cleanly. The animal went three paces and dropped.

Now it is Augustin’s turn and he feels what little courage he may have had quickly escaping him.

[He] wished that at that moment he could drop dead. He wanted some grotesque force to reverse the plaza clock so that the hands would begin to turn backward. He could not see the animal clearly as it came out. It seemed supernaturally fast.

Augustin’s performance makes Vizcainas look like a pro, as he seems unable to control his feet, stepping away from the charging bull with every pass. His eyes filled with tears at his inability to control his fear, and the crowd is merciless.

[They] screamed at him, calling clown and coward. The feet danced blithely, endlessly, gayly, always taking him back from the horns as the animal charged. Seat cushions rained down on him. One struck him in the small of the back, almost thrusting him forward on to the horns, and the crowd chanted a sardonic, "Olé!"

His kill is equally inept, chasing the veering bull around the ring until the creature is too exhausted to move.

Augustin leaves the ring and goes to his father, whose face is “the color of wax” and whose effort to smile reassuringly painful.

"The next one will be better, Augustin, my son."

"Papa, can I not go home? Can I not let someone take my second bull?"

This does not please his father and it is up to Augustin to do better the second time around.

As one can read from the excerpts above, MacDonald employs an almost affected style for “Salute to Courage,” a third person limited narration that has the sound of a Spanish translation. A common device, MacDonald has a special talent for employing this narrative technique for all of his people, and it works especially well in the multi-character books such as The Damned and Please Write for Details, both of which have sections inside the heads of Spanish speaking individuals.

There are a couple of very nice passages in other JDM novels containing references to the special qualities of the matador. In The Empty Trap Lloyd Wescott, while recuperating in the isolated Mexican village where he has been nursed him back to health, ruminates on the special qualities of the Mexican people, made unique by the combinations of the blood of the European Spanish and the American Aztecs.

Two bloods, and a code of blood. The sand of Mexico had quickly soaked up the steaming blood of honor for many years. A land of pride and of quick violence without mercy. Also a land of sullenness and the glorification of death. A land where they ate candy skulls, where brass marched in the funerals of children, where fireworks exploded under church pews on Christmas morning, a land where a baker from Monterrey, a bullfighter of neither nerve, grace nor talent, can finally achieve his goal of performing in the Plaza Mexico and filling its fifty-five thousand seats by a public proclamation of his intention to permit his first bull to kill him.

And Travis McGee, contemplating the possible life of an aging kept man with super-rich widow Jillian Brent-Archer in A Tan and Sandy Silence, engages in an imaginary conversation with Papa Hemingway and realizes that his time on this planet could quickly come to an end.

If I don't grasp the opportunity, somebody will find some quick and dirty way to let the sea air through my skull.

I'm overdue. That's what Meyer says, and that's what my gut says in a slow cold coil of tingling viscera. Overdue, and scared, and not ready for the end of it yet. The old bullfighters who have known the famous rings and famous breeds despise the little country corridas, because they know that if they do not quit, that is where they will die -- and the bull that hooks their steaming guts out onto the sand will be a poor animal without class or distinction or style.

“Salute to Courage” has, to the best of my knowledge, been reprinted only once, in the October 1952 issue of the Australian men’s magazine Cavalcade. That is the version I own and must assume that it is identical to the original in Fifteen Sports Stories.

Illustration from the Cavalcade reprint


  1. “The timid little bull finds itself in the arena and looks forlornly at the men with their pics and banderillas and the sword that kills—and the little bull knows that despite its tremblings this is what all the imitators of Hemingway call the moment of truth and it must comport itself with bravery.”
         —John D. MacDonald, from the novel: The Beach Girls.