Monday, February 19, 2018

Dear Mr Ambrose

The Winter of 1946-47 must have been a magical time for John D MacDonald and his young family.  In a year that began with him frantically trying to sell his second story, buried in rejection slips, desperately getting a day job to support his debt-ridden family -- ended with the sale of a handful of short stories, freedom from his job (he quit using his wife's health as an excuse) and a planned winter stay in Taos, New Mexico to escape the brutal New York winter. The MacDonalds never made it to Taos, instead stopping in Ingram, Texas, where they rented a hillside cabin at the Bon-Air Lodge. MacDonald wrote about it the following year in his Clinton Courier column From the Top of the Hill, again in The House Guests (1966) and even used it occasionally in his fiction. (See "Hand from the Void," "School for the Stars," The Deep Blue Good-By). His recollections were always fond and it was clearly a high point in his early life as a writer.

A good example is MacDonald's 1982 response to a fan letter, something I recently came across, where he again reminisces and reveals some details heretofore unknown. It is both illuminating and amusing.

31 May 82

Dear Mr. Ambrose,

Thoughts of Austin bring back memories of a long time ago, of the winter of 1947 when, looking for a low rent district, we rented a hillside cabin in Ingram, Texas, the only all-rock town in the US. The owner had sawed up some PW barracks and imported them on flat beds from Louisiana where they had the prisoners working rice during WW II. He was finishing them off inside and then having the local masons rock the outsides. He couldn't figure out why I was sitting at a typewriter all day long, pecking away. It wasn't seemly work for a man. Perhaps to shame me, he tried to talk Dorothy into driving to Austin with his truck, towing a great long flat-bed trailer, and bringing it back with a load of that nice white rock you have -- or used to have -- up there. I think that she was tempted for a little while, but when I told her that truck-tractor had like twelve speeds forward, she dropped the idea. I think the owner was slightly crazy. The place was called Bon Air, and it was then angora goat country, the bells a nice sound in the early morning. And there were meadowlarks on every other fence post -- before the locals spray-killed everything they fed on, and starved them out.

Cordially, John D. MacDonald

Monday, February 12, 2018

Kona Coast

In the mid-sixties John D MacDonald was approached by producers at Seven Arts and asked to come up with an idea for a dramatic television series. He had already been solicited by producers Mark Goodson and Bill Todman to sell the rights to the Travis McGee series for a television series, and he had a face-to-face meeting with four members of their production team in New York, where he told them no. Although it was never directly stated, the Seven Arts project may have been a sort of consolation prize for not getting McGee. The Goodson-Todman story, amusingly related by MacDonald to pal Dan Rowan in 1967, refers to the meeting taking place “two years ago,” so the time frame fits.

He responded with something he called Bimini Gal. In JDM Bibliophile 9 (1968) he explained a bit of the background:

The only thing I have ever done which could be classed as a 'screenwork' was to do a so-called styling of a possible television show. About fifty pages, I think, which included six outlines of sequences. I put the locale in the Bahamas, and called it Bimini Gal, and hoped they could get Mitchum to do it. (They being Seven Arts.) Well, that was a couple of years ago, and Seven Arts bought Warner Brothers, and they got Richard Boone to do it, and changed the locale to Hawaii, and changed the title to Kona Coast, and changed it from a series to a movie for first showing on CBS television.

There is no available information on why Mitchum turned the deal down. Perhaps it was only an idea in some producer's head to have him starring in a television series. Perhaps is was MacDonald’s idea. Back then there was a fairly strong demarcation between television and film, and actors and directors who did film rarely sullied themselves in the lower art form unless driven by necessity. The project lay fallow for some period of time before it was picked up by Pioneer Productions, a company founded by actor Richard Boone.


Boone was a journeyman television and film actor, born in 1917, who performed in a wide variety of different roles. He studied at the famed Actors Studio, starred in the 1954 TV series Medic and did scores of one-shots on series like Playhouse 90, General Electric Theater and Suspense. His big success came in 1957 when he began starring in the television western Have Gun -- Will Travel, where he played a character known only as “Paladin,” a gentleman mercenary who used brains more often than gunfire. The show lasted five seasons and was extremely popular, ranking high in the ratings and even spawning a dramatic radio series of the same name.

When Have Gun -- Will Travel ended in 1963 Boone shifted immediately to his dream project, a television anthology series titled The Richard Boone Show which used a repertory company of about 15 actors to perform in the various episodes. Boone hosed and starred in about half of the shows. It was highly regarded (I remember my mother loved it) and it won a Golden Globe award but lasted only one season due to the fact that it was programmed in the same timeslot as Petticoat Junction (!). The series was overseen by none other than Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, and this may very well have been the connection between Boone and the Bimini Gal project.

When The Richard Boone Show ended production in early 1964 the actor moved with his family to Hawaii, a dream destination for him ever since he had been stationed there during the war. He became a great proponent of the local acting scene and reportedly was offered the lead role in the upcoming series Hawaii Five-0, which he turned down. In another JDM connection, that role went to Jack Lord, a friend of the author’s and one of his early choices of actors to play Travis McGee. According to a local newspaper, Boone’s goal was to prove

that a first rate production company can be built and prosper in the Islands; that Hawaii and its people offer all the ingredients for success; that creation and production of films locally can mean exciting employment and a brighter future for many young people.

Toward that end he began searching for a project to prove his point, and somehow -- whether it was through Goodson and Todman or some other means -- he found the Bimini Gal treatment. Of course, the first thing he would have to do was change the locale and, hence, the name. It was originally to be titled Hula Gal (which, I suppose, would have been the name of the boat, as it was in Bimini Gal) but eventually came to be know as Kona Coast. Pioneer Productions received the financial backing of CBS, who agreed to support the project for theatrical release (a fact borne out by the widescreen aspect ratio the film was shot in) as long as they had the rights to air it afterward on television. And, if it was a success, a television series would follow. Pioneer submitted a budget of a mere $900,000 and CBS agreed to fund $750,000 of that amount.

Richard Boone as Sam Moran
Television writer Gil Ralston was hired to write the screenplay, very likely based on one of MacDonald’s “six outlines.” According to the book Unsold Television Pilots: 1955-1989 by Lee Goldberg, science fiction writer Harlan Ellison was originally hired to write the script but clashed with Boone and was replaced early in the writing process. Supposedly the only bit of Ellison’s input that survived was the opening scene. Boone’s longtime pal Lamont Johnson, who he had known since their Actor’s Studio days in New York, was selected as director. Johnson had directed probably hundreds of episodes of various television series by then, including several episodes of both Have Gun -- Will Travel and The Richard Boone Show, but had done only one theatrical film before, the now-forgotten thriller A Covenant With Death (1967).

The premise, plot and characters are pure John D MacDonald. Sam Moran, a gruff, hard-fisted, hard-drinking, womanizing charter boat captain works out of the Kavala Marina in Honolulu, where he operates his own boat. His friend and fellow dockmate, an Australian named H.Charles Lightfoot, operates his own vessel, the Alika. One day, Sam receives a phone call from his estranged, illegitimate daughter Dee, who he hasn’t seen in ages and who he didn’t even know existed until a year ago. Dee calls from the home of a notorious playboy known only as Kryder, where a large group of drugged out hippies are having a wild party. Dee herself is drugged and is caught by Kryder’s men talking to Sam. For this impropriety she is killed by Kryder, taken out to sea in a boat and thrown overboard.

Boone with Chips Rafferty as Lightfoot
Sam begins looking for Dee only moments after the phone call and seemingly knows everyone in the city, so he only has to ask around about where a party might have taken place. From this thin plotting he is directed to Kryder’s, where he bursts in the following morning and finds nothing. Kryder, who loves “playing people through sick party games,” begins a game of pestering and hunting Sam.

Four days later Dee’s body washes up on shore and Sam begins his mission of vengeance, only he has nothing concrete to go on and Kryder is one step ahead of him. He spends the next few days moving around the neighborhoods of Honolulu, from bars to restaurants, to fishing wharfs to rundown residential areas, trying to get something to pin on Kryder. After a while he is beaten by Kryder’s goons in an alley and later warned off by a cop, who has an obvious past with Sam.

A few days later he is called back to the Kavala Marina, where finds his boat on fire and his friend Lightfoot nearly dead due to smoke inhalation while trying to fight the blaze. Lightfoot makes a request of Sam to pilot him home in the Alika where he can die in peace. And where is home? It’s in Kona on the island of Hawaii.

Boone with Joan Blondell as Kittibelle Lightfoot
They are met there by Sam’s sister Kittibelle, a gruff old dame who runs a retreat for recovering alcoholics called The Refuge. They give Lightfoot medical attention but it is obvious he is not going to make it. The Alika is owned jointly by Lightfoot and Kittibelle, and she relies on the revenue it generates to help support The Refuge. Realizing he is not long for this world, Lightfoot gives Sam his half of the Alika, something Sam is definitely not happy about.

Kittibelle tells Sam that the owner of a local bar, Akamai Barnes, would know if Lightfoot has any financial loose ends to clean up, so Sam heads over. Naturally the two of them know each other and have a long mutual past. And of course Akamai is more than just a shop owner: he has a PhD in Anthropology and was a sociology professor before giving it up to run the place he has named after himself. After the talk, in walks another person from Sam’s past: Melissa Hyde, or Dr. Melissa Hyde, a once-noted marine biologist who had a torrid love affair with Sam five years ago. The relationship was marked by heavy drinking on the part of both members and Dr. Hyde succumbed to alcoholism. She is in Kona drying out at Kittibelle’s Refuge. The fact that Sam knows both Akamai and Melissa but doesn’t know the sister of his best friend is never explained. Also a mystery is why Lightfoot speaks with a thick Austrailian accent while his sister speaks like -- well, like Joan Blondell.

Steve Ihnat (center) as Kryder, with his two goons
Meanwhile, Kryder has been keeping close tabs on Sam’s activities and discovers he has gone to Kona. He had his own “summer place” there, naturally, so he picks up and moves his entourage, dreaming up an elaborate plan to trick and kill Sam using a young girl named Mim as bait. But Sam picks up on the plot and begins devising his own method of getting to Kryder.

Production for Kona Coast began in the summer of 1967. Cast in the role of Kittibelle Lightfoot was, of course, screen veteran Joan Blondell, who was 61 at the time of shooting and who seems to have used this part as a training ground for her future part of Lottie Hatfield, the role she would essay in the television series Here Come the Brides the following year. (In fact, had Kona Coast been picked up for television, she never would have had that role.) Dr. Melissa Hyde was played by the luminescent Vera Miles, an actress whose credits included some of the greatest films ever produced in Hollywood (The Searchers, Psycho, The Wrong Man, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). At 38 she still retained her youthful beauty and figure, and she is a bright spot in an otherwise misbegotten venture. (She is also a member of the John D MacDonald film club -- an actor who has appeared in more than one screen version of a JDM work: she was later cast as Julie Lawless in the feckless 1983 made-for-TV movie adaptation of The Empty Copper Sea, titled simply Travis McGee.) Kent Smith, of The Cat People fame, was cast as Akamai Barnes and Chips Rafferty, the quintessential Aussie character actor of the period, was cast as Lightfoot. Steve Ihnat, an actor just coming off a memorable performance as Barney Benesch in the film Madagan the year before, essayed the role of Kryder, and early rock star (now in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) Duane Eddy had a minor part as Kittibelle’s nephew Tiger Cat. He speaks no lines of dialogue but does get to play a bit of guitar. His casting was likely due to his association with Boone and Johnson: he had acted in a couple of episodes of Have Gun -- Will Travel.

The balance of the cast was filled out with local talent, including many members of the Kona Coast Players, a nearby amateur company that Boone had encouraged; he had recently directed a production of The Drunkard for the group. The one standout of this group is Gina Villines, a 21-year old making her screen debut. She plays the role of Mim Lowry, the young lady Kryder has sent to lure Sam to his doom. Except for a one-shot part in a subsequent episode of Hawaii Five-0 she doesn’t appear to have ever done anything else.

Due to the fact that there were no local film production facilities in Hawaii -- something Boone hoped to ameliorate with this film -- every scene was shot on location.

Boone had great respect -- and high hopes -- for his local actors:

Vera Miles as Dr. Melissa Hyde
"Give it a thought... maybe some of these kids have a reason for dropping out or withdrawing. A lot of them don't have a helluva lot to look forward to -- not too many places to go. After all, they don't ALL want to become chambermaids, busboys or cab drivers... Now here's a chance to be creative, part of something alive and growing -- not only the acting but the allied jobs. If we can get this industry going locally there'll be some fine opportunities for youngsters. Monty [Lamont Johnson] flipped when he saw some of these kids perform. It's hard to believe they've had no professional training... it's that natural, easy Hawaiian-style, I guess."

He was especially high on Gina Villines:

"The girl is really something. She bursts. She's good. The first time we read script together I watched her. There she sat -- her first big break -- across from two great actresses like Miles and Blondell. Her script was shaking like a leaf but she came on like Gangbusters."

The feeling on the set was upbeat and everyone involved thought they were doing good work. A local reporter overheard a veteran Hollywood crew member talking:

Gina Villines as Mim Lowry
"Two days into a picture I can tell you whether or not it's good. Two days into Hallelujah Trail I told them they had a flop -- a dog. But this one is gonna be good. Right cast, right director, good story... I got a good feeling about this picture."

The production was a boon to the local economy, with tourists arriving hoping to catch a glimpse of some famous Hollywood stars. Boone entertained the crew at nights at his the beach house where he lived, one evening reciting The Gettysburg Address while Duane Eddy played “Battle Hymn of the Republic” in the background. The autograph seekers were patiently accommodated, the local economy expanded and all seemed right in this little world, with a product soon to be submitted that would turn into an ongoing television series, bringing more money into Hawaii and attracting other, more permanent Hollywood productions. The film even came in under budget, at $877,000..

Kona Coast was released in May 1968 and opened in Los Angeles as the first part of a double bill along with Franklin J Schaffner’s The Double Man starring Yul Brynner. Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times gave it a good review, calling it “"fast-paced, action-packed, well-acted entertainment... set against [a] colorful locale." He acknowledged MacDonald’s contribution of a “50-page outline for a proposed television series” and he liked Boone in the title role, calling him “splendid,” but ended the review on a note of reservation:

While Kona Coast is completely ingratiating, with much local color, it lacks the trenchant, thrusting style and pungent observations of MacDonald in print that keeps his strong sentimental streak in check.

An interesting observation from someone who had obviously read his John D MacDonald.

The few other reviews I’ve been able to find weren’t nearly so kind. A reviewer for a local Hawaiian paper didn’t slam it completely, but it’s obvious he wanted to and was just being kind to a local product. Variety called it “run of the mill,” which in and of itself was kind. Kona Coast played briefly throughout the country, in theaters and drive-ins, in places like Kansas City, Detroit, Indianapolis and Tampa, but it didn’t last long. It’s no surprise that CBS decided not to pick up their option to produce a Kona Coast series. And it took them four years to finally get around to airing the movie on television, which they did on the CBS Thursday Night Movie on April 27, 1972 at 8:00 pm. Five months later, on September 17 they ran it as the CBS Late Movie at 11:30, after which they released it into the wild, where it lived on late night television for many years.

That’s where I first saw it, on a late show on a Washington, DC television station sometime in the early 1980’s. My impression at the time was that it was a terrible film and a waste of the talent of everyone involved, with only a wisp of anything recognizably John D MacDonald. I quickly forgot it and passed up on chances to view it again when it was rebroadcast. Then, in 2011 Warner Brothers released the thing on DVD and still, it has taken me that long to bring myself to watch it again. Could it really be as bad as I recall?

Boone with Kent Smith as Akamai Barnes
In a word: yes. But this time I saw a lot more JDM in the finished product.

As I mentioned, the characters are all straight out of the John D MacDonald playbook, from the tough-but-flawed hero who lives on a boat, to the grizzled old dame who runs a retreat for alcoholics (she reminds me a lot of Alice Stebbins in The Beach Girls), the the highly educated slummers like Melissa Hyde and Akamai Barnes who have escaped from the rat race, the sociopathic, evil-for-its-own-sake villain, right down to the young, gamin girl with her head turned around, who seems to have jumped straight from MacDonald’s imagination onto the screen. Anyone who’s ever read even a little MacDonald can begin to fill in their own list of candidates from earlier role models.

And some of the dialogue sounds suspiciously MacDonaldean. I don’t know if any of those six "outlines of sequences" he wrote contained words coming out of characters’ mouths, but if they did I’ll bet Gil Ralston either copied or adapted certain snatches of it. Here’s Akamai Barnes showing his exasperation over Sam’s unwillingness to let the police handle the investigation of Dee’s murder.

“Sam, my PhD in anthropology and eleven years in sociology professorship never truly prepared me for the likes of you. Pathological, primeval, bloody Sam! How in hell you managed to live that rich full life locked up in that jumbled, destruction of body and soul beats me! You’re a fascinating cat, captain, with an infinite gift for collecting enemies. You know, if you just stay out of town our choleric friend [the cop] was convinced he could wrap up the situation, and I’m inclined to agree with him.”

Villines, Miles and Boone. Yes, Boone wears the same outfit for the entire film.
Dee’s drug induced call to Sam in the beginning of the film also sounds to me like JDM writing hippyspeak, and could have come out of the mouths of a character from Dress Her In Indigo:

Dee: I wanna speak to big daddy Sam Moran.
Sam: Sam Moran
Dee: Hello Big Daddy
Sam: Dee?
Dee. It's me, Dee, in the sky. All red and pretty in the sky.
Sam: Dee, now listen to me. If you want me to I’ll come and get you. I’ll come and pick you up.
Dee: It’s late. A little too late to be worried now. Pick me up? I’m up already. I know where you are, too. Right where you’re at. Nowhere. Sam, Sam, Sam the Man…

A later scene in Akamai’s bar has Sam dancing drunkenly with a group of young ladies. Mim arrives and he goes over to her with a drunken greeting, “Welcome, welcome, thrice welcome!” She joins the group of other girls as Akamai and Melissa (who hasn’t seen Sam in five years) look on:

Melissa: Are they all his?
Akamai: Probably. I’ve seen him come in after a week’s fishing, standing on the dock, sleepy as a lizard with that planter’s hat on the back of his head… In two minutes, some gal will pat her boyfriend on the head and come over to Sam and play with the grownups. But you know all that.
Melissa: Ohhh, yes!

That really sounds like MacDonald, and the line about “sleepy as a lizard” seems to have been written specifically with Robert Mitchum in mind.

Finally, there’s a love scene between Sam and Melissa late in the film where Sam begins by speaking Spanish, something that would have worked in a film set in the Caribbean but sounding way out of place in Hawaii. They kiss, then Melissa pushes Sam away.

Melissa: No! It’s beautiful making love… with you something… something goes wrong.

Sam: Words tore it the first time… you want to try for two?

Melissa: Help, Sam… help! You may be the same, I’m not the same. What do you think I’ve been since you? It damn well hasn’t been one big five year marine biological survey! I’ve loved a man since you. I married him. Then one day he killed himself. I’ve been trying unsuccessfully to kill myself ever since then. Oh Sam, I’ve waked up in drunk tanks choking on my own vomit. I tried to dry out… but I wake up in a straight jacket somewhere else. I'm worn out trying to make the world turn out right, the way I think it ought to be. That’s the way it was with us, Sam. It can’t be, it’s got to stop. I destroy everything…

Boone and Villines
On a technical level, the film looks gorgeous, no thanks to Joseph Lashell’s cinematography -- his compositions are sloppy looking and unimaginative -- but owing more to the fact that the movie was filmed in Technicolor, the best film stock ever used in Hollywood. The blues of the sky and sea, the greens of the mountainsides are simply beautiful, especially when seen in its original widescreen format.

OK, so what goes wrong?

Let’s start with the script. What probably began as MacDonald’s hour-long pilot idea establishing Sam Moran’s origin story has bloated into a 93-minute feature film, with very little substance added to justify that length. As a result, we are treated to lengthy sequences that seem endless, from the dreary montage where Sam’s goes around Honolulu asking for information on Kryder, to a deadly dull funeral-at-sea for Lightfoot, to a drawn-out ending sequence that has got to be one of the most unsuspenseful hunter-and-prey bits ever filmed. More time should have been spent writing organic scenes that expanded on the plot.

The dialogue, which I attribute in part to MacDonald himself, doesn’t sound authentic to the ear and is stilted in many places. That love scene conversation between Melissa and Sam reads like MacDonald on the page, but sounds embarrassing when heard coming out of the mouths of a real person. Like James M Cain before him, MacDonald’s dialogue could look magnificent on the page, but unrealistic when actually spoken.

Lamont Johnson’s direction is lackluster and seems phoned-in. There’s no electricity in any of the scenes, they are drably staged and all look like something out of an episode of a sixties television show. The acting, especially by the locals, is -- understandably -- amateurish to the point of embarrassment, and Boone himself is completely one-note in his performance of Sam. The only actors who seem to bring any energy to their roles are Miles, Smith and (especially) Villenes. To top everything off, the music score, by Jack Marshall, is awful and makes the film sound like every bad TV show you ever watched growing up. He even interjects bars from “Waltzing Matilda” during Lightfoot’s funeral scene. The effect is to make an already borderline effort seem cheaper than it already was.

And the film has not aged well. A collection of viewer review titles on the IMDb give an accurate idea as to how the movie has held up: "An Amiable Mess of a Movie," "Hokey," "Dreck," "Relentlessly Bad," and "Perhaps The Worst Film I've Ever Seen."

MacDonald was famously ill-served by Hollywood, although not as badly as he always claimed. Part of the blame, I think, must go to the author himself, who clearly didn’t understand the medium and at times wore that misunderstanding like a badge of honor. In cases where talented film artists were willing to take the time to interject their own sensibilities (J Lee Thompson with Cape Fear, Victor Nunez with A Flash of Green) real works of art were produced. But most of the time, when directors and screenwriters let the material lead the way, the results ranged from the unremarkable (Man Trap, Darker Than Amber) to the really, really bad (Condominium, Travis McGee).

In April 1986, the year MacDonald died, he again recalled the project, this time for TV Guide in an article titled “The Movies of My Books? Dumb, Listless, Inept.”

I began to get more insight into the movie process when, long ago, I was induced to write a "treatment." No matter what they tell you, a treatment is a very short non-book written entirely in the present tense: "He then hits the woman in the face and jumps out the window." Rambo and Rocky feed entirely on treatments.

I called mine Bimini Gal and that was the name of an old rust-bucket freighter operating in the Bahamas and Florida. Robert Mitchum was to be the hired captain, and Joan Blondell the owner. It disappeared from human view and popped up again a couple of years later as Kona Coast, a story about Richard Boone operating an old sailing vessel [sic] in the Hawaiian Islands. I never found out who owned the ship, and I never saw the movie.

But MacDonald was well paid for the effort, despite its failure. For the rest of his career he continued to be asked about the project, and he usually had a witty response ready. The best one was quoted by Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter: "The few people who have seen that pilot on the tube -- in random places, usually very late at night -- have thrown up."

Monday, February 5, 2018

The Editor Over My Shoulder

John D MacDonald loved to write. Obviously. In addition to his 70-plus books, his nearly 400 published short stories, numerous magazine novels and non-fiction articles, he wrote often about his craft in an effort to help the serious would-be writer, offering practical, analytical advice that reflected his own struggles as a beginner. As early as 1950 he wrote a piece for the Writer’s Yearbook titled “Professionally Yours,” where he outlined the various ways he treated his craft as a business. He continued to produce similar articles throughout his career, in periodicals such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer and Author’s Guild Bulletin, with instructive titles like “How a Character Becomes Believable,” “How to Start a Story,” “The Biggest Stumbling Block,” and “Creative Trust.”

In December 1962, the same month he published The Girl, The Gold Watch and Everything and right around the time he was considering the series character who would ultimately be named Travis McGee, he wrote an article for Writer's Digest titled "The Editor Over My Shoulder." It is both instructive and amusing, and it's obviously the product of MacDonald's own experience as a novelist. It also shows that no matter how profitable or well-regarded an author was, he or she was still at the mercy of the publisher and the editors who worked for that publisher. The previous May he had published one of his most noted novels, A Flash of Green, a book MacDonald had deep regrets about, writing in 1980, "I mistrusted my own objectivity about my own work, and as a consequence the book that finally emerged after many lengthy consultations, was far less of a novel than the original version." I wouldn't be surprised to learn that this article was a direct reaction to the writing of that novel.

The Editor Over My Shoulder

OF TEN THOUSAND ludicrous analogies, all easy to devise, I select here the image of the novelist as a monomaniac who has set himself up in the middle of a carnival -- with cutting table, shears, needles, patterns and fabrics -- and is intently making himself a suit of clothes.

A gusty wind blows, rain threatens; there is a discord of music and the babble of the barkers; the midway throng shuffles by, jostling him, offering comment and advice.

In the midst of this the novelist must sustain his own private world, perform his intimate function. It is easy to ignore, through practice, the ones who jeer, or the ones who respond with vacant automatic laughter at the vision of a man making a suit for himself, or the ones who become angry at what they consider an impertinence. And you can close off the background noise. But the ultimate danger is the mild and pleasant stranger who stops at your table, comprehends what you are trying to do, accepts it as a reasonable activity, and offers plausible advice.

“If you keep working so fast, you’re going to ruin a lot of that material.”

“Why don't you stop right where you are and try it on and see what people think of it?"

“Does it really have to fit you as well as you're trying to make it fit you?"

“The pattern of that material looks awfully loud to me."

“Instead of making a suit for yourself, why don't you make one for me? There's more money in it."

“I can line you up with a good job with Hart, Schaffner and Marx, and then you'll have a nice quiet place to work away from all this hubbub.”

“Nobody wears that style any more.”

“It’s going to end up looking like any other cheap, readymade suit.”

“They’ll never let you into the best clubs wearing that, will they?"

“Just like all your other suits; the shoulders are wrong.”

“Why make a suit when in the same time with the same effort, you could be making four pair of slacks or three dozen handkerchiefs?"

“All the lapels are wider this year.”

When the pleasant stranger stops to talk, you are tempted to halt your lonely task and explain what you are doing. So you stop and you describe just how it will look when it is finished, what a fine suit indeed it is going to be. You speak with maximum enthusiasm, describing every detail. He looks skeptical and walks away. You bend over your work again. Suddenly it has become a dull labor. You have described it so totally that actual production has become drudgery.

Or perhaps you bring the pleasant stranger into the act. “I’ve gone this far," you say. “You can see the sort of a suit I'm making. Do you think maybe one more button on the jacket?"

"One less," he says with sudden expertise. “And it has to have a vest. Bermuda shorts, maybe. And let's start over with a fabric with more pattern in it."

“But that isn’t the sort of suit I. . .”

“Between the two of us," he says warmly, "we'll make you a hell of a suit.”

“But it won't be my suit, will it?"

“Of course it will be your suit, old buddy! But we'll cut it so it'll fit both of us. First let's move this table out of the wind."

Enough of analogy. I am not speaking of journalism or the journalistic novel. I am involved with the novel which is a personal view of reality, an expression of the self-involvement and specialized quest which motivate the novelist, the way chronic mange keeps a dog scratching.

Editors are sensitive, acute, perceptive, imaginative people. That's the trouble with them. (I am speaking here of the men and women who edit the novel.)

“Send me three chapters and an outline, please.” Or, in other words, “Move over and let me see how you're coming with that suit.”

Let us guess at the phenomenology involved. To lean upon analogy again, the most effective horror stories never describe the monster. Instead, they describe the reactions of the terrified person, eyes bulging, mouth agape, complexion ashen as she backs away from the offstage horror. The reader then draws upon the infinity of imaginative uglinesses in the subcellar of his own mind and supplies a monster more credible than anything the author could devise.

Incidentally, this is particularly true in cinema and television. TV's Thriller once did a short play concerning people turned to stone by looking at the head of the Medusa. In an innocent clumsiness they showed the viewer the head, garlanded with plastic snakes. Potential horror was turned into inadvertent comedy.

Because the editor is of more than average perception and imagination, turning over a few chapters and an outline is precisely like inviting a reader to create his own version of the offstage monster. Assume that the three or so chapters are highly competent. The editor is intrigued. Out of the resources of his imagination he creates his own vision of the rest of the book and, because it is devised of the materials within his own mind -- conscious and subconscious -- he anticipates marvels beyond the capacity of the author to produce. "Ah yes!” he says. “A fine start. It will be a marvelous novel. Go ahead with it."

So the author completes the book, maintaining the same level of competence, taking it exactly where he wanted to take it. He sends the balance of the manuscript in. The editor reads it -- and feels let down. “Something is wrong with this," he writes. “I can't exactly put my finger on it. But I don't think the rest of the book lives up to the promise of the first few chapters.”

The author is disheartened. He loses confidence in the book. Suggestions for revision are made by the editor. Perhaps they are massive ones -- such as change the viewpoint, make X the lead character instead of Y, change from first person to third. Or perhaps they are concerned with an intensive rewriting of key scenes.

What neither author nor editor realizes is that they are attempting a highly improbable task -- which is to devise a novel which, instead of being the logical development of the few chapters submitted, has become an attempt to duplicate all the magic created in the editorial mind as a result of the stimulus provided by the first few chapters.

Of course the editor can't quite put his finger on what is wrong. He wants the author to write the book he imagined. No author can. And because the editor is perturbed, the author loses confidence. At best, the objectivity of any writer is a precarious thing. Maybe the book will eventually be published. But by then it will have been so chopped and changed, so subjected to intuitive compromises that it suits neither the author nor the editor.

The answer is, of course, to make your own suit of clothes, and make it to fit yourself, and finish every last buttonhole and pleat, and then walk into the editor's office and ask him what he thinks of it. As a professional he may very well suggest a few changes here and there. (You made the pants too long.) But it will be your suit, not some glorious garment he envisaged after a glimpse of the bolt of material you intended using.

What I am saying is so painfully obvious it is often overlooked: Two cooks are too many cooks. Broth is not a team effort.

Yet why do so many semiprofessional novelists continue to try to function on the basis of a fractional submission of material? It seems to me to be a product of professional insecurity. There is a morale factor involved. They want their hands held. “Is this going to be all right?" they ask. “Is this going to be a book?"

We can examine the sophistries on each side. The writer says, “I get my advance on the basis of a couple of chapters and then they're committed to the book." Is he being a novelist or a confidence man? He says, “I want to find out if I’m wasting my time before I invest too much time in it." A novel undertaken with so little confidence is perhaps not worth writing. He says, “I don't want to get off on the wrong track." How in the world does a writer learn if not by getting off on the wrong track a thousand times and detecting the trouble himself and the reasons for it and fighting his way back? If he wants step by step guidance, perhaps he would be better off scripting other people's materials for television.

The editor who requests the chapters and outline rationalizes his position by saying, “I keep good old Joe from wasting a lot of time on something we can't use, so I’m doing him a favor." This can give you a delicious image of an editor sending back the first three chapters of The Late George Apley and asking Marquand to introduce Mr. Moto sooner. Of course editorial considerations are seldom as completely commercial as that -- yet most editors are leery of any experimental deviation on the part of established authors, and it is far easier to discourage such deviation on the basis of a fraction of a book than on the basis of the whole manuscript. One can reasonably say that the writer who plays safe has a little too much hack in his makeup.

The editor will say, “I like to work closely with my authors.” When editors are professionally competent this is fine indeed, provided the careful attention is given to revisions of a completed manuscript, but when it is concerned with work in process, one wonders whether the editor is not merely using the writer as a vehicle through which he can create his own books.

There is another curious aspect of this chapter and outline procedure, a type of feedback which serves to short out the creative drive. To return to the original analogy, the man stopped making the suit in order to explain to the pleasant stranger exactly how it would look -- and when he returned to his work he found it somewhat tasteless.

Here I believe we have the situation wherein the writer does to himself the same sort of thing he does to the editor through fractional submission. He makes a detailed exhaustive outline of the book he has not yet written. As he makes the detailed outline, millions of sugarplums dance in his head. He sees all the tensions and the colors, experiences the joys and despairs of his characters.

Then when he comes to the task of fleshing out the outline with actual manuscript pages, he wonders why it all seems so flat, and where so much of the magic has gone. In the first place, he has set himself the dogged and impossible task of precisely remembering all of the magic, and duplicating it perfectly the second time around. In the second place he has deprived himself of that special joy of instantaneous invention which is one of the factors which make this profession endurable.

He is like a man who has promised not to deviate from a carefully planned route on a cross country hike. Though there are a hundred ways to reach his destination, many of them more interesting than the one he has chosen, when he comes upon previously unsuspected bypaths, special vistas, he can but glance at them with regret and continue on his destined way. The editor has approved the route.

By restricting himself to a preapproved pattern, the writer has deprived himself of the use of one of the basic talents which made him a writer in the first place. The semanticists talk of trigger words. These are words which have a special weight and import to the listener, and tend to turn him aside from the sense of the statement being made. The writer at work sits atop the vast murky reservoir of his subconscious mind, and as he works he devises within his own manuscript trigger scenes, trigger people, trigger phrases which suddenly bring whole new situations and relationships up out of the jumbled storehouse. These things -- so compulsive, so suddenly seen, so impossible of anticipation -- are what give writing freshness and force, and often give the process itself a curious flavor of autohypnosis and autosuggestion. When the writer says, “It went well today," he means that his relationship of trigger and response was especially fluent, that his invention came readily out of himself, without forcing or faking.

I have come to believe that this process of trigger and response works at its optimum the first time around. Try a ludicrous example. Visualize a woman running headlong into a tree. The specifics of it seem to jump into your mind: scene, clothing, impact, and a lot of possible phrases occur to you, and out of these you make a selection. Let's say that when she hit the tree, she jarred loose a hundred random impressions from your past. Now try this: Visualize a woman running headlong into a tree. The second time around, did you not get a vastly reduced spectrum of consequent images?

If the scene appeared in a detailed outline, by the time you get to the actual manuscript you have impoverished yourself by reducing the scope of your images and relationships. Or, if you have talked too much about work in process, you have done the same thing. You have spent so much of yourself describing how the suit will look when it is finished, that the work itself is leached of enchantment.

In the same way that having an editor over your shoulder can give you a final work which pleases neither of you, it is forlornly easy for the writer to perform the contortionist feat of looking over his own shoulder and, with too much preplanning, turn a potential joy into a dreariness of effort.

In a novel the writer is traveling from A to B. The proper starting point is most usually discovered through a process of trial and error. The ultimate destination is inherent in the starting point. But the time to choose the route is during the actual trip, because it is strange country, and you will not know the footing until you travel it, nor even be able to guess at how long it will take you.

One might protest that there is a serious danger of wandering off into some bypath so attractive you can never find your way back. Yet, is this not almost a perfect test of the validity of the imagined destination? If the bypath becomes more attractive, then should not the book be concerned with the bypath, even to the extent of going back to the beginning? Operating on a chapter and outline basis eliminates future choice. And choice is the condiment which makes a better broth.

Let us examine the editorial reaction to a finished manuscript which is the result of having made the optimum choices while creating it. In the first place, faced with a completed work, the editor is less likely to propose alternate routes. Secondly, his equation is simplified; he will buy it or reject it, or make specific requests for revision. In the third place, it will become completely your book, because the choices were all yours; it will have an individuality, an integrity and an inevitably unachievable by other means. It will not smack of manipulation, of two-man confusions of intent. And finally, it will be of a length to fit the materials rather than being either bloated or dwarfed to fit a preconceived requirement.

Writing is a private affair. A personal affair. When you try to share the responsibility for the final result, you diminish yourself as well as your works.

(A special thanks to author Dan Pollock for sharing his copy of this article with me.)

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Crossroads

Up until the publication of The Turquoise Lament in 1974 John D MacDonald was thought of primarily as a writer of paperback originals. Of the 61 books he had written and published up to that point, 49 were paperback, meaning that 12 of them were not. What began as a necessity -- it is doubtful a pulp writer could have jumped to the rarefied world of hardcover very easily in 1950 -- eventually became a choice. The reason: money. MacDonald had decided to make a living as a writer, he had a family and lifestyle to support, and softcover was where the money was. Why was this so?

Back in the day, the standard practice in the hardcover publishing world was to pay the author a percentage of actual sales of their book, with advances (if any) repaid from that amount. If the book sold, you were paid, if not, oh well… In addition, if and when the book came out in paperback -- usually about a year later -- fully half of the royalties from the sale of the softcover went directly back to the hardcover publisher. This “exercise in larceny” infuriated MacDonald and, as he recalled in 1986, “My MBA from the Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration led me to believe that hardcover publishers who claimed they could not survive without tapping into fifty percent of my newsstand royalties, where either liars or incompetents.”

Compare that to the method used by the paperback houses, who paid royalties based on initial and subsequent print runs, and who took no slices from any of an author’s other sources. When one looks at the print runs of some of MacDonald’s paperback originals from the Fifties, it’s easy to understand how he prospered so well financially.

By the time he wrote The Turquoise Lament publishing practices were changing and MacDonald had, at long last, enough clout to negotiate better contracts with hardcover publishers. Beginning with Turquoise he was exclusively a hardcover author, with the only exceptions being his anthology of science fiction pulp stories (Other Times, Other Worlds) and the unauthorized collection Two.

But what about those 12 books MacDonald wrote and decided to bring to the public in hardcover? What was it about those titles that persuaded him that he could afford to take a hit in the wallet? With the exception of his two early science fiction novels (Wine of the Dreamers and Ballroom of the Skies), the novels all seem to be instances where MacDonald felt he had something important to say, or where he was trying to reach a different audience. Also, hardcovers were generally reviewed in most newspapers and magazines, whereas paperbacks were, for the most part, ignored. His first two hardcovers after the science fiction books were his first two mainstream novels of “morals and manners in a specific setting,” Cancel All Our Vows (adultery in suburbia) and Contrary Pleasure (drama inside a family-run business). Please Write for Details was his first comic novel and both The End of the Night and A Flash of Green dealt in weighty subject matter that he wanted to disseminate to a broader audience. The Executioners was supposedly done to win a bet, and The Last One Left was supposed to be a blockbuster bestseller, only it wasn’t. No Deadly Drug and The House Guests were non-fiction.

Let’s not forget vanity. MacDonald admitted this in that same 1986 recollection:

There is a general feeling that publication in hardcover is necessary if a book is to have any cachet of importance. It is the class act, mollifying the snob in every writer. I do not really know why this should be so. Perhaps long ago the artists’ works were chiseled in stone and the hacks had to make do with papyrus. Maybe in the not so distant future the important writings will be distributed on germanium chips and the entertainers will have to make do with silicon. I have always believed that the package does not make that much difference. The idea should be to get the work out to where people can buy it or borrow it and read it. If it is published on Kleenex or forty pound rag bond is not as important as its accessibility.

The one hardcover entry that doesn’t seem to fit in with the other eleven is MacDonald’s July 1959 novel The Crossroads. Published by Simon and Schuster as part of their Inner Sanctum Mystery imprint, it starts out as anything but a mystery. We’re in the world of “manners and mores” as well as the world of business. MacDonald borrows heavily from earlier works here, most notably Contrary Pleasure, which concerns itself with an entrepreneurial family and the business they run. But this setting and introduction gradually gives way to MacDonald the crime writer, and the main plotline of the novel is really about a heist -- its inception, its execution and its aftermath. In this respect MacDonald has mined a different early work, The Neon Jungle, and there are many parallels to that novel as well. Taken together The Crossroads reads like an amalgam of the two previous books: a family drama to justify its publication in hardcover and a crime story to earn the Inner Sanctum imprint.

But at heart it is a John D MacDonald thriller, one that -- despite its prior sources -- reads as a true original, another step in the author’s road to honing his craft. He returns to the multi-character, multi perspective writing form last used in Please Write for Details, and it serves him well as he maps out the lives and motivations of the novel’s various characters. Each is a true original with recognizable MacDonaldean characteristics and moralities, each created with the expert eye of a true observer of the world around him.

The setting for The Crossroads is along a major north-south thoroughfare known simply as Route 71, ten miles south of the fictional city of Walterburg in South Carolina, a major route for vacationers heading to and from Florida. (Although he never mentions the actual state, MacDonald once revealed that this was his “mental location” while writing the novel.) Crossing Route 71 is a new limited-access highway going east-west, connecting Route 71 via a cloverleaf. And on all four segments of this crossroads sits the various enterprises of the Crossroads Corporation, a family business owned by the Drovek family. Begun back in the 1920’s by Polish immigrant Anton “Papa” Drovek, the original business was a simple country story surrounded by ten acres of farmland, now grown to hundreds. On this land in 1959 sits a hotel, a motel, a truck stop, a restaurant and night club, a pantry, two gas stations, a shopping center, a drive-in, a bowladrome and, on a hill behind the hotel, the four houses that are the residences of the four adult Drovek children, all involved in the operation of the family business.

Right away the reader of John D MacDonald’s previous novels recognizes the similarities to the two other books cited. From The Neon Jungle we remember the Varaki Quality Market, run by various members of the family of the same name, headed by another immigrant entrepreneur, Gus Varaki, and aided by his sons and daughter. But the Varakis are an unhappy lot: a defeated eldest son married to a shrew, a dead second son and a tramp of a daughter, all struggling to run a store in a blighted, deteriorating section of a large city. The Droveks, on the other hand, are running a successful and growing empire, in an area far from any inner-city. The structures of both novels are also similar, in that both settings are set-ups (as we shall see) for a crime committed by an employee of the business.

From Contrary Pleasure a similarly successful (although barely) family business run by the Delevan family includes all the children of the founding parent, living side by side in houses up on a hill, each holding some responsible position in the corporation. The Delevan children are much more the antecedents for the Droveks, complete with an alpha-male eldest brother who basically runs the business, a sister married to an uninvolved “drone,” and a deadweight brother who is barely tolerated by the eldest son. Both earlier books deal with families trying to survive a world in where their businesses are becoming obsolete, whereas in The Crossroads, business continues to expand at a breakneck pace.

The brains and spirit behind the success of the Crossroads Corporation is eldest son Charles, or Chip, age 41, “a big-boned, driving man, sandy hair on hard skull, strong hard face, bright-blue skeptical eyes, deep chest and wide shoulders. A man of shrewdness and subtleties, of occasional wisdom and infrequent self-doubt and boundless energies.” It was Chip who took his father’s store and restaurant and grew it into the multi-phased enterprise it now is, built primarily on tourist traffic heading to and from Florida. He also runs the show, involving himself in every minute aspect of the business, and rarely from behind his desk. His energies are focused on the business mainly because he has little home life to occupy his time. His wife of 16 years, Clara, is a “hopeless case,” a victim of a strict religious upbringing who has assuaged her guilt and distaste of the duties of marriage by drinking herself into a stupor each and every day. They have one daughter, fifteen-year old Nancy, who is somehow as responsible as her father and older than her years. How someone like Chip became involved with someone like Clara is a bit of interesting MacDonald writing, only barely believable but convenient for the other relationship Chip carries on.

(MacDonald has rarely been kind to religion in general or to people of faith in particular, and Clara is no exception. All of her problems are heaped upon her upbringing, written to be as grim and as stern as possible. I can’t recall a single sympathetic character of faith in the JDM canon until Van Harder in 1978’s The Empty Copper Sea.)

Chip’s emotional outlet, outside of his love for his daughter, is with a divorcee named Jeana Louise Portoni, who runs a small gift shop in one of the Crossroads’ strip malls. Jeana is described lovingly by MacDonald (blonde, tall, slim, with the obligatory blue-gray eyes), who is quick to assure us that she is no tramp and not at all “promiscuous.” They enjoy an intensely physical and emotional relationship, evidenced by Jeana’s response to Chip when he pulls her into his arms (“Darling, Darling, Darling!”). They even speak the four-letter word to each other often, but are in, they acknowledge, “a trap,” for it’s 1959, this is a John D MacDonald novel, and Chip and Jeana are the quintessential JDM ideals for a male and female protagonist. Chip is no more able to abandon his invalid wife than he would be able to kill her, and Jeana’s morals could not permit herself to love a man who did such a thing. So they sneak around, trying to remain a secret, but it’s an affair that has become obvious to one other member of the Drovek family.

Leo, 39, is the second oldest Drovek, lives in the second house up on the hill, and is second in command of the Crossroads Corporation. Similar in build to his older brother Chip, he is otherwise different in every other way. Conservative, cautious and sober, he considers himself a balance to Chip’s constant and reckless expansion. Punctual and punctilious, he is a man of habits, schedules, figures and reports -- reports he takes very seriously, although few others -- least of all Chip -- do. He is married to Betty, an obedient, “small, somewhat scrawny woman with slightly graying hair.” who has given him three children.

Next in line is Joan, the only female in the family, married to Jack Paris and co-owner of Paris Realty, which manages all leases, collects all rentals, arranges for all necessary repairs and maintenance on leased properties and then remits the balance to the Crossroads Corporation. Joan is another MacDonald “type” and is meticulously described by the author in a singular paragraph:

She was, on a scale so majestic as to make the average man uncomfortable in her presence, a truly beautiful woman. She had an oval face with a hint of oriental in its structuring, pale shining hair, a flawless complexion. She was big. Big bones, big shoulders, high firm hips. She stood five-eleven in her stocking feet, only an inch shorter than her two elder brothers. She weighed one sixty, and she was completely firm, gracefully built. She wore tailored clothes. On her, frills and flounces would have been grotesque. She could not make an ungraceful, unwomanly movement. Behind a mask of sleepy and almost sensuous amiability, her mind was as quick and sharp as Charles's. They were the close ones. At ease with each other, aware of the same problems, the same triumphs.

Too bad Joan is not featured more prominently in the novel. She is the polar opposite of Alice Furman, the only Delevan female sibling in Contrary Pleasure.

As adept and as business savvy as Joan is, she is married to a less than admirable man, at least in JDM’s eyes. Jack Paris is “a forty-year-old kid, in love with games, proud of his reflexes,” and as unimportant to the daily operations of Paris Realty as anyone could be. If he’s not away playing in a golf tournament he’s gone playing tennis, or fishing, or playing handball, or hunting, playing bridge or poker, all in the fiction of making valuable contacts for the firm. Chip considers him (privately) to be a lazy bum, but Joan worships him and he in turn adores his wife.

The youngest Drovek, at age 28, is Pete, an un-serious party animal with a good disposition but a low tolerance for boredom or routine. His early years were spent in college and the service, where he met and hung around with others of his temperament, drinking and carousing. When he wakes up in Mexico one morning married to a shallow New York model named Sylvia, he returns to the fold, has his own house built next to his siblings, and begins working for the Corporation. But he can’t focus on routine and is constantly leaving town for long periods of time on "business" trips, looking up old friends and army buddies, while the areas of the business he is responsible for begin to decay. He is endured by Chip, who feels that there is something within his younger brother that will eventually get him serious about life.

But far more interesting than Pete is his his young wife Sylvia. Similar in many respects to Sally Leon in April Evil, Sylvia is a pretty girl with limited smarts or self-awareness, who comes from humble beginnings. Things went sour after her brief success in fashion modeling and she devolved into working for a photographer of true crime magazines, the soft porn of its day, where she was forced to posed in the nude. After a relationship with the photographer ended she attended a party where she met Pete, who, along with another couple, whisked her off to Mexico, where days of heaving drinking led to marriage and a new Drovek family. But Sylvia is soon left alone by Pete as he traipses all over the country, and her boredom and idleness don’t fit in well with the other members of the hard working Drovek family. The opening of Chapter Three, where MacDonald introduces the reader to Sylvia, is absolutely masterful as he recounts her childhood and slide into a seedy underworld.

She had been born and brought up -- to the age of sixteen -- in Lowell, Massachusetts, the middle child of five children of a little, wiry, sour, savage, sallow tool-and-die-maker, and a fat, dim defeated woman who always looked as if she had just finished weeping or was just about to begin. Her childhood was marked by the hard little unpredictable hands of [her father], by squalls of rage and pain and terror.

The relationship with the photographer is equally well done, vividly painting a hopeless world in a single perfectly worded paragraph.

[After her first job with him] Clyde wanted to use her again. Five days later. After the second session, she quit her regular job. And a month later she was living in a Village apartment with Clyde Denglert. His physical demands on her were slight and infrequent. He was not a well man. He wanted to do art photography. He submitted pictures to exhibitions, and sometimes received an honorable mention. Through him she found other modelling jobs of the same caliber. Her money and his went for survival, plus the expensive equipment he felt he needed in his art photography work. It was a living arrangement, not emotional. A few times, out of frustration and irritability and hopelessness, he beat her. But he was always contrite. He was forty-two years old and nothing had come true for him. One day, when she was twenty, walking with Clyde through a slushy dusk to the corner bar, his heart stumbled. He went down onto his hands and knees. As she tried to help him up, his heart stopped, and he folded onto his face in the dirty March slush.

Few authors can write a paragraph as vivid and with such expressive economy as MacDonald.

Later in the novel Joan ruminates on Sylvia’s character, her lack of friends and inability at social intercourse. Here MacDonald could be describing any number of his wayward women.

Eventually [Joan] came to the unhappy conclusion that the young girl actually had little to contribute or communicate. Hers was an utterly circumscribed mind, concerned with the trivia of clothes, hairdos, television and hit tunes. In time she had also come to detect in Sylvia that little unavoidable coarseness of outlook, that hardening of the texture of the emotions which is the inescapable fate of every woman who has known too many men, too intimately and too casually.

Sylvia, mostly alone and bored, is bound to get into trouble one day, and that day has already arrived, although the reader doesn’t know it yet.

The last member of the Drovek family to play a part in the plot of The Crossroads is the patriarch of the clan, Papa, still alive but no longer active in the daily activities of the corporation. Like his children, he lives on land owned by by the company, but off by himself on the other side of Route 71 and up on a high hill, where he can take in a vista that includes the entire Crossroads Corporation empire. Widowed since Charles was 17, he lives alone, tending his garden, visiting with his children and grandchildren, and collecting his share of the corporate profits. It is this final activity that provides The Crossroads with its macguffin.

The profits from the Crossroads Corporation are distributed monthly, and Papa’s portion is remitted in the form of a check. There is a ritual involved with his distribution: Chip picks up his check from Leo and drives up to the house on the hill to hand it over to Papa. They agree on a time when Chip will drive Papa to the bank to deposit the proceeds, but Papa’s idea of “deposit” is a more archaic.

[Chip] knew what the old man would do. Dress up in his good dark suit with the shiny seat and elbows, place his hat squarely on top of his head and ride into the city with him. There he would cash the check, put far too small an amount of money into his pocket, and take the balance into the safety deposit vaults and put it in his box.

He’s been doing this forever, and no one -- except Papa himself -- has any idea as to the amount of cash that has accumulated in that metal box. (It is later revealed to be over $270,000 -- quite a bit of change in 1959.) And in the insular community of the corporation, over time almost everyone is aware of this practice and have gossiped and speculated about how much money is collected there. It’s only a matter of time before that speculation would gestate in the mind of a less-than-honest member of the staff, who would then wonder about how to get his hands on it. That person turns out to be the head bartender of the Starlight Club, Mark Brodey.

Brody had been behind the bar since the Starlight Club opened five years ago, and for the past two years he ruled as the head bartender. But when the novel opens he is out of work, fired for “cheating the register,” using faked bills to charge customers too much and pocketing the difference. It’s an ingenious plan that MacDonald details, as only he can, in a meticulous fashion. But he’s eventually caught and fired personally by Chip. Unable to get another bar tending job locally, he’s forced to work at a greasy spoon several miles south of the crossroads and takes up residence in a nearby dilapidated motel. It gives him plenty of time to stew in his own resentment and plot a way to get his revenge on the Droveks.

Sylvia is a regular patron of the Starlight Club, frequenting it nightly on those occasions when Pete is out of town (which is often) and she’d struck up an acquaintance with Brody. Nothing serious or even provocative -- she’s usually pretending to herself that she’s “a woman of mystery on a long trip” -- but with enough casual conversation for Brody to size up the lonely, idle young housewife for who she is and who she used to be. And once he starts fantasizing about getting his hands on the contents of Papa Drovek’s safe deposit box, he realizes that tricking Sylvia into helping him is the perfect way to accomplish that goal. He blackmails her into agreeing to help with the plan, with the promise of running away together and living the good life on all that money as the bait. But Brody has other things in mind for Sylvia after the caper is complete, things that he dare not tell her. The plan is put into place and it propels the balance of the novel into a world of thrilling violence as expertly written as anything MacDonald had executed to date.

The Crossroads succeeds on nearly every level it aspires to (with the possible exception of Clara Drovek, whose ultimate fate is MacDonald-convenient and nearly over the top) and his melding of character, business detail, background and crime has now become a trademark of the author, who here pulls off something that seems effortless and natural. The writing is routinely engaging and expertly done, with the first chapter a standout. It is almost fugue-like in it complexity, bouncing from character to character -- some who are part of the plot, others who are not -- as the author introduces the reader to the world of the Crossroads Corporation. Another favorable comparison might be to the opening scene of Orson Welles’ 1958 film Touch of Evil: a single lengthy shot that takes in the whole world of the movie while providing its main plotpoint. How MacDonald does this is a mystery to a reader like me. And it is singular: just read the works of any of his contemporaries. They may write with more grace, with more literary sensibility, with more glancing observations, but I’ve never encountered one who can do what MacDonald does so well and so entertainingly.

Simon and Schuster printed only one edition of The Crossroads and the size of the print run is unknown. It was not a best seller. It appeared only four months after the publication of two other novels (Please Write for Details and Deadly Welcome) and only two months before his next paperback original, The Beach Girls. The dust jacket features a design by H Lawrence Hoffman, the artist who did the hardcover art for The Executioners the year before. It would be his last JDM effort. His design has caused much confusion in the book collection world over the years, due to his inclusion of the word MOTEL under the title, leading some less-than-careful catalogers to list the book as The Crossroads Motel. It features a simple cloverleaf imposed upon the scattered few lit windows of said motel. Due to the cheapness of the printing -- thin paper for the dust jacket, pages printed on highly acidic paper -- it is hard to find a collectable copy of this title any more. The publishers did fill the back of the jacket with a full-page biography of the author along with the headshot they used for their edition of The Executioners. It tells the standard story and is full of inaccuracies and exaggerations:

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

A graduate of the Harvard School of Business Administration, a lieutenant colonel in World War II who was in service with the OSS in Ceylon, John MacDonald's first piece of fiction was a letter written from overseas to his wife. This is not as scandalous as it sounds. "The only kind of letters that would pass through censorship in those days made pretty dull reading, so instead of a letter, I wrote my wife a short story. She promptly sold it to a magazine for $25. I decided that this looked like an easy way to earn a comfortable living. I was wrong on both counts -- at first. In my four months of terminal leave I worked seven days a week and wrote 800,000 words, sometimes having as many as fifty manuscripts in the mail at once. Sales: 0. I also lost twenty pounds. Most of this work was pretty bad, but it taught me my trade. Then, of course, as soon as I went out and got a job, the stories I wrote at night began to sell. I quit the job in 1945 and have been writing full time ever since."

These figures will be out of date by the time you read this, but as we go to press, Mac's published novels total 38, his short stories, novelettes and serials more than 500. And the censors wouldn't pass one of them, since they are anything but dull. His readers can testify to that: more than 14,000,000 copies of his books have been sold, and he is probably the world's only "daily author" -- he once had four paperback novels published on four successive days.

MacDonald's name on a book doesn't mean that you get the same mixture as before. One story will be a zany and uproarious farce like the recent best-selling Please Write for Details, which is now being made into a musical comedy, the next a taut story of suspense like The Executioners or The Crossroads.

MacDonald was decidedly unhappy with this write-up, despite the inclusion of his own words (which also contain an inaccuracy). A month after the book was published he wrote a correspondent:

I think it fairly handsome for a cheap book. I am quietly offended, however, by that portion of the blurb on the back which refers to me as Mac. I consider that a gratuitous familiarity, a jolly-boy backslap more suitable to the sales convention than the back of a book.

The first paperback edition of The Crossroads appeared in September of the following year under the Fawcett-Crest imprint (Crest being the non-paperback original line of Fawcett). It featured the artwork of Ron Lesser, his first for a John D MacDonald title, but not his last. He would go on to famously illustrate the original covers of the first ten Travis McGee novels, and The Crossroads is his only other JDM effort. It features a man in a suit firing a pistol pulled from a shoulder holster, with the head of a brunette (Sylvia) looming over him There’s no such scene in the novel. There was only one printing under this original full-cover version.

It would be 1968, eight years later before Fawcett reprinted the book. The Lesser artwork was retained, but shrunken and boxed within the larger cover. This version went through four separate printings. Then, in late 1974 Robert McGinnis was commissioned to do his own cover. It is a great improvement, illustrating a woman running through a grassy wooded area with a man standing by a car in the background. This is a scene from late in the novel, so I won’t describe its characters further. It was featured on five separate printings, from December 1974 to December 1983, with only a change in the lettering font appearing in the last edition.

Finally, in July 1986 William Schmidt, who did later-day covers for nearly all of John D MacDonald’s work, illustrated the covers of the last two printings of the era, Like all of his other JDM work, he depicts a scene from the novel, but this one also occurs late in the story and it would give too much away to discuss it here.

If MacDonald’s point it publishing The Crossroads in hardcover was to get it noticed, he certainly got his way. The book was widely reviewed in papers throughout the country, including in the New York Times, the New York Herald-Tribune, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New Orleans Picayune and Saturday Review. Anthony Boucher in the Times called it “one of MacDonald’s suspense-that-approaches-straight novels,” and he liked it. James Sandoe of the Herald-Tribune also liked it, recognizing the similarities between it and MacDonald’s previous work, calling it “a retranslation of a formula he has used a half dozen times before, managed with the freshness of the first time. Taut, absorbing stuff.” The uncredited reviewer for the Boston Globe claimed it was “the best MacDonald for my taste, a smashing good novel by any standard.”

There were a few who had reservations, such as the reviewer for the Philadelphia Bulletin, who claimed that the book had “too many actors on the stage.” The Providence Journal called it “contrived,” and said “there’s a little too much coincidence” in the book. The one really bad review appeared in the New Orleans Picayune, where the reviewer -- identified only by the initials B.B.S. -- wrote the that the novel contains “an unsavory story about a large collection of unpleasant and oversexed people… There is a plot to murder grandpa (sic)... but by this time you don’t care.”

None of the later critical assessments of MacDonald’s work has much to say about The Crossroads. It is mentioned in passing in David Geherin’s John D MacDonald (1982), Edgar Hirshberg’s John D MacDonald (1985) and Lewis D Moore’s Meditations on America: John D MacDonald’s Travis McGee Series and Other Fiction (1994), each doing little more than describing the work as a “business novel.” Hugh Merrill ignores it completely in The Red Hot Typewriter (2000).

Gherin does write about the particular attraction of MacDonald’s prose in a general assessment of “the early novels,” and his insights are penetrating, illuminating many of the reasons this author’s works are so engaging. I find his insights true of all of MacDonald’s works in general and of The Crossroads in particular.

Each of the early novels is distinguished by MacDonald’s clear, clean prose. Recognizing the primacy of story and character, he conscientiously avoids a prose that is too ornate or too self-conscious. But eschewing an overly mannered style does not as a consequence result in a bland, lifeless prose. Far from being merely serviceable, MacDonald’s prose is colorful, his language expressive, his rhythms graceful. One would not expect a writer who turned out three or four books a year to be as exacting as, say, Flaubert. Nevertheless, MacDonald is a consummate craftsman and his descriptions, observations, and dialogue are the result of care, attention to telling detail, affection for the language, and control over its power to generate emotional responses in the reader.

Like many of MacDonald’s novels of this period in his writing career, a magazine version of The Crossroads appeared in one of the major slicks of the period, a month before the book was published. That it was published in Cosmopolitan (June 1959) was no surprise, since that particular periodical had printed shorter versions of six of his previous works and would go on to hold the record for magazines publishing JDM novels. Advertised as “The Crossroads” on the cover, the novel’s title somehow lost the opening article in both the table of contents and the cover page and became simply “Crossroads.” It features a couple of nice illustrations, typical of this glorious era, by Sarasota neighbor Al Buell, who had done the artwork for three of MacDonald’s previous Cosmopolitan novels (“April Evil”, “The Heat of Money” (The Price of Murder), and “Ultimate Surprise” (Deadly Welcome).

Most of the magazine versions of MacDonald’s novels are straight rewrites, reading as if the author typed up a new, shorter version while reading the original, excising what he considered extraneous material to bring the work in at an acceptable word count. Occasionally he added scenes that were nowhere hinted at in the novel (see The Deceivers) and on one occasion he rewrote the entire work, shifting the focus of the book entirely (Murder in the Wind’s appearance as “Hurricane” in Redbook). In “Crossroads” he has completely thrown out the character of Jeana Louise Portoni, and, of necessity, the adulterous love affair between her and Chip. With that gone, he was able to free Chip’s wife Clara from being an alcoholic automaton, turning her into a distracted housewife who fills her empty marriage with countless “clubs and drives and committees until they had become the most important part of her life.” While this is a definite improvement on the novel’s version of the character (Chip is now complicit in the marriage’s atrophy), I personally miss Jeana and the love affair. It was well done, despite the “darlings,” and generated more than an average amount of heat for a MadDonald coupling. It also made Chip less than perfect in carrying on behind his poor wife’s back, not that she -- as drawn in the novel -- would have cared. Otherwise, little else has changed and the crime is carried out exactly as in the book.



The January 2, 1967 issue of Publisher's Weekly reported that a "television project" based on the novel was "in the works," but nothing seems to have come of it and I can find no other reference to it.

The Crossroads was the third JDM hardcover published by Simon and Schuster, following The Executioners in 1958 and Please Write for Details earlier in 1959. They would go on to publish two more, both “important” novels where MacDonald felt he had something important to say (The End of the Night in 1960 and A Flash of Green in 1962). By 1965 he had left them for Doubleday, no doubt for a better deal, but he didn’t stop putting out paperback originals -- his primary source of income -- until 1973 with the arrival of the fifteenth installment of the McGee saga. From that point forward he was a hardcover author who once slummed around in the paperback world.