Monday, May 14, 2018

"Hang the Man High!"

John D MacDonald wrote nearly 400 original short stories and novellas that were published in the magazines of the last century: hundreds of crime stories, scores of science fiction, sports and mainstream tales -- and all of three westerns. Clearly, this wasn’t a genre of fiction that interested the author, and the quality of the stories bear that out. Only one of the three, the last-published “Nine Coffins for Rocking H.” reveals and deep background into the time, place and history of the old west. The other two -- “The Corpse Rides at Dawn” and “Hang the Man High” -- read like plot ideas so preposterous that the author could only fit them into a long-past, western setting. That was certainly the case for “The Corpse Rides at Dawn,” which featured a character weakness that would have been laughed out of any contemporary crime pulp of the era, and it’s also a weak point in the second story, “Hang the Man High!” I’m not sure exactly what MacDonald was trying to do here, but the plot is certainly something that would not have worked in any setting outside of an historical one.

The setting is the fictional small town of Chambers, a remote, dusty place in an unnamed state, built and settled to support the numerous cattle ranches that surround it. The story opens soon after the arrival of a stranger from the east -- in this case, way east, as in Eastern Europe by way of Boston. Stanislau Wadic has come to open a dress shop in Chambers, and he is portrayed as the classic effeminate: timid, fluttery, pinky finger permanently extended, everything but a lisp. Franklin Pangborn comes to mind. His first stop after renting a vacant storefront is to a local carpenter named Chub. The first words out of Wadic’s mouth are “I want wooden woman.”

That was when Chub dropped the pin he was working on and gave himself a shallow cut across the back of the thumb.

"You want a what?" he asked loudly.

"Wooden womans. For to put on dresses in the window my store."

Chub got up and limped over to the windowsill and got his pipe. He said, "Now let me get this straight, friend. You have a store?"

"Today I get it. With window. I paint my sign. Want womans in the window. For cloths."

Chub grinned as the great light dawned. "You want a dress dummy!"

A week later, after the mannequin is delivered, Wadic is in his store window dressing the dummy. It’s late on a Saturday and ranch hands from the surrounding area are pouring into town to enjoy a night of drinking and carousing at the local saloon. But before they get to boozing they are attracted to the strange new sight in Chambers, and congregate in front of Wadic’s shop, observing him at work.

The hands nudged each other and cackled in glee... "Seems downright indecent... Full grown man, too."

"Or, on the other hand, is he? Look how he keeps that little finger bent... There's no place in Chambers for that one"

Once inside the saloon and with a few drinks under their belts, the cowhands -- which include the slab-handed foreman Redneck George and little Tad Morgan, “a hundred and ten pounds of cured leather" -- begin to amp up their resentments.

"We ought to be able to show him somehow... Damn furriner, coming in to mess up our town, gettin' the women all gaga over his fancy cloth. Like as not he stole the stuff in the first place."

Just then Wadic himself enters the saloon and, after a “good evening” to everyone, heads directly over to the bar. With all the ranch hands glaring at him silently, the newcomer asks for wine, is given a bottle of cheap stuff and sips it out of a shot glass. “It is bad,” he tells the bartender. He doesn’t notice that all of the hands have mockingly imitated his drinking gestures, pinkies extended. It doesn’t take long for things to get really ugly and eventually one of the men slugs Wadic.

"Why is fighting? Wadic asked.

"It's the custom for strangers here."

"With fists, yes? American way?

"That's right."

"Is necessary?"

"I'm afraid so, Mr. Wadic."

With Wadic preparing to fight by raising outstretched fists and closing his eyes, he is easily beaten and carried back to his apartment above his shop. But the evening doesn’t end there. After a few more drinks the rowdy bunch move to the streets, smash the window to Wadic’s shop and remove the wooden mannequin, tying it to the back of a horse and dragging it through the streets of Chambers. This proves a step too far for the newcomer…

If “Hang the Man High!” was MacDonald’s attempt to deal with prejudice, it was an utter failure, for the only way Wadic gains acceptance in Chambers is by becoming something like one of the good old boys. And while the ranch hands are portrayed as an especially ugly lot, the character of Wadic seems nebulous, like the author had to saddle him with enough obvious and characteristic attributes to make him a target, while also trying to make him sympathetic. It doesn’t really work. And the author’s glib ending, complete with mutual backslapping and “I’m buying you a drink!” lines ring especially false, considering the ugliness that has preceded it.

MacDonald’s brief dalliance in the world of the wild west seems to have been limited to a very short period in his writing career, from April 1948 to December 1949 and, unless I discover something else in the pages of an old Bluebook or Argosy, he never tried it again. The world of fiction is not poorer for that decision.

“Hang the Man High!” (a meaningless title, by the way… Wadic is never threatened with hanging) was published in the November 1949 issue of Fifteen Western Tales, has never, to my knowledge, been reprinted.

Monday, May 7, 2018

"The Giant Who Came to Our House"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But Sam Barret was silent.

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


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

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

Monday, April 23, 2018

The Beach Girls

Nineteen Fifty-Nine was another banner year for John D MacDonald, a banner year that capped a banner decade. He began the Fifties with a seemingly effortless shift from pulp writer to paperback author, and in only ten short years he had produced 23 paperback originals, 7 hardcover works of fiction, an anthology of his own work and an anthology of works by other authors. Plus, he continued writing short fiction, producing a mere 160 novellas and short stories for the magazines of the day. Not bad for a guy who didn’t start writing until he was 29.

By the end of the decade he showed little evidence of slowing down. While working steadily on the Mystery Writers of America anthology The Lethal Sex -- a project he once claimed “cost me a novel of my own” -- he knocked off four book length works of fiction: Please Write for Details and Deadly Welcome in March, The Crossroads in July, and finally, The Beach Girls in September. (The Lethal Sex would be published in December.) All four of these books are good examples of MacDonald’s breadth of talent: the great range of subject matter he could effortlessly master, the backgrounds and characters he could magically bring to life, and the amazing skill at storytelling that still holds up today as a masterclass in writing fiction. But there’s something unique in this collection of novels, something MacDonald had never attempted before. Two of these books were so similar in plot, tone and character as to be flip sides of the same coin. There’s even a character crossover, the only one I’m aware of outside the McGee series. It is almost as if the author wrote these works simultaneously (a practice he employed throughout his writing career), with each playing off the other. Or perhaps he was working on the same idea, trying two different tacks on the same plan, only to end up with two separate but very similar novels. In any event, his readers were (and are) blessed to have both of these works: Please Write for Details and The Beach Girls.

The novels were handled very differently. Please Write for Details was published in hardcover by Simon and Shuster, while The Beach Girls was a paperback original put out by Fawcett Gold Medal. The hardback was given publicity and a book tour, while The Beach Girls seems to have come and gone like a thief in the night. Please Write for Details utilized MacDonald’s favorite narrative perspective, the multi-character third person pov, while The Beach Girls utilized a method he used all the way back in 1954 with All These Condemned, where each chapter is told in first person singular by a different character. But even there MacDonald gave up on that toward the end of the book and switched to third person. Finally, the characters are from different worlds. The people of Please Write for Details are middle-class gentlefolk, spending a few weeks in an art camp in Mexico, while those of The Beach Girls are tough, hard-living, boat people, living (for the most part) on their seagoing crafts.

But the plots evolve pretty much in the same way, with MacDonald’s focus on several would-be couples in various states of difficulty, and each novel has its climax build around a great get-together: a wedding in Please Write for Details, a birthday party in The Beach Girls.

Curiously, there is no beach in The Beach Girls, and it’s never certain who the girls are that the title is referring to. MacDonald’s working titles for the novel -- Six Girls Have I; The Ketch, The Gaff and the Girl; The Girls on the Beach -- don’t give much of a clue either. The action takes place in the Stebbins Marina, a fictional locale in the fictional resort town of Elihu Beach, on the Atlantic coast of Florida, somewhere between Palm Beach and Ft Lauderdale, on the western side of the Intracoastal Waterway. What beach there is is on the far side of State Route A1A, which runs north-south along the outer barrier island, but it is barely referred to in the novel. The Stebbins Marina is an old establishment and it has seen better days. Started in 1919 by Jess Stebbins, “it grew like a mushroom patch,” and now “nothing matches, everything needs paint, everything is about to fall down.” Jess has been dead for seven years when the The Beach Girls opens, and the marina is run by his widow, Alice, a “big horse” who is sturdily built and who is now 50 years old. She operates out of a small, rickety office and lives in a small apartment up on the second floor. She’s tough, crusty and profane, and she makes just enough money off the enterprise to keep afloat, both financially and literally.

There are several docks at Stebbins Marina, and most are identified by letter and number, but the focus of the book is on the residents of Dock D, where there are fifteen slips housing ten permanent residents, plus one corporate-owned boat captained by one of the residents, 35 year old Orbie Derr, and it is he who kicks off the novel with “his” first-person chapter. He gives us the lay of the land, briefly introduces the various characters that reside on D Dock, and establishes what will become the main plot with his first sentence:

It was a right pretty night when Leo Rice arrived at the Stebbins Marina. Friday, it was. the first day of August. It was later on the same month that everything went to hell for just about everybody. Maybe he was, like Joe Rykler explained to me, a catalyst. But I've got the general opinion everything was due to go to hell anyway. things had been working up to it.

The residents of D Dock are a tight, insular and protective group, and they resent it when Alice tells Rice to tie up on the end of “their” dock. They consist of Christy Yale, Helen Hass, Anne Browder and Amy Penworthy, four “girls” who live on two houseboats: Christy and Helen in the Shiftless and Anne and Amy in the Alrightee. All four women have day jobs in Elihu Beach and all four are unmarried. There’s Joe Rykler, a twice-divorced freelance writer who lives aboard his Ampersand, Gus Andorian, a big, aging, widowed grandfather who lives on a motorless scow, and Bud and Ginny Linder, a young married couple who were in the process of sailing around the world in their Fancy Free when it was storm damaged six mile offshore and the couple were forced to come to Stubbins, tie up and get day jobs in order to pay for the repairs. Other residents of D Dock, but not present for the arrival of Rice, include Syd Stark, a playboy with possible mob connections, living aboard the relatively luxurious Pieces of Seven with a young starlet named Francesca Portoni; Sim Gallowell and Marty Urban, friends and joint owners of the Sea Gal, a charter boat; and finally Rex Rigsby, owner of a Bahamian ketch called the Angel. Rex also makes a living taking charters, but he is not considered a member of the D Dock gang, for reasons that will eventually reveal themselves.

Leo Rice arrives, motoring down the Waterway and into the Stubbins basin in an old Higgins Sedan, and it’s clear he is a novice boatman. After asking to tie up he is instructed to back into Slip 13, but he bangs into the pilings twice before Orbie jumps aboard and takes the controls from him. Orbie’s first impression of Rice is neatly written and keenly observed:

He was about forty, a big lean guy, deeply tanned, with one of those pleasant ugly faces. He wore khaki shorts and he looked as if he was in fine shape. But he didn’t look sure of himself—I mean in more ways than not being able to handle thirty-four feet of boat. Like he’d been gutted. Like some of the running parts had been taken out of him and put back in with string.

Rice explains that he just purchased the boat -- the Ruthless -- two weeks ago up in Jacksonville and he received a brief lesson on how to pilot it. He keeps to himself that first night, not bothering the other D Dockers who are sitting around drinking beer and eating hamburgers. But the plot is set in motion.

There are many characters in The Beach Girls, but MacDonald wisely chooses to focus on a select few in telling the tale.

Orbie Derr has lived all his life on or near the water and is an expert seaman. Divorced, he is currently employed as charter captain for the Lullaby, a 40-foot diesel Matthews, owned by a Pennsylvania company that makes baby furniture. During the summer months the company sends "batches of women from the office" down to vacation at a nearby hotel and they have free run of the Lullaby. It is Orbie's job to accommodate them. The reader is tempted to suspect that these may be the "beach girls" referred to in the title, but MacDonald doesn't follow this thread very closely. And lest one think this is a dream job, piloting unchaperoned women around the Caribbean, Orbie states otherwise.

It’s a mess. I got four batches last summer, and this summer it will be five. Six to eight females in each batch. Maybe they’re just fine up there, but they go crazy down here in the summer. They get drunk and they get seasick and they get sunburned so bad they get chills and fever. They run from twenty-five to fifty-five, and they aren’t hired for looks. You should hear them all squeal at once when somebody hooks a fish. The better-looking ones sometimes seem willing enough, but I know damn well that if word ever got back to Pennsylvania that Captain Derr messed around with one of them, good-by job.

It’s not uncommon for MacDonald to begin one of his multi-perspective novels with one of the secondary characters, and that’s pretty much what Orbie is. His initial chapter is his only chapter and he mainly sets the scene in the marina.

Joe Rykler has been married twice and has vowed to never do it again. A writer of how-to books, he lives on his aptly-named boat the Ampersand. At 31 he is still young enough to be playing the field and has gone on several cruises with various women.

I am big, dark-haired and look slightly unkempt at all times. This awakens the mother in them. They want to sew on buttons and cook for me. I have brown eyes and I can look very hurt. I have various lines of patter and chatter that have proved out well. Also, I am a romantic figure. I am a writer who lives and works on his boat. They are inclined to sympathize with my creative urge to write a big novel. They are saddened that I must waste my substance by writing do-it-yourself books in order to support myself and my two ex-wives.

Joe’s real objective is Anne Browder, one of the two residents of the Alrightee, but that has been, so far, unsuccessful. “It wasn’t a case of not getting to first base. I couldn’t even catch a ride to the ball park.”

Ann Browder is the newest resident of D Dock, moving onto the Alrightee with Amy Penworthy eight months prior to the action of the novel, having relocated to Elihu Beach from New York City. She is a pretty blonde with a fabulous set of legs, but she’s reserved and controlled. She doesn’t smile much, she doesn’t date and she’s politely rebuffed every advance Joe Rykler has made. When she finally agrees to go out to dinner with Joe she reveals that she came down to Florida after a horrible ending to a three-year affair with a married man. When she decided to get pregnant in order to prod him into leaving his wife, he freaked and broke it up, sending Anne to an abortionist in Philadelphia. (A remarkably frank passage for MacDonald at this point in his writing.) She can’t get over it and is resigned to the fact that she is incapable of loving anyone else.

Forty year old Leo Rice is at Stubbins Marina for a reason, and it’s not because he just happened to stop by on his way down from Jacksonville. He’s a high-ranking corporate executive from Syracuse on a mission that has nothing to do with his job. A year ago his wife, tired of being ignored by his constant focus on work, confronted him with the news that she wanted a trial separation. She and a girlfriend were going to head down to the Bahamas and she was going to try and find herself. This was a bolt from the blue for workaholic Leo, and he protested but she was adamant. They put their two boys in boarding school and she left. And in only a few weeks later she was dead.

She had committed suicide after spending several weeks on a yacht with a man who wooed her, took her money, then dumped her. After much investigation Leo was able to discover that the man was named Rex Rigsby.

Rex Rigsby is the “bad guy” of the novel and Leo Rice hunting him down in order to exact some sort of revenge is the primary plot of The Beach Girls. Rigsby is remarkably similar to Paul Klauss, the villain of Please Write for Details: a sociopathic playboy who hunts, woos and ruins woman for sport. But while Klauss was a man who played this game in order to destroy the women, Rigsby mainly does it for the money he is able to extract from them. That they are emotionally destroyed is merely a nice dividend. And of course Rigsby is moored on D Dock, in the very slip next to Leo.

While Leo’s revenge is the main thread of the novel, there is another: the end of the Stubbins Marina. For years Alice Stubbins has been holding off would-be buyers who want to tear down the place and rebuild it into a pretty, expensive showplace, “like down in Lauderdale.” One particular real estate agent, the oily George Haley, calls often, and his entreaties begin to sound more like threats, in words familiar to any reader of MacDonald’s works:

“I’ve wasted time talking sweet to you. Now I’m going to put the cards right out where you can see them. This is a crummy, run-down place. It’s a damn eyesore. It’s hampering the development of the land around it. Important people own some of the land around it. They want to see that land value go up. You haven’t got the capital to improve this place. And so, sooner or later, in one way or another, they’re going to squeeze you out of it. Right?”

And then there are various side characters who take up more or less space depending on MacDonald’s interest. All are exceptionally well drawn and humorously portrayed. There’s Captain Jimmy Meirs and his new wife Jannifer Jean, a “swamp pussy” (MacDonald’s term, not mine!) who is twenty years his junior and whose hobby is sleeping around behind his back. There are Stan and Beezie Hooper, rich, lazy owners of the big Fleetermouse. Beezie is a MacDonald “type,” scrawny, leathery from the sun and mostly drunk. And Jack and Judy Engly, owners of the charter boat Judy’s Luck. Judy’s claim to fame are her loud ululations during sex, sounds that can be heard every night throughout the entire marina. It is introduced in the first chapter and will become a major plot point toward the end.

But as in Please Write for Details, it’s the couples MacDonald is most interested in writing about in The Beach Girls, and as in that earlier novel he focuses on three.

Ann Browder agrees to have dinner with Joe Rykler that first night when Leo Rice arrives at Stebbins Marina. This is a bolt from the blue for Joe. It is over dinner where Joe finally learns Anne’s story: her love affair, her abortion, her relocation to Florida. But Ann seems to have an ulterior motive for the date. After Joe admits that he is only after sex, that after two failed marriages he doesn’t believe in love anymore, Ann brazenly suggests that they repair to the Ampersand to sleep together.

“I wouldn’t want it to mean anything to you, Joe. That wouldn’t be fair, because it wouldn’t mean anything to me. You understand it wouldn’t mean anything to me. It would be like pretend. But I wouldn’t want it to be messy. I couldn’t stand that. Or a stranger. It has to be somebody I like. I want it to . . . change what I am, just a little.”

The couple’s lovemaking, however, is a failure, at least as far as Anne is concerned. In a passage as frank as anything MacDonald had written up to this point, Joe relates the “ordeal”:

We were there together possibly two hours. I tried. God knows I tried. And she did too. I am sure of that. But when she shuddered in my arms I knew it was neither excitement nor passion, but rather the reflexive tremor of the sacrificial animal. Though she tried to pretend, I could sense the regret, the remorse, the quiet despair—and the consciousness of shame. And when her breathing was rapid, it was merely the result of effort. Her rhythms had that erratic imbalance of contrivance rather than need. And when finally, in an admission of defeat, I went on to my own completion, it was but a sour spasm, lonely, meaningless and unshared. We lay deadened in the empty darkness until she gave a great sigh and climbed over me and found her robe and put it on. I got up and pulled my Bermuda walking shorts on, and turned on the light. Even muted, it was far too bright. We avoided each other’s eyes.

The failed cure, however, does have a very real effect on Joe, one that will provide his thread of the plot for the remainder of the novel. As he watches Ann walk away, down the dock toward the Allrightee, he is transformed:

And my heart burst. The tired old Rykler heart. Burst and sprayed acid into my eyes, misting the stars. I wanted to spend the next thousand years with her. So I tried to cope with the unexpected, unwanted invasion of Cupid. The little winged bastard had given up his bow and arrow and snuck up on me with a bazooka… You are a very cynical fellow, Rykler. You bear the wounds of two horrible marriages. That is a nice leggy blondie and you had the acquisitive urge to roll her over in the clover, and you did. Mission accomplished. End of incident. Love is a word on greeting cards. Love is not for you, Joseph. Eternity is a dirty word. She probably leaves hair in the sink, burns the toast and has a loose filling. She is glorious. She is what it is all about.

Alice Stubbins, at age 50, would seem an unlikely candidate for MacDonald’s love interests, but here he departs from his usual practice of focusing on twenty-somethings and writes about romance between people older than he was (43) when he wrote this. Alice has a fairly typical MacDonald backstory: married young and happily to a construction worker, blessed with a child, but it all went to hell somewhat suddenly. The child died at age 11 (reasons not divulged) and, after 22 “good years” of marriage, her husband Mike was killed in a construction accident. So at age 39 she found herself alone and in Florida, fishing off a dock at the Stubbins Marina, where she met Jess, who was nearly 25 years older than she was. He eventually proposed and, out of sheer loneliness, she accepted. The sexual part of the relationship is humorously recounted by Alice:

About the physical part of it, I didn’t know what to expect. After the ceremony he kissed me quick and timid. I knew I didn’t feel any more response to him than I would to your granddaddy, but if he figured that was part of the bargain, I wasn’t going to hold out on him. I needn’t have worried about him. By the end of the first week I had some pretty strong suspicions of what had killed off his first two wives. And my responses were all in order. I wasn’t complaining a bit. After twenty-two years with a man like Mike, you build up fires that never go out. Jess loved to have me joke him about his virility, expressing awe and alarm. He’d stick his chest out and swagger up and down. After our first couple of weeks he slowed down to the pace of a sailor on leave.

The marriage lasts only three years before Jess becomes ill and dies, and he leaves the marina to Alice. At first she had great plans to fix the place up, but she never gets around to it and now she just gets by, only fixing things that must be fixed and barely surviving financially. But she has grown attached to the residents of the Stubbins Marina, and is especially friendly with those of D Dock. And more than just friendly with Gus Andorian.

Gus is a retired steelworker, a widow approaching 70, who lives alone on a scow called the Queen Bee. Alice describes him as “big and thick and solid as a tree.” He moved to Florida after his wife died, much to the consternation of his six married daughters, who periodically come to visit him and attempt to convince him to come back and live with them. But Gus is having the time of his life, free from the control his wife had over him. As Orbie recalls in the first chapter, “she was a little bit of a thing, and she had strong ideas about drinking, swearing, spitting and gambling. She kept the lid on Gus.” The lid is now off, and Gus and Alice are having a relationship.

It began one evening when Alice twisted her ankle and Gus, passing by, rescued her and carried her up to her apartment over the marina office. After a clumsy attempt at first aid, something magical (and, in 2018, very politically incorrect) happens:

He knelt, admiring his handiwork, and then looked up at me. There was a sort of a click you could almost hear. And in the next second he sprang like a lion. I fought for maybe two whole seconds. Afterwards he wept, bashed his deep chest with his fist, demanding I call the police and have him locked up forever. He shouldn’t be free to assault innocent ladies. Finally I got it through his thick skull that the lady didn’t mind a bit. His whole craggy face turned into one vast mask of surprise. “Yah?” he said. “Yah.” So he came back to bed.

Once Alice has made the decision to sell the marina, her ongoing relationship with Gus is left is great doubt.

The most interesting relationship, and the one that MacDonald himself is obviously most interested in exploring, is that between Leo Rice and Christy Yale.

Christy is another MacDonald “type,” a woman who, wracked by doubts about her own physical appearance, masks her unhappiness behind the makeup of a clown. She has a clear antecedent in the character of Judy Jonah in All These Condemned and the similarly-named Christy Hallowell in Dead Low Tide, the “compulsive clown” who jokes her way through life with wisecracks and buffoonery. For while her body from the neck down is incomparable -- a “jim-dandy,” as she herself readily admits -- her face is something else:

This too-round face, devoid of any suggestion of a romantic gauntness. An afterthought of a nose, so inconsequential as to look embryonic. Mouth enough for a girl and a half. Eyes of a funny shade of green under furry black brows set into a face so asymmetrical that the left one is noticeably higher than the right… like Mickey Rooney, from the neck up.

A lifelong resident of Elihu Beach, Christy has her own tragic past, a fiance who died while serving in the military, “over there, on a hill with a number instead of a name, and when they’re dead you can’t tell whether it was a police action or a war.” She is resigned to a life of spinsterhood, with the occasional dalliance, until she meets Leo Rice.

It follows a fist fight between Leo and a marina tough over a bumped boat, where Leo is handily beaten to the ground. Christy takes him back to his own boat and tries to take care of his wounds. She has an ulterior motive, in that she wants to find out what Rice -- an obvious landlubber -- is doing piloting a boat and tying up at the Stubbins Marian. Leo is cagey, and turns the tables on Christy, asking her why she is perpetually clowning and telling her she is prettier than she thinks she is. This leads to a night of heavy tears and soul searching once Christy is back on her own houseboat, and the reader is now clear on whose romantic relationship will steer the balance of the novel. Leo eventually spills the beans on why he is there, telling Christy that he started out thinking that he would kill Rex Rigsby but is now uncertain of what exactly he will do. Christy, for her part, is worried about any confrontation between a 40-year old Leo and the very fit Rigsby. It all leads up to a birthday bash for Alice, the turning point in the novel, where Alice reveals to everyone that she has decided to sell the marina, and where Leo plans to finish what he came here to do.

Despite its obvious contrivances and dated morality, The Beach Girls is a lovely novel, beautifully plotted and imaginatively written and structured. MacDonald clearly has real affection for his characters here, especially the women, who he treats with respect and dignity, even though many are idealized. The motivations seem realistic and the setting, despite its rundown condition and precarious survivability, is presented as a kind of poor-man’s paradise. The writing is nearly without flaw and the novel contains some really transcendental passages. Here’s one from late in the book that gives none of the plot away:

The breeze died. The high white sun leaned its tropic weight on the gaudy vacation strip of Florida’s East Coast, so that it lay sunstruck, lazy and humid and garish, like a long brown sweaty woman stretched out in sequins and costume jewelry. The sun baked the sand too hot for tourist feet. Slow swells clumped onto the listless Atlantic beach. The sun turned road tar to goo, overheated the filtered water in the big swimming pools of the rich and the algaed pools of the do-it-yourself clan, blazed on white roofs, strained air conditioners, turned parked cars into tin ovens, and blistered the unwary. A million empty roadside beer cans twinkled in the bright glare. The burning heat dropped a predictable number of people onto stone sidewalks, of which a predictable number died, drove the unstable further into the jungly wastes of their madness, exposed the pink tongues of all the dogs in the area, redoubled the insect songs in every vacant lot, set the weather-bureau boys to checking the statistics of past performance, and sent a billion billion salty trickles to flowing on sin-darkened skins.

If I have one reservation about the novel it would be MacDonald’s near-cartoonish handling of the violence depicted. These are rough-and-tumble characters, especially the men, and they are strong, determined, and quick to fight when angered. But when they do, the damage done is so inconsequential as to seem to have come from a television western. Leo’s early fight on D Dock is brutal, and given his physical disadvantages, the beating he takes would have landed him in the hospital emergency room rather than back in his bunk sipping a highball mixed by Christy Yale. Still, that’s a small complaint for an otherwise immensely enjoyable reading experience.

There’s an interesting pattern in MacDonald’s structuring of the book, one that would seem to be sporadic and was, perhaps, due to outside influence. The first nine chapters of the novel are all written in first person singular, with the chapter title identifying the name of the speaker. But in chapters ten through twelve, he switches to third person -- these are the chapters describing the events of the big birthday bash. The chapter titles are “Happy Birthday,” “Happy Birthday to You,” and “Happy Something.” Did the author come to a point in the writing where he felt unable to continue with his original idea, or was that the plan all along? It’s not really that abrupt and it doesn’t detract from the overall enjoyment of the book, but it is curious and unique in the MacDonald canon.

The final chapter -- titled simply “Chapter Thirteen” -- is an epistolary wrap-up of the events and characters of the novel, written by Joe Ryker several years after the great birthday bash. Joe is writing to an editor of his who stayed with him two weeks after the party. He begins the letter:

I can understand your feverish concern about what happened to all the people you met down here. It is because you are a very neat man, and you have to have everything tied up. It is the same reason you over-edit my copy.

If this isn’t MacDonald poking fun at an editor who may have sent The Beach Girls back to the author demanding a tidy ending to the book, I’ll eat my hat.

For most John D MacDonald fans, it is the setting of The Beach Girls that will draw the most interest. A marina featuring permanent residents situated on the Atlantic coast of Florida obviously has resonance with the Travis McGee series, and many go searching for similarities. Hugh Merrill, in his JDM biography The Red Hot Typewriter tried to make a big deal out of this, claiming the the author “cannibalized” his early works in the creation of his famous series character. Cannibalization is a term coined by author Raymond Chandler, used to describe his process for writing several of his novels (like The Lady in the Lake and Farewell, My Lovely) by taking the plots of earlier short stories he had written for the pulps, combining them and turning them into longer works. MacDonald did nothing like this, even when he reused plot points and character traits. He never had trouble in plotting any of his books and was quick to discard any number of pages or even chapters if something wasn’t going right. Outside of the fact that The Beach Girls takes place in a marina, there are few, if any, similarities to the McGee series.

The first edition of The Beach Girls was published by Fawcett Gold Medal and featured a cover illustration by Milton Charles, his first of a John D MacDonald novel. He would go on to illustrate the covers for Slam the Big Door and the 1960 reissue of Murder for the Bride. It features two swimsuit-clad young ladies (one only partially depicted) presumably sunning on a beach, while in the background are boats and a building that bears not the slightest resemblance to the Stubbins Marina. This cover went through five printings, all the way up to May 1970.

The blurb on this cover is rather curious. It reads “Under the bright Florida sun, six willing girls would find love, one sinister man would find death.” Outside of spoiling the end of the novel, I’m scratching my head over the number of “girls” who found love. There are only two of the main characters who do so; Alice has already found love when the novel opens, and one minor character is mentioned in Joe’s final chapter letter. Being generous and including these four, who are the other two? Readers are encouraged to let me know...

The book’s sixth printing took place in August of 1972 and featured the peerless artwork of Robert McGinnis, the illustrator whose work eventually graced 48 John D MacDonald books with 63 unique illustrations. There are six girls depicted on the cover, no one is obviously any specific character (certainly none of them are Alice) and there is a big schooner hovering in the background. The only sailboat in working condition on D Dock is Rex Rigbsy’s Angel, so I’ll have to assume it’s that. This cover lasted a total of six printings, through December 1978.

Finally there’s William Schmidt’s effort, first appearing on the December 1981 printing, the book’s twelfth. Like all of Schmidt’s other JDM covers, it features a detail of the plot imaginatively conveyed, this time in the reflection of a pair of broken sunglasses. It appeared on four separate printings, up through August 1987, after which the book, along with nearly all of JDM’s stand-alone novels, went out of print.

Since MacDonald decided to have The Beach Girls published in paperback (unlike Please Write for Details) it was barely noticed by the critical press of the time. In fact, the only contemporary review I was able to find of the novel was by JDM stalwart Anthony Boucher in his New York Times column. He liked it, writing “Another of fiction’s observant anthropologists visits one wild party… a curious social microcosm which MacDonald analyzes with insight and affection… primarily this is a novel of character and interplay, and a good one.”

Still, MacDonald had made such a name for himself by this point in his career that he really didn’t need reviews -- good or otherwise -- to sell books. By 1988 Fawcett had printed over a million copies of The Beach Girls. But three months before the novel was even published -- in June 1959 -- MacDonald signed a long term exclusivity contract with Fawcett, agreeing to publish all his paperback originals through the publisher, and any paperback version of a hardcover through Fawcett’s reprint arm, Crest. Fawcett had already characterized the author as “the most consistent bestseller in paperback history,” and the fact that his longtime friend Knox Burger was back with the publisher probably sealed the deal. As MacDonald explained to columnist Witney Bolton in July of that year, “I set up this exclusive arrangement with Fawcett because I have become convinced that they, through packaging, promotion, distribution and a carefully planned reissue program can best serve the relationship I have tried to establish between myself as an author and the ever-increasing number of readers who buy paperback books. I feel that the man who pays 35 cents for your book is worthy of as much bitter effort as the man who pays $3.50 -- and he is much more numerous."

The Beach Girls was one of the rare John D MacDonald novels of this period to be denied publication in a popular magazine. The Crossroads before it and Slam the Big Door afterward both appeared in Cosmopolitan, but Please Write for Details didn’t and neither did Clemmie the year before. I’m guessing that these particular novels were far too frank for a newsstand publication, especially ones that enjoyed a large readership through subscription, given the pornography laws of the day. As I’ve written, The Beach Girls was far franker in the areas of sex than anything MacDonald had ever written up to that point.

Like most of MacDonald’s standalones, the book was out of print for much of the past 25 years, but recently ebooks of nearly all of MacDonald's work have been “published” and are readily available through the normal channels. The last time I looked The Beach Girls was selling for only $4.99 on Amazon (for the Kindle). The few used copies of the various paperback editions available on Amazon are quite overpriced, and even the lower priced volumes one can find on eBay are more expensive than the average used paperback should be. Whatever way you like to read, however, I heartily recommend this book.

Monday, April 16, 2018

"The Glory Punch"

John D MacDonald wrote short stories featuring many different sports during his early days as a pulp writer. For some of them he had to use his fertile imagination alone to conjure up a sense of the game. He certainly never climbed a mountain, or drove race cars, or battled the bulls in the arena. I can find no reference to him ever playing football -- at least in high school or in college -- or baseball, or certainly hockey, although he must have played a bit of the first two sports. But he did enjoy golf, and tennis, bowling, fishing and, believe it or not, boxing.

It was during his first stint in college, at the University of Pennsylvania, around 1933. He was a self-described “grotesque,” standing 6’2” and weighing a mere 137 pounds. He entered an amateur boxing tournament sponsored by the college, where the prize was “a gold watch, redeemable for $10 or $15.” The match was over almost before it began. He recalled years later that his opponent was so muscular that “he looked as if he were wearing his armpits on top of his shoulders.” He made short work of the future author, “dismantling [me] as if taking down a rail fence.” That was it for MacDonald’s boxing career.

But he wrote stories about boxing, and the detail that he provides in these tales indicates that he vividly recalled all the nuances of the sport. From “The Gentle Killer,” to “Half-Past Eternity,” from “Big John Fights Again” to “Hell’s Belter,” his obvious mastery of what went on in the ring informed these pulp tales and made them come alive. Of course, MacDonald was more interested in the human drama and the world which surrounded boxing -- any sport he wrote about, really -- and he focused each story around a protagonist’s struggle: with doubt, with fading skills, with the corrupt, dark underside of the sport. Most of the time it worked wonderfully.

Not so with “The Glory Punch,” I’m sorry to say. It wallows way too long in the minute details of a fifteen round fight and frames the protagonist’s dilemma and struggle around a backstory and device so old that it had whiskers on it, even back in the immediate post-war era. It was published in the July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories, that notable issue that featured four JDM tales in it -- the most ever in a pulp, or any kind of magazine. It’s probably the weakest of the four, and pales terribly against the author’s “Blue Water Fury,” one of his best stories of any kind.

Our hero is Harvey Westa, a successful boxer known popularly as "The Doctor," for reasons that MacDonald never bothers to explain. But at age 33 he senses that his talents might be waning, a concern that troubles him because of recent travails with his personal life.

Things had gone a little sour. The club had died of snow-blindness and that had taken a cut of the roll and it had also taken two of the annuities cashed in to meet the obligations. Then the court had been too generous with Mag. An additional two hundred a month for her and the kids. Joe had booked an exhibition tour... He needed the cash from the tour. Needed it badly.

But before Harvey can embark on the tour -- which will feature opponents he knows he can handle -- he has to go fifteen rounds with Buddy Mace. And he's not so sure about Mace. He’s one of “the strong boys,” heavily muscled with shoulders that amaze even Harvey, with a punch like an anvil. He’ll need to utilize all of the skills he’s learned over his career in order to avoid too many of Mace’s hard punches. If he loses against this boxer, the tour will be cancelled and there will be no money from it.

The story opens the day before the big match as Harvey talks with his trainer of seven years, Joe Klees, over a lunch of cheese blintzes. Klees is concerned about the strength of Harvey’s opponent Mace, but Harvey keeps his own doubts to himself. He’s just returned from a visit with his kids, and it leads to the following exchange.

"The little guy was showing me the right hook he's been working on. He starts it way back in left field and I showed him how to shorten it up. He told me his mom won't let him practice. After the fight I can have them for two whole days."

"How's my girl?"

"Cute like a bug. She kept saying 'Where's Joey? Where's Joey?' I promised her the four of us would do the zoo day after tomorrow.”

"You turn 'em back to Mag?"

"In the hotel lobby. She shook hands with me and gave me the frozen puss. Nice to see you, Hahvee. I trust the children were well behaved."

"Jesus, Harv. A woman like that. It had to be a woman like that."

"Mag's okay. Lots of people don't get along."

"Who could get along with her?"

"Break it off, Joe." The soft rasp had turned cool.

They get up to leave the cafe, and who just happens to be in the same place, at a big table with a lot of his noisy friends? Buddy Mace, of course. Mace has to say something to amuse the crowd he is with.

"There goes the champ."

Harv turned and walked back to the [table]. The crowd there was silent, expectant. Harv smiled sadly down at the square, ruddy face of Buddy Mace. Mace tried to stare him down.

"Look, kid," Harv said in his gently rasping voice, "take good care of yourself between now and tomorrow night. Get lots of sleep. I don't want it to look too easy. You know what I mean."

Mace flushed and tried to struggle up, saying, "Why you broken-down --"

Harv turned and walked away.

The next day is fight day, and as Harv looks at Mace across the ring he notices how strong the younger man looked. "Strong and fast, with a punch in either hand..." The fight begins.

And it seems to never end, for both the fighters and the reader. In the first round Harv manages to get a few good blows in and dodges just as many. In the clinch, however, Mace manages to land two blows to Harv's kidneys. "It was like being stabbed with a hot silver knife." The second round is much the same, but this time Mace manages a blow high on the head over the left ear. "The power of it frightened [Harv].” In the third Harv was slow in the clinch and again Mace landed a powerful blow to the side. And by the end of three, even though Harv had technically won all the rounds, he was feeling it and worry started to creep in. "Back in the corner Harv knew that he was no longer breathing right. Mace's sledge-work on his sides had taken its toll."

Joe advises Harv to “ride out” the next two rounds, to play defense and avoid any hits in order for him to get his strength back. The strategy works well in the fourth, but in the fifth Mace lands another powerful blow to his side. The younger man seemed to be getting stronger and faster…

Enough… you get the picture, and you can probably guess how it ends, right down to the moment Harv, barely conscious, figures out how to end it. It’s like something out of the pulps of the earliest part of the last century and, unfortunately, you can see it coming a mile away. Still, the writing is typical MacDonald of the period, crisp and descriptive in its minimalist way. Worth reading once for the few moments of insightful characterization of a successful man on the downward slope of his career.

“The Glory Punch” is the only John D MacDonald story in this particular issue of Fifteen Sports Stories that appears under the author’s name. The other three were disguised under “house names,” bylines that especially productive pulp authors used when more than one of their stories appeared in the same issue of a magazine. I’ve always wondered how it was decided which story got which name. Did MacDonald have any input on the process? Probably not, as he certainly must have recognized the vast superiority of his story “Blue Water Fury” and would have preferred that it be graced with his name rather than one of the other entries. He liked it so much that he included it his first short story anthology, 1966’s End of the Tiger and Other Stories under a new title, "The Big Blue". It was the only pulp story included in the anthology but it certainly held its own among other gems like “Hangover,” “Looie Follows Me,” “The Bear Trap” and “The Trap of Solid Gold.”

Monday, April 9, 2018

Invisible Industry


John D MacDonald was profiled numerous times in the newspapers of his day. Here’s a transcription of one of those articles, written by one Paul Mitchell for the Tampa Bay Times. It was published in the May 28, 1954 edition of the paper. In case you’re wondering where on the JDM timeline that falls, it was between the publication of Area of Suspicion and All These Condemned. A fairly early piece.

Mitchell frames the article around the various artists who had relocated to Florida’s Gulf Coast, but once he gets that preface out of the way, it’s straight John D MacDonald, repeating oft-told stories and pontificating on things rarely revealed in later articles. There are errors, of course, like calling his neighborhood “Crisp Point” rather than Point Crisp, and Mitchell doesn’t seem to have actually read anything MacDonald had ever written. Still, he lets MacDonald talk, which is interesting enough. The photos alone, none of which I’ve ever seen before, are perhaps the best part of this piece. They’re digital images from microfilm, so I’m afraid they’re as good as they’re going to get.

The Cosmopolitan piece MacDonald talks about writing is probably "Deadly Victim," which was published in the magazine’s April 1955 issue. It was a truncated version of the novel You Live Once, a work MacDonald had had trouble getting published. The novel eventually came out in March of 1956.

Or perhaps it was something else.


Invisible Industry: Writers, Artists Bring State Free Advertising While Netting Big Profits
by Paul Mitchell

SARASOTA - Florida's "Invisible" Industry netting fat incomes for writers and artists living in the Lower Bay Area is also reaping invaluable world-wide free advertising for The Sunshine State.

Virtual "colonies" of authors, painters, musicians and other artists thrive year-round in the bright sunshine and white sand beaches of Manatee and Sarasota Counties. No smokestacks or high wire fences mark their "workshops" secluded in private rooms. Thousands of citizens and tourists are actually unaware of these producing artists in their midst or of their contribution to the State's economy.

Not only do internationally-famous residents buy homes, cars and otherwise strengthen Florida's economic structure, but their novels, paintings and other works often involve Florida settings and spread the state's name to the four corners of the globe.

To mention a few writers, there are men like MacKinlay Kantor of Siesta Key, now in Spain; Wyatt Blassinghame of Anna Maria Isle; Richard E. Glendinning, Sarasota; Larry Holden of Nokomis; Joseph Hayes, Lido Shores and John MacDonald, who recently moved to Siesta Key from Clearwater.

How do these people work and live? Let's look in on the home of John D MacDonald, one of the best-selling fiction writers in America today. He and his attractive wife, Dorothy, and 14-year-old son have a home on Crisp Point, about a mile south of Crescent Beach, Siesta Key and have a summer home at Higgins Bay, New York.

"I don't like the boy-meets-girl type story, but pivot my magazine fiction on suspense or elements of risk," MacDonald says.

Comfortably garbed in his "work clothes," shorts and a sport shirt, the heavyset, amiable author sits before his typewriter and a huge ash tray. His "tools of trade" include a huge dictionary on a mobile stand, several desk lamps, swivel chair and the typewriter.

"The most profitable writing is plain fiction for Colliers, Cosmopolitan and Saturday Evening Post," explains the ex-GI who entered the Army in 1940 and rose to lieutenant colonel by 1945.

He's currently working on a 25,000 word novelette for Cosmopolitan and is still reaping benefits from his biggest seller, The Damned, a suspense thriller set in old Mexico.

Another work, Cancel All Our Vows, the story of a husband and wife whose emotions overcame prudence and involved "third parties" promises to be another money-maker. Some of his novels are translated into French and he describes these royalties "like finding money on the beach".

Success didn't come easy, but MacDonald minimizes the hurdles. Here's how he got started. "I hate to write letters, so during my time overseas I'd do anything to avoid repeating the old lines, "I'm fine; how're you?"

"One day I wrote my wife a short story about an American officer fascinated with an Eurasian girl in India and how he got sick of her and resolved their problem in a day. My wife sold the thing to Story magazine for $25 and I got delusions of grandeur!"

"Out of uniform, I spent four months terminal leave (with pay) at Utica, NY and ground out 800,000 words, enough to fill 10 books, without selling a one! I was getting worried and had a big grocery bill over my head. I got a part time job as director of a taxpayers' research bureau and was there three months when my stuff began selling. I quit the job and moved to Texas to write in earnest!"

MacDonald says all his work is "speculative," not "farmed out" to publishers by contract."Once I tried that method where they'd send me a finished book cover and an illustration to write a novel around.

MacDonald works eight hours a day, starting about 9:30 a.m. Unlike some authors who paint a grueling case for their profession, MacDonald says "The hours are easier than those of a regular job." He doesn't find the job of "getting down to writing" tough when you've got bills to pay.

MacDonald won't permit friends to interfere with work. "None visit us in daytime and when they do we're pretty ruthless," he says. The writer praises his wife, an art major from Syracuse University, for warding off salesmen, grocerymen and others who come on the scene. "Dorothy doesn't read my stuff until it appears in print," he says.

MacDonald never worked as a newspaperman. "I couldn't be a good reporter," he says frankly. "I just don't like to meet new people and talk about things I care nothing about."

Popularity of paperback novels today stems from large dosages of sex and violence, MacDonald says. "The pulps disappeared because they had to protect mailing privileges and couldn't include so much sex and violence," he explains. "The paperbacks are mostly shipped as freight."

"There's never been enough acceptable fiction written to fill demand," he explains. "They're filling many of today's paper books with junk. I buy lots of them, read a few paragraphs and throw them away!"

Total sales of paper books are up, but competition is so fierce with so many publishing firms in the game "individual" book sales are decreasing and authors earning less, MacDonald says.

"I'm afraid those houses that survive will be those who cut production costs to the bone by using cheap paper, sub-grade illustrations and pay scanty royalties to writers," he says. This trend could precipitate a crisis by producing such "sorry" books the public would stop buying out of disgust and wreck the industry.

Monday, April 2, 2018

"An Island of Her Own"

John D MacDonald's first appearance in Redbook took place all the way back in June of 1951, with a short story titled "Nothing Must Change." By this time MacDonald already had five-plus years of short story writing under his belt and was just beginning to embark upon his career as a novelist. This same year he produced books like Wine of the Dreamers, Judge Me Not and -- the very same month that "Nothing Must Change" was published -- his cold war potboiler Murder for the Bride. That there is nothing about "Nothing Must Change" that would reveal its connection to those novels outside of the name of the author should not come as a surprise considering the title of the magazine in question, which billed itself as "The Magazine for Young Adults." MacDonald never set out to be a crime writer in particular, and the fact that it is what he is most known for is more a product of happenstance and the fiction market of post-war America than of any intention of the author’s part. Still, from his earliest days as a writer, he wrote and had published stories that we refer to as “mainstream,” in that they were geared to a general audience.

And with the one exception of his final appearance in the magazine -- a reprint of the pulp tale “Killers’ Nest” (appearing under a different title in conjunction with the publication of The Good Old Stuff) -- all of MacDonald’s Redbook stories are mainstream: light, situational tales constructed around what seems to be a relative minor turning point in the lives of the everyday protagonists, always ending happily on a positive, redeeming note. Such was the case for “An Island of Her Own,” the second-to-last original story MacDonald wrote for Redbook, appearing in the magazine’s February 1962 issue. It’s publication between two dramatically different novels -- One Monday We Killed Them All and A Key to the Suite -- is further evidence of the author’s range of interests and breadth of talent.

The setting is Boca Grande and the islands of Pine Island Sound, west of Fort Myers on the gulf coast of Florida. This was a fairly primitive section of the state in 1962, with limited electric service and spotty telephone connection, and whose main industry was fishing, both sport and industrial. The first-person narrator of the story is Barney Wescott, a charter boat captain who lives aboard his source of income, the Baylady II. He’s in between charters when the story opens, swimming off the Boca Grande beach, when he is hailed by a woman on shore. It’s Mary Dawes, “one of those rangy redheads with a lot of drive and independence,” and Barney’s eagerness in swimming to shore indicates that they are more than just acquaintances. Mary owns one of the nearly 100 islands that speckle the northern portion of Pine Island Sound, just south of Boca Grande, part of an inheritance she acquired years ago from her grandfather. It contains “an ancient cottage,” a slightly less ancient guest house, an artesian well and no phone or even electricity.

Mary doesn’t live there but a few months per year. The rest of her time is spent in New York, where she is a junior partner in an industrial-design firm specializing in consumer packaging. “It’s a high-pressure operation and she is supposed to be good at it,” Barney tells the reader. Her time on her island is usually spent working, where she can puzzle things out without interruption.

Barney’s backstory is typically MacDonaldean: a former young executive working in New York, commuting from Larchmont, who has a transcendent moment of realization after his wife leaves him. He quits his job, moves to Florida and dials down his life to a low idle. “I have a healed ulcer, enough muscle to gaff a green tarpon, an unclouded mind and a restful disposition.” His desire to “set the world on fire” is far behind him, and his one unattained ambition, revealed by MacDonald only between the lines, is the wooing of Mary Dawes. (See Joe Rutland, the protagonist of 1954’s “Built for Speed” for one of MacDonald’s numerous antecedents. See also Gevan Dean in Area of Suspicion.)

It began two years before, at the end of one of Mary’s two month stays in Florida. After a day of sailing, swimming, sandwiches and sunning on the beach, they kissed, with “increasing enthusiasm” until Mary broke it up abruptly.

“Why?” I demanded. That is ever the forlorn question of the spurned male. “Why, honey?”

“Because you are a sweet guy, Barney, a very simpatico and amusing guy, and as I have just learned, a very exciting guy.”

“You’re reading the wrong lines. Those are mine.”

“And because I am not a random girl with random habits. I am a for-keeps girl, and it just isn’t in the cards.”

“Shuffle and deal again. Maybe it is.”

“No, Barney. I work at something I’m good at. I like to be good at things. I wouldn’t be good at all the being a wife. Everything I heat sticks to the pan. Children terrify me. And anyhow, I’d either have to drag you North or be a dead weight on you down here. So we stop right now, before we’ve done any kind of damage to anybody… We’ll be friends, the way we have been.”

Once the two of you have played that familiar scene, it leaves you in a kind of emotional limbo. You can’t get back to where you were and there’s no place else to go. In the two years since it happened I’ve found no one I could classify as a reasonable adequate facsimile, nobody with eyes so blue.

So, Mary has called Barney from his swimming idyll in order to hire his services. Her own boat is getting worked on and she needs the Baylady II. She also needs Barney. Her sister Liz had been scheduled to come down for a week, accompanied by someone in need of rest and solitude, but Liz can’t make it so the companion is arriving on his own. “She collects hopeless idiots and they sponge off her shamefully, and she’s sending one down because his nerves are supposed to be unraveling…” Uneasy with the idea of spending a week on the island alone with a “wounded duck,” she wants Barney living there as well.

“If I can decide right off he’s harmless, you won’t have to stay over, Barney. But I want to be ready in case he looks susceptible to tropical passion.”

“I thought you could handle anybody, girl.”

“Well, you were easy, Barney. But you don’t know Liz’s friends.”

As Mary and Barney wait in a Boca Grande bar for the arrival of the “wounded duck,” Mary reveals that she doesn’t know the guy’s name or even what he looks like. Just then then a man enters, wearing a “dark city suit” and carrying a topcoat and an aluminum suitcase. “He looked young, benign and fat.” Mary asks Barney to “herd him this way, please…” Barney does as he is asked, noticing that, close-up, the stranger is more massive than fat, and he looks at Barney with cold blue eyes. As introductions are made the man is incredulous that they don’t know who he is. Morgan Stonebarger -- The architect! He is officious, presupposing and downright rude. And he apparently didn’t know that he was going to be living on Mary’s island.

But he agrees and they motor on over in the Baylady. Mary and Barney begin to respond to Stonebarger’s orders and incredulity with increasing sarcasm, which only infuriates him more. And when they arrive at Mary’s island and enter her cottage, Stonebarger is immediately intrigued by her work area.

“... he walked by her and went to the big tilted drafting table. We both followed him. He looked at the nearly completed drawing pinned to the board. He turned and smiled at Mary Dawes. I had the curious feeling he was actually looking at her for the first time.

“A hobby, Mary?” he asked. “Or isn’t it yours?”

Her throat worked visibly as she swallowed. “It’s mine. A poor thing, but mine own. I prefer it to knitting.”

“Container for what?”

“A new hand lotion. Expensive.”

“The draftsmanship is fairly good,” he said, “but the conception is tasteless. It’s a fraudulent version of decent classic proportions. We call it Supermarked Moderne.”

“What?” she said. She looked stunned. “Who are you to -- Listen, the market research behind that design is --”

“It will sell,” he said. “Of course it will sell. There is almost no limit to the ability of the American public to absorb contrived bad taste. But the true area of integrity in design is to create something that is clean and beautiful and also salable.” He looked around at her working sketches of other projects, taped to the alcove walls. “But you do not have that kind of talent, my dear. And don’t be upset. Few do.”

At this point Mary is boiling but Stonebarger ignores her, picks up a charcoal pencil and begins making adjustments to one of her drawings, then another, eventually to all of the sketches that paper her walls.. “We eliminate this rather horrid and pointless bulge, balance this line, widen the base and at the same time give it more of a look of grace and delicacy…”

Mary explodes, orders him out of the cottage and into the guest quarters where he is to stay. Barney accompanies him and notices that Stonebarger is genuinely surprised. “I believe that I’ve actually upset her,” he said. “Maybe when she quiets down you might let her know that I would charge ten thousand dollars to a commercial enterprise for that amount of consultant design service.”


To go further and reveal more would spoil the story for anyone lucky enough to find and read it. I honestly didn’t see where this tale was going until a big reveal later on. Suffice it to say that, despite the fact that this was 1961 and Mary Dawes is, in MacDonald’s world, a relatively independent, self-sufficient female, it all ends glibly, as one would expect in both a JDM tale and for a story in Redbook.

“An Island of Her Own” was published two years before the appearance of the first Travis McGee novels, yet readers of those books will no doubt spot a particular similarity -- outside of the story’s setting in Florida and around the state’s gulf coast. Mary Dawes’ profession, designer of consumer packaging, was later used in the second McGee novel, Nightmare in Pink, as the profession of Nina Gibson, sister of McGee’s army buddy Mike Gibson. Like Mary, Nina works for a Park Avenue firm and her residence in New York is a kind of a second office, complete with a drafting table and sketches pinned to the walls. Yet Nina herself sounds a bit more like Stongarger than Mary when McGee, in the apartment for the first time, studies one of her sketches, a drawing of a jar, which McGee notes was “striking… with a severe and classic beauty.”

"Do you like that one?" she asked.

"Very much."

"You've got a pretty good eye, McGee. The client didn't like it. We go around telling each other that good taste will sell. Maybe it will, at the right time and the right place. But what is truly commercial is a kind of vulgarity upgraded just enough to look like good taste. And the best ones in the business are the ones who can toss that kind of crap off naturally, and really believe it's great."

There are also echoes of MacDonald’s first Redbook story here, “Nothing Must Change.”

“An Island of Her Own” has not, to my knowledge, ever been reprinted.

Monday, March 26, 2018

"Dead on the Pin"

Writers mostly had mixed feelings about the passing of the pulps. Many felt that those days were best forgotten. They had outgrown the pulps, gone on to more mature work. The pulps seemed like a youthful indiscretion. Some writers could only remember the hard work, the endless days hunched over the Remington, pounding words onto paper until the clanging of the metal keys was ringing in the ears. But there had been good work, too, and the camaraderie, and the creative challenge. Mixed feelings. - - Lee Server, from Danger is My Business: An Illustrated History of the Fabulous Pulp Magazines. (1993)

John D MacDonald was never at a loss for words when it came to reminiscing about his days writing for the pulps. He spoke often of the crushing workload, the the poor payscale and the sheer volume of product he needed to come up with in order for him to be able to support his family. He fondly recalled the opportunity to learn a craft he had decided to embark upon relatively late in life, and the generous and helpful guidance pulp magazine editors like Alden Norton, Babette Rosmond, Mike Tilden and Harry Widmer offered him. He even shared his recollections within the pages of fanzines such as Bronze Shadows, remembering the people, retelling amusing stories and conveying a general sense of nostalgia of an era gone forever.

But when it came to actually reading, remembering or bringing to light the short stories and novellas he wrote for these magazine, it was a different matter. The earliest clamor from his fanbase for an anthology of these tales was met with foot dragging on the author’s part. He agreed to a science fiction collection, because, hey, it was just science fiction, a bias he clearly revealed in his then-notorious afterword to Other Times, Other Worlds. But when it came to the mystery stories, it took a lot more convincing. When in 1978 Francis J Nevins, Jr wrote a paper on “MacDonald’s Early Pulp Stories,” extolling the quality of many of these forgotten works, MacDonald’s response was not enthusiastic.

As to a collection of pulp stories, I really do not know if they would work well enough at this late date. I have the feeling they are just a bit too glib and easy to be worth keeping. I would not gather them up myself for presentation with any feeling of pride and/or satisfaction. And I would hope that by the time they are posthumous, they will be far too passe for collecting.

But Nevins, along with ├╝ber-anthologist Martin H Greenberg, persisted and offered to do the “gathering up for presentation” since MacDonald was clearly unwilling to do so. JDM’s bibliographer non pareil Walter Shine, along with his wife Jean, helped supply copies of the stories and chimed in on suggestions as to which stories should be included. The list was reduced to 30, they were typed up in manuscript form and submitted to McDonald for his ultimate decision. Instead of being repulsed, JDM wrote that he was “astonished” that only three of them “did not merit republication.” (Talk about a backhanded compliment!) He agreed to move forward with the project, which eventually encompassed two volumes, published two years apart, titled The Good Old Stuff (1982) and More Good Old Stuff (1984).

MacDonald’s reticence is clear in his introduction to the first volume, where he actually writes that he considered himself to be “taking [an] occupational risk in having the stories published.” How such an otherwise intelligent man could have so misjudged his appeal to his fans is a mystery that will never be solved. But MacDonald’s reluctance was one thing, something that was eventually dealt with, but he reacted in another, more damaging way, in that he felt the need to “update” the stories. All of the stories suffered this editorial meddling, some more than others. Several of the stories' time-frames were switched from the early postwar period to the early 1980’s. Many small references were changed, usually from then-famous personages to more contemporary ones. Prices were increased, as were income figures, and mediums of entertainment were switched, mainly from radio to television. But, he assured the reader, nothing had been done to the prose itself outside of these contemporizing adjustments.

I was horribly tempted to make other changes, to edit patches of florid prose, substitute the right words for the almost right words, but that would have been cheating, because it would have made me look as if I were a better writer at that time than I was.

The readers of The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff had to take MacDonald at his word on this assertion, as only a few readers had access to the original pulp magazines in which these stories appeared. I certainly didn’t own any of these hard-to-find and expensive-to-purchase periodicals, but I began looking and began collecting and it was years before I obtained even a small portion of the original material. Thinking that I didn’t need to re-read the stories where the updating hadn’t been obvious, it wasn’t until I actually did so when preparing to write a piece on “The Tin Suitcase” (titled “She Cannot Die” in the anthology) in 2016 that I realized that the author was way more than just a little misleading in his “hands off” claim. When I got to writing about “You Remember Jeanie” I discovered wholesale changes that completely altered the feel and atmosphere of the original story.

“Dead on the Pin” is as nifty a piece of pulp writing as you’re likely to come across, a short, matter-of-fact tale that is wonderfully told and stylishly composed. It is a work of fiction that any mystery writer would have been proud to call their own in its original form. Yet MacDonald took his red pencil to it and made many, many changes. The overall effect is not as bad as it was with “The Tin Suitcase” or (especially) “You Remember Jeannie,” but the changes are nearly all unnecessary and are detrimental to the overall quality of the telling of the tale. The original appeared in the Summer 1950 issue of Mystery Book Magazine and runs an economic 2,500 words.

Joe Desmon is a veteran of the war (World War II, in the original) who has, since his return stateside, managed the Wonderland Bowling Alleys, “on the turnpike three miles out of town.” Because of a dearth of bowling alleys in town, he works long hours, hoping for the day he can own his own establishment and order someone else to do all of the things he does now.

So it seemed like almost too much to expect when one day about three months ago this little guy showed up and asked if I could hire him to do jobs around the place. He was edging close to fifty with the top of his head up to about my chin. He was the sort of little man you would push out of your way, but not if you looked close. There were hard, blunt bones in his face and a pair of pale blue expressionless eyes and a tight slit for a mouth. He had a thick look through the shoulders, and his arms hung almost down to his knees, with big square wrists.

His name was Johnson and he willingly accepts the pittance Joe is able to pay him for brushing the alleys, mopping the floor, emptying the ashtrays and cleaning the restrooms. His only request is that he be allowed to bowl a few games when there was no other work to do. Joe looks at Johnson’s thumb and recognizes the “swollen, bent-back look of a man who has done a lot of it.” It was late, and Joe suggests they play a quick one.

Initially he’s not impressed with Johnson’s game. By the third frame Joe has scored "a fat 69" to Johnson's 27. Joe begins to get bored. "He had a nice hook but it was coming in too quickly." On the fourth frame, however, Johnson finds the pocket "for one of the prettiest strikes I've ever seen." He does the same in for the next four frames. He handily beats Joe.

Johnson does his work quietly and gets along with the rest of the staff. He is eventually allowed to give lessons, earning a cut of the fees. "Having him around eased the pressure on me, but he wasn't a fellow you could chum up to." When Joe suggests that he join one of the leagues that play at Wonderland, he is quickly dissuaded. "Just say that I don't like to bowl with people. Maybe I blow up under pressure. Put it any way you want, but don't go talking up my game. Understand?"

In the story's most satisfying and best written scene, a trio of young punks come into the alley one night and start clowning around, rolling a ball down an lane Johnson is sweeping. He avoids the ball but has the mop swept out of his hands. "Did I scare you, pop?" asks one of the boys. Johnson walks up and throws the boy into the racks. The others respond but are handily taken care of. They leave the place, minus their swagger and a few teeth.

Then, early one morning, Joe wakes up in his room to find a stranger sitting beside his bed. "Good morning, Joe," he said…”


“Dead on the Pin” is a model of economy and one of the best examples of the real quality one could find in the pulp magazines of the post war period. There’s not a wasted word, and the prose is impeccable, with perfectly structured sentences that have a unique rhythm, ringing in the mind’s ear like a kind of Runyonesque poetry. This is MacDonald at his best, or at least his best at this period of his career, so it’s a real shame that he felt the need to alter the story when it was reprinted in The Good Old Stuff. As I’ve done in previous pieces on GOS reprints, I’ll present a section of the story, first as it was originally written and then as it was altered by MacDonald. It’s the passage describing the first game between Joe and Johnson.

With my double and spare in the first three frames and his two splits and a miss, I felt pretty patronizing. When I made a strike in the fourth to make my fill on the third frame a fat 69 to his 27, I began to get bored. He had a nice hook but it was coming in too quickly.

In the fourth frame he found the pocket for one of the prettiest strikes I’ve ever seen. He did it again in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth.

He paused then and said, “Mr. Desmon, do you fire people you can’t beat?”

“What do you think I am?” I demanded.

“Just asking, ki— Mr. Desmon.”

He then plunked across the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth strike in a row, snowing me under 237 to 202.

I said, “You’ve got eight in a row. Keep pitching.”

He grinned for the first time. The grin came and went so fast that I almost missed it. He got the ninth, then blew the tenth and left the ball on the rack.

I kept an eye on him. He did his work and got along with the rest of the help. He got along by staying out of everybody’s way. After the first month I began to throw lessons his way, giving him a cut. He had perfect style, setting the ball down so smoothly that it wouldn’t dent a custard, and he was quick to pick out flaws and point them out. Having him around eased the pressure on me, but he wasn’t fellow you could chum up to.

Here’s the rewrite:

With my double and spare in the first three frames and his two splits and a miss, I felt pretty arrogant. When I got my strike in the fourth, it made my fill on the third frame a fat 69 to his 27. I started to get bored, but in his fourth frame, his ball ducked into the pocket for one of the prettiest cleanest strikes I have ever seen. His ball had been curving in too fast before that, giving him those thin Brooklyn hits.

And so while I got spare, strike, spare, he got three more of those boomers, where all the pins jumped into the pit in unison.

He looked at me and said, “Mr. Desmon, do you fire people you can’t beat?”

“What do you think I am? No. And I’m not beat yet.”

“Just asking, ki—Mr. Desmon.”

So he kept chucking them in there, and in the end he had put eight strikes in a row altogether, and he wiped me out, 235 to 202.

So I said, “Okay. And I think you could keep right on wiping me out. You’re not fired.”
He grinned for the first time. It came and went so quickly I almost missed it. He wanted to know if he could practice a little when his work was done. I told him to be my guest.

I kept an eye on him. He did his work and got along well enough with the rest of my people. He got along by staying out of the way. After the first month I began to throw some lessons his way, giving him a cut. He had perfect style, laying the ball down so smoothly it wouldn’t have dented the top of a custard pie. He could pick up the flaws and point them out and demonstrate how to cure them. He eased the pressure on me, but I never did really get to know the man.

With these changes one gets the impression that MacDonald is talking down to an idiot kid, someone incapable of understanding the nuances of the language or picking up on the obvious slang of the day. Why bother changing the sentence “Having him around eased the pressure on me, but he wasn’t fellow you could chum up to.” to “He eased the pressure on me, but I never did really get to know the man.”? What does it add to the understanding of the character or to what is happening? It certainly robs the original of its rough meter. Or how about “In the fourth frame he found the pocket for one of the prettiest strikes I’ve ever seen. He did it again in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth.” replaced with “in his fourth frame, his ball ducked into the pocket for one of the prettiest cleanest strikes I have ever seen. His ball had been curving in too fast before that, giving him those thin Brooklyn hits.And so while I got spare, strike, spare, he got three more of those boomers, where all the pins jumped into the pit in unison.” This isn’t “updating,” it’s explaining.

And did he really need to add “pie” after the word “custard”?

A few weeks ago I posted a transcription of an essay MacDonald wrote for Writers’ Digest titled “The Editor Over My Shoulder.” In discussing the role of editor the author asks the reader to imagine the writer as a tailor, designing and sewing suits of clothing in the middle of a carnival. The editor is a passerby, offering numerous bits of unsolicited advice, all analogous to what passes between a real writer and a real editor. With MacDonald acting the role of real editor with the Good Old Stuff anthologies, here are some of the pointless suggestions that apply to his own meddling:

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

“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?"

“All the lapels are wider this year.”

And so on…

I would like to extend a special thank you to Trap of Solid Gold reader Keith Hann, who, after reading my pieces on “The Tin Suitcase” and “You Remember Jeanie,” decided to quantify the changes MacDonald made to the text of all of the Good Old Stuff stories. He transcribed both the originals (where available… he doesn’t have them all) and the Good Old Stuff re-do’s into separate Word documents, then used the software’s Compare function to produce a document highlighting in red all of the changes made to the original. When he sent me the comparison of “Dead on the Pin” my eyes bugged out at the amount of crimson on the page. MacDonald made over 75 changes -- some minor, many not-so-minor -- to the original text. Seventy-five changes to a 2,500-word short story. He really must have feared that the publication of The Good Old Stuff was an “occupational risk.”