Monday, July 25, 2016

Exit Laughing: How To Catch Snook!

Writer, humorist and fishing enthusiast Ed Zern (1910 - 1994) began writing a column for Field & Stream in 1958, a gig that would last for the next 35 years. It almost always appeared on the magazine's last page and was read by millions over the years. In the March 1985 issue Zern recalled a letter he received years before from fellow writer and sometimes-correspondent John D MacDonald. The title of this particular column was "How To Catch Snook!" and I've transcribed it in its entirety below. It reveals a favorite JDM passtime he enjoyed in the afternoons after a day of writing.

On my way down to San Antonio last December to attend the annual meeting of the Winchester Irregulars, I picked up the in flight magazine of American Airlines and on page 21 read an interesting but presumptuous piece by Isaac Asimov on deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, the incredible molecule whose structure controls the physical characteristics of all living things. In the opening paragraph I found this statement: "Since every living thing is at least slightly different from every other living thing, and in some cases very different (you may be slightly different in appearance from your father but you are very different in appearance from an oak tree), this must come about because the DNA molecule is different in structure in different living things."

Hoo boy! This Asimov, without ever having laid eyes on me, says I look very different from an oak tree! Well the fact is, buster, I look amazingly like an oak tree, On several occasions I have been attacked by woodsmen with double-bitted axes. Twice, I have been inadvertently sprayed for tent caterpillars. I have had several severe attacks of oak gall. Young lovers keep trying to carve their initials into me. The mere glimpse of a lumberyard depresses me for hours. Birds often to to build nests on me, and Boy Scouts frequently look at my lower portion to see where the moss grows, and find north.. Termites terrify me. When I suffer from hives, it's because bees have mistaken me for a bee tree. So much for science writers.

Annoyed, I switched to reading a fairly recent Travis McGee novel by my favorite murder-mystery writer, John D. MacDonald, and was reminded by a McGee reference to sailfishing that John lived in Sarasota during the 1950’s and was a devout snook fisherman when not at his typewriter. He wrote to me one time, during that decade to tell me that his wife routinely asked, "What did you catch?" when he came back from the inlet, and that he was almost always obliged to say, "One snook," or "Two snook," or "Five snook," and kept hoping that some other make of fish would ingest his lure, as he felt sure his wife was getting awfully bored hearing the same old reply day after day.

Then recently, he wrote, he was fishing a feathered leadhead jig with a light spinning rod and when the monofilament snarled on the reel the jig sank and caught fast on the bottom. He said he pulled cautiously on the 6-pound line and finally managed to beach a barnacle-covered piece of pottery which appeared to be a chamber pot. A few minutes after he had unhooked the crockery and resumed fishing, he made a long, high cast and a low-flying pelican flew into the monofilament, which wrapped around its wing and brought it plunging into the water. It took him 10 minutes to play the bird onto the beach and get it calmed down sufficiently to untangle the line and release it. While he was so engaged, a pod of commercial fishermen came by and one of them said to John, "Watch this." He took the pelican's beak in his hand and walked it up and down the beach for about 2 minutes, holding the beak pointed skyward. When another of the group said, "He's about done," the bird was turned loose. Instead of flying away, John wrote, the pelican put the point of his beak into the sand and stood staring at the ground for about 5 minutes. When one of the fishermen walked over and booted it gently in the fuselage, it looked up with a hey-where-am-I look of amazement, then flew off.

While this was going on an elderly onlooker came over and asked John what he was fishing for. When John said snook, the oldtimer said, "You'll never get no big snook on that little-bitty outfit. There's some real big snook in here, but you'd never hold 'em on line that light." John tried to explain that with a spinning reel (at that time still fairly newfangled) it would be awfully difficult for even a 30-pound snook to break off if properly handled, and when the geezer scoffed, John bet him a quarter he couldn't break the 6-pound line. "Take that jig," John said, “and make like you're a big snook. You've got 5 minutes to break off, any way except running out all the line." The oldtimer agreed, and for five minutes ran up and down the beach yanking and hauling on the line while John played him carefully. When the time was up the guy paid him the two bits and John went back to his apartment. When he walked in the door his wife said, "What did you catch?", and John was happy to be able to answer, "An old man, a pelican, and. a chamber pot." He said it was one of the best days he ever had, and that he was tempted to enter all three catches in the local fishing-rodeo under the unusual-species category, but had neglected to weigh and measure them.

On arriving at Stan Studer's ranch on the South Fork of the Frio I enthusiastically fell in with evil companions including not only the Studers pere et fils but wildlife painter Guy Coheleach, rancher Herb Toombs, publisher and pistoleer Steve Ferber, sporting-art collector George Coe, big-game hunter Jim Midcap, defrocked tennis pro Jimmy Moses, Gamecoin founder Harry Tennison, and sundry other Irregulars, and not long thereafter somehow found myself tramping with several accomplices across a stubble field stiff with bobwhite quail, just behind a nifty brace of well-trained Brittanys and just ahead of a safari truck carrying an eight-piece mariachi band which struck up "The Yellow Rose of Texas" (I think it was) each time the dogs went on point, which was frequently. I missed one going-away bobwhite, but ascribed it to the E string of the bass fiddle being slightly flat.

The annual meeting was dull. As chairman of the Genealogical Committee, I proposed doing an analysis of Steve Ferber's ancestry, to be titled "Ferber's Forebears" (or, if pursued in sufficient depth, "Ferber's Fur-Bearing Forebears"), but a motion by pecan magnate Bob Leonard to disband the Committee was seconded and passed before I could rise to a point of order.

Monday, July 18, 2016

John D & Me: Elmore Leonard

This coming Sunday will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of John D MacDonald. A big celebration is planned for the preceding Saturday at the Selby County Library in Sarasota, sponsored by One Book One Community and featuring the dedication of a plaque in Five Points Park, dramatic readings from JDM’s writings, Cal and Nola Branche reading the wartime letters of John and Dorothy, a speech by the Sarasota mayor, and a JDM Tribute Committee that includes authors John Jakes, Tim Dorsey, Craig Pittman, and two of MacDonald’s grandchildren.

For those of us who live outside Florida and who won’t be able to make it to the big shebang (that includes me, alas), the first six months of this centenary year have been a godsend of JDM delights in the form of a weekly guest column in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune titled John D and Me, featuring (primarily) contemporary authors big and small, all writing about the important influence MacDonald had on their own writing. Everyone from Jakes and Stephen King to Randy Wayne White and PJ Parrish, they have been, almost uniformly, delightful reminiscences of both personal encounters with JDM and recollections of how picking up a John D MacDonald novel changed their lives. It will be sad to see the series end on July 24.

One author who probably would have been happy to write a column about JDM is Elmore Leonard, who passed away in 2013. In lieu of that never-to-be-written piece, I thought it would be fun to present a substitute, one that reads almost like it might have been written for the John D and Me series. It comes from an interview the author gave on the NPR program All Things Considered back in December of 1986 on the occasion of MacDonald’s passing.

All Things Considered: Novelist John D MacDonald talked with us four years ago about his craft -- about leaving much of the story to the imagination of the reader. This is what he said:

“I had the feeling that if I can describe a typical scene like say I have my guys in Texas and they’re in a motel room and all I have to describe is the clattery, bangety-bang old air conditioner and maybe a big stain that’s run down the wall from the air conditioner like the shape of the bottom half of the map of Texas, and the reader, having been in those kinds of motel rooms, will create the rest of it for himself even to the odors thereof.”

John D MacDonald died over the weekend of complications after heart surgery. Elmore Leonard joins us now from Birmingham, Michigan. Leonard is a crime writer who studied MacDonald’s work. He says he knew MacDonald was in poor health.

Elmore Leonard: I was looking through my correspondence. John and I have been corresponding since ‘82 and I have a letter where it says here, “September 1, 1986,” and he says “I’m winding up this and that in preparation for a trip to a veritable garden spot -- Milwaukee -- where a Doctor Dudley Johnson is going to do bypass surgery. There seems to be a lot of it going around. [Author James] Michener just had one. I wouldn’t want to feel left out.” That’s the last line.

ATC: How sad! John D MacDonald seemed to a reader -- I had never met him -- seemed to be having a great deal of fun being the sort of writer that he was. He seemed to be enjoying himself. Do you think that’s true?

EL: I’m sure he had a good time because I think his attitude came through in his novels, certainly in the Travis McGee books, without being really too intrusive. They’re a part of the story which made the characters more lifelike -- made them alive. He said in one of his letters back in 1982 “The college-age people look at me with incredulity when I tell them I’m still trying to make the stuff better. If there was such a thing as total objectivity, there would be no bad books written or published and no bad plays produced. I tell them I am trying to make the author ever more invisible and keep the words and sentences shorter without triteness.”

ATC: I bet he would get insulted when people would insinuate simply because he sold almost one hundred million books that it was somehow easy writing what he did.

EL: Yeah, that happened. The same thing happened with John O’Hara. The fact that he was so prolific, that he wrote so many short stories and books that means that perhaps he shouldn’t be taken seriously. And O’Hara said, “Well, that’s what I do. I’m a writer.” And that’s exactly what MacDonald did. The fact that he did what? Five hundred short stories and 70 novels -- it’s unbelievable. But he stayed at it. That’s what he did. He didn’t talk about it.

ATC: There’s a quotation in the New York Times today from Professor Robin Winks of Yale with these phrases about MacDonald’s work. “He wrote books that contained the near randomness of honesty, and also the persistence of evil. The books would remind you of how bad things could be if you ventured past a certain line and also how good people could be when under pressure.”

EL: That’s what I think attracted me to him back in the ‘50’s. When I worked I studied him, among other writers. But I studied him in particular in that he was writing crime stories. But I was also attracted to the fact that he used people who were real. They were everyday sorts of people who find themselves in some sort of a deadly situation. They were so life-like. His bad guys were not all bad and his good people were not all good and I think that was quite an influence on my work.

ATC: Elmore Leonard, talking about writer John D MacDonald who died Sunday in Milwaukee at the age of 70...

Monday, July 11, 2016

"Labor Supply"

John D MacDonald’s relatively brief interest in writing science fiction began and ended in the earliest years of his career. If we focus on the stories that appeared in the science fiction pulps and digests of the late 1940’s and early 1950’s we can spot his entry point in February of 1948 (“Cosmetics”) followed by nine more stories that year. The following two years saw the publication of 30 science fiction tales before tailing off in 1951 (seven) and 1952 (two). By 1953 he could manage only one story, his last in the digests, before ending the relationship altogether. And although he continued to write science fiction sporadically throughout the balance of his career, he never returned to the magazines that concentrated on this form of fiction.

Ironically, his last story, “Labor Supply,” was his first to appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a relatively new title that had published its first issue in 1949. The brainchild of editors J Francis McComas and Anthony Boucher, F&SF (as it is typically referred to) sought to raise the bar on the literary quality of science fiction. As Brian Stableford put it in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979), “It’s editors abandoned the standards of pulp fiction and asked for sf and fantasy that was well-written and stylish, up to the literary standards of the slick magazines which had shaped American short-story writing between the wars.” Toward this end they abandoned story art and double columns, and concentrated on the short story as opposed to the novellas and serialized novels that were the standard fare of the pulps. Some truly great science fiction and fantasy appeared on the pages of F&SF over the years, including early versions of Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, Daniel Keyes Flowers for Algernon, and Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, published in the magazine as “Starship Soldier”. The issue where “Labor Supply” was published (May 1953) included two short story classics: Boucher’s “Snelbug” (a reprint) and Ward Moore’s “Lot,” which, along with its sequel “Lot’s Daughter” served as the uncredited inspiration for the 1962 cult film Panic in the Year Zero.

Another trait of the magazine was its frequent use of “light and humorous material,” and one can certainly classify “Labor Supply” as one of those types of stories. More fantasy than science fiction, its subject matter includes dreams, psychology, telepathy and, quite possibly, life in another dimension, written in a breezy and  informal style the author employed frequently when he was being only half-serious.

"Labor Supply" opens in the psychiatric offices of a Dr. Vrees, who is seeing a pair of patients with an unusual problem. Robert Smith and Ruth Jones are engaged to be married. Both are specimens of good health: Robert is six-foot-four, "muscled like a stereotype picture of a Viking," well off financially with above average intelligence. His fiancee Ruth is equally robust, beautiful and "built on the same heroic scale... at least six feet tall, and proud of it, moving like a ship under a full head of sail." They are here because, every night, they have been dreaming the same dream. But not just any dream.

"There doesn't seem to be any pattern to them, exactly" [explains Ruth.] "And they aren't all really alike, Just the place is alike every time, So very hot, you know. And have you ever looked in one of those mirrors where you can duplicate yourself, so you see a whole line, and they're all you?... That's the way it is. There are just hundreds and thousands of me, and of Robert too. And working so terribly hard. All naked and toiling. And crying, sometimes. There are corridors, and you have to walk down them all bent over. But the new corridors are better. You can stand up in those. We're making them.[We use tools] like gold pencils with two little clocks on one side. They cut the stone and the stone is all blue. Really blue. Cobalt, I guess. And the stones have to be put in baskets. Those baskets hang in the air and when you load them up they sink almost to the floor. When you pull the first one, all the others follow it like... animals. And we have to dump them down a dark place. You never hear them hit bottom."

When pressed about the people who are forcing all these Roberts and Ruths to labor endlessly, she explains matter-of-factually "They're... gnomes. You know. Little gnarly men with squatty legs and lumpy red faces and hats that come to peaks and they wear soft green... They make a funny sound... Sort of whoop, whoop."

Dr. Vrees, who has a long-standing predilection for tall women and is half-smitten by Ruth, suggests a possible sexual connotation, positing that the couple's "sublimation" of their normal instincts toward each other (refraining from sex, in 1950's-talk) might be causing the dual dreams. After stating bluntly that she and Robert are not "sublimating anything," she explains what happens when the workday is done in the dreamland.

"... they herd us into a sleeping place. There's a feeding place, where we eat something wet and gray, and then there's a sleeping place. And in the sleeping place all those thousands of Roberts and the thousands of me, we all..." She covered her eyes, sat with her head bowed.

Dr. Vrees goes through a litany of possible explanations, all rooted in the popular psychiatric fads of the day, even postulating a possible "channel" between her and Robert's minds. When Ruth tells him that in the most recent dreams all of the other Ruths are pregnant, he pounces on this fact as latent jealousy Robert might have had in childhood toward his many siblings and promises that a few months of psychoanalysis should fix things.

But nothing does work, and it is months later when Dr. Vrees, while chatting with a physicist at his club, hears another possible explanation that is more incredible than even mind channeling…

“Labor Supply” is an enjoyable story with a neat ending that is far from predictable. It reads like a lot of other semi-serious JDM pieces: think of “Hole in None,” “But Not to Dream” and most of his early This Week stories. A fitting way to walk off the science fiction stage.

The Anthony Boucher-John D MacDonald connection, of course, didn’t begin with “Labor Supply.” Boucher’s science fiction career began in 1941 with the publication of “Snulbug” in the science fiction pulp Universe and a year later he landed a gig with the San Francisco Chronicle writing reviews of science fiction novels. As such he certainly knew of MacDonald and likely had read most of his science fiction output in the pulps and digests. In fact, one of the earliest book reviews MacDonald ever received in a major newspaper was written by Boucher, writing under his pseudonym H.H. Holmes in the New York Herald Tribune, a mainly favorable one for Wine of the Dreamers in 1951. (The name “Anthony Boucher” was itself a pseudonym: his real name was William Anthony Parker White.) Boucher was also a huge fan of mystery fiction and a writer of the same. His early novels, predating “Snulbug,” are all mysteries and by the time “Labor Supply” hit the newsstands he was reviewing mystery novels in a weekly column in the Sunday New York Times. His first review of a JDM mystery was for Dead Low Tide, and thereafter he rarely missed including any JDM paperback original in “Criminals at Large.” He had a huge impact in spreading the word on MacDonald’s work and it’s a safe assertion to make that he was JDM’s biggest and most influential literary cheerleader in the 1950’s.

“Labor Supply” has been reprinted only once, in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology Other Times, Other Worlds. That collection is out of print and is not available (yet) as an eBook. Thankfully, used copies of the paperback original are easy to find.

Monday, July 4, 2016

"Salute to Courage"

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

-- John D MacDonald, The House Guests, 1965

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration from the Cavalcade reprint

Monday, June 27, 2016

"You Remember Jeanie"

In the June 13th piece on John D MacDonald’s 1952 science fiction short story “Game for Blondes” I noted that the situational device of beginning a story with a protagonist lost in an alcoholic rock bottom as the result of the death of his wife was one that the author had used before in his 1947 short story “You’ve Got to Be Cold.” I should have also mentioned “The Tin Suitcase,” where we begin the story after the protagonist has recovered and is trying to regain his life, and “You Remember Jeanie,” a tale that was published in the May 1949 issue of Crack Detective Stories. It is far closer to “Game for Blondes” in describing the depths to which the hero has sunk, the utter depravity and the hopeless attempts at assuaging grief. It is also unflinching in its descriptions of the state of the gutter-drunk, a man who has sunk so low -- emotionally, physically, economically -- that it seems he can never recover.

MacDonald was, of course, no stranger to alcohol. He was a drinker all of his adult life, as was his wife Dorothy, and except for a few dicey patches he seemed to be able to manage it quite well. But booze, specifically the hard stuff, was the drug of choice for his generation, and not everyone he knew handled it as responsibly as he did. Closest to home was the sad case of his sister Dorie and her husband Bill Robinson. Both suffered from alcoholism. In Dorie’s case it destroyed her health and eventually killed her, while Bill lost his job before finally joining AA, and he had to have his wife beg JDM to help him find new employment in Florida. (MacDonald’s description of the problem to pal Dan Rowan in a June 25, 1971 letter is pretty grim.) Virtually all of his protagonists and most of his secondary characters were drinkers, and all took it as a matter of course, a normal thing for an adult to do in postwar America. But the relatively few times he dealt with those particular characters who were unable to drink and maintain a normal life are revealed in prose that is some of the most telling in the author’s canon. Best of these is, of course, his classic 1956 short story “Hangover,” a remarkable bit of writing from the drinker’s point of view as he awakens after a particularly bad bender and tries to put the pieces of his memory back together. The pre-McGee novels are filled with detailed, finely-observed set pieces featuring drinking gone too far, beautifully rendered lost weekends of over-the-top behavior, inhibitions broken down, wild revelries and ultimate regret. They occur mainly in his mainstream efforts such as Cancel All Our Vows, The Deceivers, Clemmie, Please Write for Details, The Crossroads, Slam the Big Door, and even -- briefly but tellingly -- in The Executioners. But as evidenced by “You Remember Jeanie,” he knew the subject matter well as far back as 1949.

The opening paragraph of the story is as beautifully crafted and atmospheric as any MacDonald ever wrote for the pulps, immediately creating a scene, a world and a hopeless, lost quality to everything that would follow.

For many years Bay Street was the place. Bar whisky for eight cents a shot or a double slug for fifteen. Waterfront street. The dirty grey waves slapped at the crusted piles and left an oil scum. A street to forget with. A street which could close in on you, day to day, night to night, until you maybe ran into an old friend who slipped you a five, and somebody saw you get it; there at dawn an interne from city hospital would shove your eyelid up with a clean, pink thumb. "Icebox meat," he'd say. "Morgue bait." And maybe, as he stood up, he'd look down at your hollow grey face and the sharp bones of your wrists and wonder how you'd kept alive so long. So very long.

The story’s protagonist is Frank Bard, a homeless street bum hopelessly addicted to the sauce, living in an abandoned crate in an alley across the street from a bar called Allison’s Grill. In an early encounter with a patrolman we learn that Frank was once a cop, a good one, with a clean record and a list of accomplishments. But that all ended one night when his wife Jeanie, while having a drink at Allison’s, was hit in the head by a drunk and killed. Frank escaped into the bottle and eventually lost his marbles, believing that Jeanie is alive and with him as he stumbles into Allison’s for a semi-frequent spending of his last fifty cents.

On one such occasion Frank and “Jeanie” arrive to enjoy a drink together and the background of the story is explained by Allison’s waiter and bouncer, a man named Jader, to a curious customer at the bar who wonders why this drunk is talking to the thin air beside him.

"Mister, a drunk bashed her head in with a bottle and got clean away. We give the cops a description but they never found the guy." He paused and glanced at Bard, who was talking to Jeanie in a low voice, almost a whisper. He continued, "And this thing used to be a cop. Jeanie was his girl. He's been on the skids for nearly a year, and every time he comes in here he's got that damn imaginary woman with him. I tell you, it's enough to drive me nuts."

Frank Bard may be nuts but he has retained enough of the memory from his past life to recollect that Allison’s Grill is a place where the connected can buy drugs, although, thanks to an ingenious failsafe mechanism, the police have never been able to prove anything. And while bouncer Jader is the excitable type, the grill’s owner Arthur Allison is a "watchful, careful man," small, trim, "with Truman glasses and a grey Colman mustache," always dressed in a spotless white shirt while tending the bar. And while Bard’s frequent visits gives Jader the creeps, Allison tolerates him and even banters good naturedly with this hopeless drunk and his “wife” -- as long as Bard has the money to pay for his drinks.

A few days later Allison takes a rare day off to go to the races, leaving Jader alone and in charge of the grill. He’s feeling good and full of himself. The drawer with the dope is full and several buys are set for the day. But his day is ruined when he looks out the front door and sees Bard approaching. Without Allison around to force him to play nice, he reluctantly allows the drunk and Jeanie to sit in a back booth, away from the action. But when he goes back to wait on him, Jader sees two cigarette butts in the ashtray, and one is stained with lipstick…

The beauty of “You Remember Jeanie” is not in its somewhat obvious plot, or in the characterizations of the secondary characters, but in the creation of the protagonist and the carefully descriptive prose MacDonald employs to bring him to life. In addition, the neighborhood is almost a character in itself, a dirty, displaced and dangerous block in a city that tolerates it only so long as its vices stay confined to its streets. The opening paragraphs are as well written as any in MacDonald’s work for the pulps.

Which brings up an unfortunate point. “You Remember Jeanie” was chosen as one of the 27 pulp tales that were reprinted in the early 1980’s in the anthologies The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff. MacDonald grudgingly allowed these works to be republished (edited by Francis M Nevins, Martin H Greenberg and Jean and Walter Shine) only on the condition that the author would be permitted to “update” several of the stories, moving the time period from the postwar era to the then-present day. MacDonald’s rationale was that the modern reader would be distracted from the narrative if someone paid a nickel for a phone call or a dime for a loaf of bread. His readers at the time blasted this curious decision, but the author dug in his heels and defended it in the second volume. He claimed that he only updated period references but left the prose alone, stating that changing “patches of florid prose” and substituting “the right word for almost the right word” would have been “cheating, because it would have made me look as if I were a better writer at that time than I was.”

But that is exactly what he did.

As I pointed out in a previous post on another Good Old Stuff selection (“The Tin Suitcase”), a reading of the stories in their original form, alongside the anthologized versions, reveals wholesale changes everywhere in the text, changing just what MacDonald claimed he hadn’t changed. Why he made that assertion is anybody’s guess at this point. Perhaps he felt -- correctly -- that most of the readers at the time had no way to go back and check on him. I found scores of changes in “The Tin Suitcase” and equally as many in “You Remember Jeanie.” Here are the story’s first three paragraphs side by side:

Paragraph One Original:

For many years Bay Street was the place. Bar whisky for eight cents a shot or a double slug for fifteen. Waterfront street. The dirty grey waves slapped at the crusted piles and left an oil scum. A street to forget with. A street which could close in on you, day to day, night to night, until you maybe ran into an old friend who slipped you a five, and somebody saw you get it; there at dawn an interne from city hospital would shove your eyelid up with a clean, pink thumb. "Icebox meat," he'd say. "Morgue bait." And maybe, as he stood up, he'd look down at your hollow grey face and the sharp bones of your wrists and wonder how you'd kept alive so long. So very long.

More Good Old Stuff version:

For many years Bay Street was the place. Bar whiskey for thirty cents a shot, or a double slug for fifty. A waterfront street, where dirty waves slapped at the crushed pilings behind the saloons. A street to forget with. A street which would close in on you, day to day, night to night, until the wrong person saw some pitying old friend slap you a five. They would find you at dawn, and an intern from City General would push your eyelid up with a clean pink thumb and say, “More meat for the morgue.”

Maybe, as he stood up, he would look down at your hollow gray face and the sharp bones of your wrists and wonder how you’d kept alive this long. So very long.

Paragraph Two and Three Originals:

But something happened to Bay Street. It acquired glamor. Reading the trend, the smart boys came down and bought up the property and built long low clubs with blue lights and bright music and expensive drinks. The shining cars lined up along the curb, and the people with the clean clothes gave ragged kids two bits to make certain the tires weren't slashed while they were inside the places with the bright music and the soft women. The doormen at the new places had no time for the men in broken shoes who were living out the last years of addiction.

So the men of Bay Street moved to Dorrity Street -- one block over. Many of the displaced little bars moved over. The red, blue and green neon flickered against the brick flanks of the ancient warehouses, and, in the night, the steaming chant of the juke boxes, the hoarse laughter and the scuff of broken shoes was the same as always.

More Good Old Stuff version:

But something happened to Bay Street. The smart developers saw what was happening elsewhere, and they conned the city, county and federal government into a glamorous redevelopment project. A huge mall. Parking garages. Waterfront restaurants on new piers, out over the water. A marina. Smaller shopping malls with quaint stores selling antiques, paintings, custom jewelry, Irish tweed.

So the old saloons were uprooted, and for a time there was no place at all for the Bay Street bums. Then some of the old places started up again on Dorrity Street, four blocks inland, and soon it was all the same as before, with the stale smell of spilled beer, the steamy chant of the jukes, hoarse laughter, the scuff of broken shoes, the wet sound of fist against flesh.

MacDonald has obviously done much more than simply change time periods. The magic rhythms of the pulp original are almost completely lost in the new version, eliminating the wonderful staccato style that oozed regret and decay. Instead we get MacDonald circa 1980, the outraged knight with a pen, battling the evil developers, a man much more at home in the world of Condominium and Barrier Island than in the dirty, venal world of postwar America. One can certainly argue about what updating did to narrative, but not, I think, what it did to style. How MacDonald couldn’t recognize this is one of the great unsolvable JDM mysteries.

One can certainly read the More Good Old Stuff version and enjoy it -- even appreciate it. I did for many years before acquiring a copy of this issue of Crack Detective Stories. But after reading the original I have no desire to return to the modern version, ever. The same is true of all of the stories collected in these two anthologies, and where I have the opportunity (I don’t own copies of all of the originals) I will go pulp and decline to be “updated”.

More Good Old Stuff is out of print but easily available as a used book. An eBook version is available from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever else you get eBooks. Happily, the original version of "You Remember Jeanie" is now available as an eBook from online booksellers (Amazon, at least) in one of those strange digital re-releases that have somehow circumvented copyright. This reprint is not without its problems, including the inevitable typos caused by unproofed optical character recognition, but it's the original story, not the updated one. It is paired with another great JDM story from a few years later in his career, "Elimination Race".