Monday, February 1, 2016

Please Write for Details

In the early period of John D MacDonald’s writing career, during the time when he was writing short fiction exclusively and primarily for the pulps, the economic realities of trying to support a family on one and two cents a word forced him to make both a financial and cultural decision. Inspired by description of Mexico and the artist community in Cuernavaca in Malcolm Lowry’s novel Under the Volcano, the MacDonald’s packed their bags and drove south, to live more cheaply and to be surrounded by like-minded artists. From November 1948 until September of the following year the family lived on Jacaranda Street, a few miles north of the main city, and lived the bohemian life of American expatriates.

This nearly year-long stay was the beginning of a love affair between MacDonald and the people, geography and culture of Mexico. It began showing up in his writing, first in short stories like “Tank Town Matador,” “Blue Water Fury” and the novella “Five Star Fugitive” (which later saw life as Border Town Girl), then later in novels like The Damned, The Empty Trap and the final scene in A Man of Affairs, where the MacDonald’s home is appropriated for the characters in the book. Nine years later the MacDonalds returned to Cuernavaca for the summer, while son Johnny did missionary work there with the Quakers, this time residing in the hotel Las Mananitas. Throughout their lives they returned again and again, exploring different parts of the country, supplying John with background material for subsequent books such as A Deadly Shade of Gold, Dress Her in Indigo and Cinnamon Skin.

The 1957 visit proved to be the inspiration for the only John D MacDonald novel to take place exclusively in Mexico, and in Cuernavaca no less: his 1959 effort Please Write for Details. Its locale wasn’t the only thing about the novel that was unusual for the author. It was his first attempt at writing a romantic - comic novel, something he would only try one more time with his science fiction story The Girl, The Gold Watch, & Everything. There are no murders, no (real) bad guys, no gunplay, and the few crimes that are committed are strictly of the venial variety. It was also the author’s return to one of his favorite writing forms, the third-person-omniscient, multi-character, multi-point-of-view narrative that he last explored in The Price of Murder, seven novels back.

Once referred to as “a bawdy romp” by the author himself, Please Write for Details is exactly that -- it was certainly MacDonald’s intention -- but develops into something deeper and more complex. There is the author’s amazing ability at character creation and development, his singular talent to reveal deep and intricate lives of ordinary people, their pasts spread before the reader in seemingly minute detail, so that by the time the action for that character begins we know them as well as we can know anyone. There is MacDonald’s nearly perfect plot construction, almost Shakespearean in its complexity in his multi-character novels, that can stand and bear the weight of scores of interactions between different people and still come out interesting and flawless, leaving the reader in complete awe as to how he did it. And, of course, there is the incredible narrative drive, the way of telling a story that, while deep, seems almost conversational, an ability that makes reading a John D MacDonald novel almost a compulsion.

That he can do all of this in a novel without much of a real plot is all the more unbelievable.

Yet when MacDonald refers to the book as “bawdy,” we have to remember who is saying that, and who is writing the book. While Please Write for Details contains individuals coupling up, some engaging in extramarital sex, and even some non-consensual sex, it is at heart another morality tale, where every “good” couple, whether or not they sleep together, has marriage as their ultimate goal (it’s part of what makes them good), while interactions between characters who don’t have that intention are “bad” and usually punished in some way or another. We’ve seen it countless times before in the earlier novels where sexual promiscuity in a man is seen as anything from a moral weakness to a sign of evil, and where that same proclivity in a woman often leads to death (Mary Olan in You Live Once), disfigurement (Barbara Haddon in Judge Me Not) or insanity (Clemmie). I realize that this is not a uniform characteristic covering all of the author’s novels, but it is prevalent in many and an undercurrent in all of them. The beauty of Please Write for Details is that in its comic structure, MacDonald is freed from his occasional compulsion to play Old Testament God with his characters and let them misbehave a bit, if only a bit. Only one character ends up truly “punished,” and for that person it is justifiable comeuppance, as every reader would agree.

The plot of Please Write for Details is simplicity itself, yet within that structure dozens of little stories unwind. Gloria Garvey, a wealthy yet bohemian American expatriate living in Cuernavaca, decides, out of boredom, to come up with a “project” for another expat and acquaintance, Miles Drummond. Miles, a nervous little man in his fifties who has lived a single life in Cuernavaca for years, would be the last person on earth with the imagination or energy to come up with the idea of creating the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop, a two month art school for vacationing Americans. It was Gloria’s inspiration, she who came up with the name and location -- a shuttered hotel several miles north of town (not-so-coincidentally where the MacDonald’s lived during their first stay), she who wrote the advertising and she who hired the two art teachers who are due to arrive as the novel begins. Some of the students will arrive by plane and need to be picked up at the Mexico City airport, others will come by car. Thirteen students in all, none of whom know each other before arriving, with the exception of two widows in their sixties who drive down together from Ohio. The teachers are as different as any two people -- or artists -- could be, and there is friction between the two even before they meet. Both are artistic “types,” frequently portrayed and lampooned by MacDonald, who was himself the spouse of an artist.

Agnes Partridge Keely arrives in a gray Cadillac and is wonderfully described so that no further details are needed:

A billowing, pillowy woman of fifty, all pastels and jangle of junk jewelry, full of soft cooings and velvety exclamations. She had a face like a pudding, small, bitter blue eyes, and coarse, tightly curled hair bleached a poisonous yellow-green. She had her studio in Pasadena, and her little group of disciples. When she had been a miserably shy and thoroughly unattractive child, it was thought she had a pretty talent for drawing. In the past thirty years Agnes Partridge Keeley, hefty virgin, had painted and sold some 8,000 seascapes, landscapes and portraits of children and animals in the $15 to $60 price range. A shrewd and avid businesswoman, she saw to it that there were Agnes Partridge Keeleys in every retail outlet in the Pasadena area where an Indiana tourist might be tempted to buy a genuine original painting by a California artist.

Her counterpart is one Gambel Torrigan, whose type was the more frequent butt of MacDonald’s ire, an artiste whose focus on the abstract masks an inability to actually draw. (This character flaw would be used again in the person of Heidi Geis Trumbill in One Fearful Yellow Eye.) We meet him before we meet Agnes, when Gloria and Miles pick him up at the airport.

[He was] a very big man who strolled along with the manner of a man who owns the airline and is making a check flight to study passenger service. But in that manner there was an undercurrent of the con man, hunting a victim to whom he can sell the airline. He was big -- thick through the chest, heavy in the arms and legs. He combined a bristling black brush cut with a bushy beard, tinged with gray. Nestling in the beard was a wide and petulant red-lipped mouth, a nose pink with tiny broken veins. His cheekbones were high and brown and solid, the pale eyes set in Mongol tilt. He wore an obviously ancient, rust-colored corduroy shirt, the collar open, a yellow silk ascot at his throat, faded baggy khaki pants, and the kind of black pseudo-cowboy boots that A.T.C. personnel used to by in Brazil in the early forties. He wore a bulging and ratty musette bag slung over his shoulder, and carried a large painter's portfolio.

These are the two paragons who will lead the unknowing and unprepared thirteen, not that it matters, for almost from the first lesson things begin to fall apart and, one by one, students become disinterested and are happier hooking up with other students, partying all night, or going off to paint they way they want to. The plot of this novel is, basically: the students arrive, they interact, they go home. It is the interactions that lead the reader on to the next page, so the real plot is many different plots happening independently and in concert with one another.

The students are as varied and as intricately drawn as they have been in any other JDM multi-character novel, with many antecedents called to mind by the author’s faithful readership. The interesting ones -- the ones the reader is led to care about -- all have problems going on in their lives and are here more as an escape than to learn art. They are:

John Kemp, 33, divorced after a “very young and childless” marriage and wary of marrying again. He is an architect, the partner in a New Orleans firm that had been somewhat successful.  But his partner’s wife, without any provocation from John, has fallen deeply in love with him and has admitted such to both John and her husband. With no intentions of reciprocating these feelings, John is taking a sabbatical from work in order to determine the future of the firm, which is -- needless to say -- not a very comfortable place to be right now.

Barbara Kilmer, a 25 year old widow, still unable to get over the sudden death of her husband a year earlier. (She’s still wearing her wedding ring.) She is coming in from Akron, where she lives with her parents, to whom she returned after the accident, and they have purchased this trip as a birthday present for Barbara in the hopes that it will help her recover. She is tall, blonde and, after ho-hum first impressions, “exceptionally lovely.” In other words, the MacDonald ideal, and a widow to boot! (One of these days I’m going to count up all of the widows in MacDonald’s work. It’s going to be a long list.)

Parker Barnum, 33, art director at a New York City ad agency, formerly of Larchmont, now living in the city. After a brief fling with a 19 year old television actress, Parker came home to find his wife and two children gone and a note left behind. After discovering his dalliance, Parker’s wife found comfort in the arms of an older and very wealthy man, who plans to marry the wife and raise the kids. And that is what happens, with amazing speed, leaving Parker dazed and, after a time, mentally unwell. He has a breakdown, spends time in a rest home, and is given a six month break from work by management in order to get himself sorted out. As he drives the entire way from New York to Cuernavaca his grip on reality at times seems tenuous.

Elizabeth Babcock, aka Bitsy, 19, of Fort Worth, "leggy and brown and arrogant and derisive of everything in the world," she is driving down with her friend Mary Jane Elmore, who is a year older. “They were the girls from Fort Worth, and from the moment they had learned to talk they had begun to ask for things, and they had gotten everything they had asked for, and it had been paid for out of the almost limitless funds that came from fat herds and deep wells. They were slim and they were beautifully constructed," and have been in and out of several schools, have had multiple physical relationships (Mary Jane has had an abortion) and are attending the workshop under the pretext that it is a University of Mexico summer program (that’s what they tell their parents). They are really here to party.

Monica Kildeering, 29, a schoolteacher from Kansas, unmarried and unattached.

The gods had endowed Miss Monica with one body in ten million... She was five foot seven inches tall and weighed one hundred and twenty-eight pounds. Her measurements were a barely credible 38-24-35. The texture of her body was flawless, creamy, incredibly smooth, without sag or wrinkle or unaesthetic bulge. It was a goddess body, pure as marble from the high proud globe of breast to arched and dainty instep... But having progressed this far toward perfection, the gods, in sudden irony, had given Miss Monica the startling and unmistakable face of a sheep. Slope of brow, wide and fleshy nose, long and convex upper lip, square heavy teeth of the ruminant, brown nervous eyes -- all were a deadly pattern.

And to top things off, "she [is] an intense, explosive, almost hysterical bore." Monica's working life is augmented by summer vacations to various spots, and this summer it is the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop.

Harvey Ardos, 24, pimpled, oily, with "spaniel eyes" behind glasses with thick lenses and black frames, Harvey is a stock clerk in a Philadelphia department store. He's an amatur painter, "of the James Penney school," and he has saved his money for the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop, his "big adventure." Like Monica, he is a non-stop talker and an insufferable bore to most everyone, but not (as we shall see) to Monica. (The James Penney reference was a MacDonald in-joke. Penney taught art at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, where the MacDonalds lived from 1947 to 1948. It is highly probable that Penney and the MacDonalds knew each other.)

Paul Klauss, 34, but can pass for 26, is also from Philadelphia and has the bad luck of flying down on the same flight with Harvey. Klauss is the bad guy of the novel, and MacDonald does everything but call him a homosexual.

A trim-bodied man, five feet eight... elevator shoes... pale eyelashes longer than they needed to be, a look of weakness around the mouth. His life was orderly, exceedingly well organized. He was a bachelor, and owned and operated a small men's clothing store near the University of Pennsylvania. He lived in a small and tasteful apartment ten blocks from the store. He did not drink or smoke. He took splendid care of himself, and purchased many medicines and devices which promised to prolong the appearance of youth indefinitely. He had no close friends. All other potential interests in his life were subordinated to his single, intense, almost psychotic compulsion -- the hunting of women.

This being a comic novel, Klauss hunts women to bed them, not to kill them. He leaves in his wake a trail of emotionally damaged ladies and keeps a very detailed journal of his conquests. His interest in the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop is as a hunting ground for his compulsive sport.

Colonel Thomas C Hildebrandt, US Army, retired, age 72, possessed of a roaring, braying voice and stiff demeanor. Hildebrandt is a painter of landscapes, specifically battlefield landscapes, sans soldiers. "My pictures show why battles were won or lost,” he tells everyone. “When I die, my paintings will be willed to The Point." Quickly tiring of the classroom settings, he is the first to go off and do his own thing.

Gil and Jeanie Wahl, newlyweds, they are young college professors who decided on the Cuernavaca Summer Workshop as a “practical” way to spend their honeymoon. Not that they spend much time painting or attending classes. Their interests are elsewhere, as this snatch of dialogue gives testament.

Once they were in [their] room... and the door to the corridor closed, Gil said, "Gosh, this isn't much of a room."

But Jeanie was holding him tightly around the waist, her mouth an inch below and an inch away from his... "It's a gorgeous room, darling."

"Uh... yeah, it's a fine room, Jeanie."

"Just gorgeous, darling," she whispered.

"Sure, darling," he said and fastened his mouth on hers...

"Darling, darling, darling, darling, darling, darling, darling," whispered Jeanie Wahl, the happiest girl in the world.

(Perhaps MacDonald was poking fun at his own penchant for overusing this particular term of endearment.)

Mrs. Hildabeth McCaffrey and Mrs. Dorothy Winkler (aka Dotsy), both in their mid sixties, both widowed, both of Elmira, Ohio, they are old friends who drive down together

Add to this mix a half dozen or so Mexican staff of the hotel, each with their own unique JDM backstory.

The first six students listed above are the eventual couples the author is most interested in writing about, and all are fairly typical JDM pairings, with the possible exception of the second. The first are John and Barbara, who fly down together unaware that they are both headed to the same place. Their story is the MacDonald ideal: a divorced male and a widowed female, he who prizes love above all else and who falls for Barbara at first sight, and she who is at first completely self-absorbed in her own unending grief -- masked as loyalty to the dead husband -- but who gradually opens up to the wooing from her eventual partner. Their union is unmarred by any premarital sex and even contains a nearly Victorian cooling off period to prove that their love is true. Barbara has a clear antecedent in the character of Virginia Sherrel in Murder in the Wind, another widow-still-grieving who eventually breaks down her barriers for the love of a good man.  Virginia was the weakest character in that earlier book, and Barbara is only slightly more interesting. The reader knows these two will hook up by the end of the novel, but Barbara’s resistance is way overdone.

The third couple, Monica and Harvey, is almost purely comic, until the final third of the book when the author begins to treat these people with more respect. Both are single and have never been married, but both have had prior sexual experiences, he of the “cheap and furtive” kind, she of the shameful, uncontrollable surrender to smoldering physical desires. Once the author gets them attracted to each other they segregate themselves -- for the most part -- from the others who find them insufferable. Harvey, who has little education and has worked in every imaginable entry-level job -- dishwasher, waiter, short-order cook, store clerk, bus driver -- is attracted to Monica’s superior intellect, and she to Harvey’s innate intelligence and lack of guile. Their sexual coupling is saved for late in the novel and is very nicely done for these “two chronically lonely people.” MacDonald writes a wonderfully evocative paragraph as the couple drive home from their “perfect communion” in the mountains, one that could never have worked for any other characters in the novel more self aware than these two.

They moved slowly down toward the bowl of Cuernavaca, the round of her hip and the length of her thigh warm against him. The fringe of rain rebounding from the road was silver in the headlights.He wore golden armor from head to toe, and there was a silken riband in her colors fixed to his lance. Her midnight hair, when braided, would reach from tower window to the edge of the castle moat. On either side the road were strewn the stiffening bodies of dragons bravely slain, and the gentile knight dwelt upon the sweet memories of his perfumed rewards.

The most interesting couple is that of Parker Barnum and Bitsy Babcock, an unlikely pair in a John D MacDonald novel, comic or otherwise. Bitsy is a worldly wise young woman who has slept around and lived the hedonistic life that only big money can afford. MacDonald doesn’t usually have much sympathy for women like these: they have sex outside of love and marriage because they “don’t value themselves”. And that’s partly true of Bitsy, but eventually the author comes to terms with this “shortcoming” and forgives her, something he would be hesitant to do earlier in his writing. The means of her surrender to love is in his construction of the character of Parker, another JDM “type” who would usually not receive much respect from the author. He is a weak man, and Bitsy comes to realize that she is the stronger of the two and that his need for her trumps any desire on her part for an idealized man. As uncomfortable as it may be for most modern readers, her surrender to Parker is a noble act, and her love for him is a response to his need. She has no illusions about the character of her future husband.

She knew in her native wisdom that this was not very much man. He was clever rather than wise, querulous instead of strong. He could never be cured of his self-doubts, his anxieties. He would always fuss at fate, and meet disaster only with indignation. But he would always need her. And there was a sweetness in him, With something that was almost amusement, she saw the exact dimensions of the trap into which she had willingly walked. Gone now the hope of that one-day, some-day man who would be larger than life... This man was on a smaller scale. A boy-man, who would resent deeply the slight loss of love when she had to spread it among their children, because he would have a greedy need of all of it.

They are married almost immediately after sleeping together and return to the Workshop, where they are feted with a ceremonial party attended by all the characters, an event where the relationships of the two other couples are resolved and set in stone. It’s a beautifully done chapter in the best tradition of all romances.

Of all the other students at the Workshop, the one that interests MacDonald the most is Paul Klauss, perhaps because, even in a comic setting MacDonald can not resist the tug of evil. He couldn’t have Klauss killing off his conquests and have written the same kind of novel, so he brings it one step down and has him killing them emotionally. The character, as solitary as a hunter,  is the antithesis of the varying shades of love represented by the three couples. (Four, if one includes the newlyweds.) But after setting him up as a steel-eyed predator with a near conquest of Barbara Kilmer early in the novel, MacDonald treats him so badly that the reader feels almost sorry for him. Here is Klauss appraising his hotel room for the first time:

It did not take Paul long to unpack... He sat on the narrow bed. It was made up with clean gray sheets, a blanket with two holes in it. The narrow window was open, He looked through the patched screening and between the bars and saw a stretch of baked earth between his window and the high stone wall... He turned and looked at the cane chair with a broken seat, the huge bureau that looked as if at one time it had rolled down a rocky mountain. He looked at the single bulb that stuck out of the wall, a big bulb made of clear glass so that he could see the filaments inside. He went over and turned it on by pulling the chain. He could look directly at the light without blinking. He could imagine how dismal the high-ceilinged room would be at night. The center of the narrow bed was a good five inches lower than the corners. And the mattress was stuffed with discarded truck springs and milk bottles. A cockroach strolled out from under the bed, paused and looked at Klauss with insolent appraisal, and went back under the bed. For the first time since childhood Paul Klauss felt like breaking into tears.

When one of the hotel maids, a pretty, young and highly sexed Mexicana named Margarita mentions to her male supervisor that Klauss made advances toward her, only to chase her out once she willingly began removing her dress, (Klauss likes the chase and the conquest, and this would have been too easy, with no destructive aftermath possible.) he devises a wicked scheme to shame Paul (who Margarita calls “Ball”) whereby Margarita will sneak into Klauss’ room before he turns in, lie naked under the sheets, and make love to him whether he wants it or not. Afterword, Margarita is to exclaim loudly, “Geef me ten dollars!” The plan works perfectly, several times, much to the horror of Paul Klauss, who is essentially raped each time. He grows more nervous and disconcerted as the novel progresses, and his ultimate fate is completely over the top, way too harsh for a comic novel and something MacDonald certainly did with his tongue in his cheek.

Klauss’ villainy seems curiously akin to any number of Shakespeare’s comic antagonists -- Don John, Lucio (in Measure for Measure) and Parolles come to mind -- in temperament if not in action, and it seems to me that Please Write for Details can be taken as MacDonald’s modern take on Love’s Labor’s Lost, a work of similar mood and plot. The early play features a “Workshop” (the Navarre Academe), multiple sets of unattached males and females who end up together, a wonderful set piece which serves as the romantic focal point of the work (masques and dances in the play, a wedding celebration in the novel), and even a bombastic military officer (Don Armado). The novel is divided into three “books,” each with its own archaic-sounding introduction complete with arch language and antiquated punctuation. I will concede that there is no villain in Love’s Labor’s Lost, and I’m not claiming this was an inspiration for the novel, only that mood, structure and subject matter are similar enough to make one wonder.

MacDonald was happy with novel and said at the time, “I had a hell of a lot of fun doing the book despite the fact I did the second half three times, all different, and am still not convinced it holds up as well as the first half now.” He would have liked to have had the book get picked up as a book club selection, but conceded that, because of the subject matter, it would be unlikely. He was right, and a hoped for magazine version didn’t happen either, perhaps for the same reason. Published by Simon and Schuster in March of 1959 the novel saw only a single printing of 3,000 copies -- half that of his previous hardcover, The Executioners -- before coming out in paperback in March 1960 as a Fawcett-Crest edition. Given that half of the earnings of the paperback were earned by Simon and Schuster, it is doubtful that MacDonald saw much income from Please Write for Details. Once it was republished by Fawcett in 1966 along with the rest of the author’s early stand alones, it did well and sold over 850,000 copies through 1988, which is fairly consistent with most of MacDonald’s titles.

The artwork for the cover of the Simon and Schuster first edition was done by William Plummer, a journeyman illustrator who mainly did covers for young adult novels (mainly the Kathy Martin series by Josephine James). Done with some striking primary colors it does a fairly nice job of selling the book, and that may even be Gambel Torrigan depicted in the background.

The Crest paperback edition was illustrated by Mitchell Hooks, the artist who did the iconic cover to MacDonald’s A Bullet for Cinderella back in 1955, and who later did The Deceivers. It features an artist’s model wearing only a hat and a towel (and looking very much like a young Stella Stevens) glancing back at the reader while three male art students study her in different perspectives. It’s the cover most familiar to members of my generation and was used, with slight variations, for the first four Fawcett paperback editions.

In 1973 Fawcett commissioned new artwork, this time hiring the great Robert McGuinness, who responded with one of his least representational covers ever: a guy in a business suit holding an artist’s palette and  paintbrush while a tall, slim young lady with a bare midriff clings to him. In the background a nude model reclines on a bed. Just for the record, there are no models in Please Write for Details, and just which characters these people are supposed to be is a mystery. The illustration captures none of the spirit or comedy of the novel, and it lasted for only two editions.

Fawcett came back to McGuinness again in 1976 for a new cover and this time the artist came up with something closer to the story and characters of the novel, but again failed to sell the true tone of the novel. Against the background of a male character McGuinniss gives us an easel, a very Gringo-looking Mexicano, a brunette (Bitsy?) and a woman standing next to a sports car, which must be Gloria Garvey. This artwork was used for three editions.

Finally, in 1981, William Schmidt, the artist who did covers for almost all of the final editions of JDM’s stand alone novels, produced a nice illustration in his trademark “circle” motif. We see an artist’s palette with character faces on top of the various dabs of oil paint. I don’t own a copy of this edition, and trying to locate a decent scan of it on the internet seems impossible, so you’ll have to use your imagination and settle for the one Chris Ogle found for his JDM Covers blog.

Simon and Schuster must have done a terrible job of promoting this book, for its critical reception was nearly invisible. It received no review in the New York Times, usually a dependable place to find mention of MacDonald’s paperback originals, and what little promotion that seems to have been done was built around MacDonald himself (coining him “the least known best selling writer in the U.S.”) while mentioning the book only in passing. The scheme failed, as is evidenced by the single hardcover printing. Both of the author’s hometown papers gave the novel a real review, however, with the Utica Daily Press writing, “... MacDonald paints an intricate landscape… The author’s own art lies in complete mastery of plot and pen. The book is, in turns, humorous, witty, slightly sexy, gentle and, in the end, quite satisfying…”

Lawrence Dame, however, in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, gave the book a fairly scathing review, and from the tone of the piece it almost seems that the reviewer’s complaint is with MacDonald personally. Perhaps the two men knew each other and were fellow Liar’s Club members. For an author who was rarely reviewed seriously, this must have hurt MacDonald to read it.

… hardly satisfying from the artistic, the comical or the aesthetic point-of-view… the violence is mostly that of slapstick,,, this is writing of the slick MacDonald kind, no psychological depth but plenty of surface show, recognizable and expertly handled dialogue, carefully planned though improbable situations, a liberal sprinkling of… sex… in short, most of the elements which, while falling short of literature, make for large sales… Also… a venomous quality of characterization… MacDonald has a flashy talent and much popular appeal, as well as an inherent ability to do better than this… If he had the truly comic ability… he would have a chance of reaching a much greater eminence… than he can with pot-boilers like this… However, it might then be necessary to limit output to one carefully written book a year…

Dame, who would go on to write his own book set in Mexico -- a non-fiction work about Christian missionaries -- seems to have an ax to grind here, going completely overboard in his scorn over a lighthearted book that wasn’t written to preach, instruct or even edify, only to entertain and tell an interesting story, which it does masterfully. If you are a fan of any of MacDonald’s multi-character, multi-point-of-view novels I’m fairly certain you’ll like Please Write for Details. It was meant to be a fun “romp” and, while dated in its morality and its treatment of the native population of Mexico, is well worth reading. Used copies of the various paperback editions are easy to find, and an eBook version is available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Early Reviews

The first book review John D MacDonald ever received was for his third novel, Wine of the Dreamers. Tellingly, the title was a hardcover release and -- even more tellingly -- it was a science fiction story. For while having a novel published in hardcover definitely increased the odds that it would be reviewed in one of the thousands of periodicals published in the mid-Twentieth Century, having as its content speculative fiction almost guaranteed its review, at least in the magazines that specialized in such content. For no other group of fiction readers was as passionate and as comprehensive as the science fiction community of the last century.

Unlike most other pulp or digest magazines, many science fiction periodicals contained regular non-fiction features that were standard fare in the slicks: editorials, a letter column, and a book review section. Wine of the Dreamers was reviewed in no less than four sf magazines, as was JDM’s second such effort, Ballroom of the Skies. The fact that these two books were both hardcovers (MacDonald’s first and second hardcover novels) also got them reviews in several major newspapers and magazines, such as the New York Times and Herald-Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle and Saturday Review. (I’m speaking here of reviews contemporaneous with the initial publication, not ones for later editions.) MacDonald wouldn’t get a review of a non-science fiction novel until Dead Low Tide, his eighth book.

I thought it would be fun to look at the reviews of these two novels, to see what critics thought of the author back in the beginning, and to adduce MacDonald’s standing in the science fiction community of the time. The reviews are generally favorable it is is clear that JDM was thought of as “one of them,” a member of the sf culture, and one in good standing. I’ve also included two reviews of his third and last science fiction effort, The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything, even though it appeared long after MacDonald had left the (extra terrestrial) building.

In 1964 MacDonald wrote “I don't believe I’ve ever received a considered, thoughtful review of anything I’ve written. I’ve had a few compliments, like being called a master story-teller, but considered reviews -- never.” These reviews (with the exception of Judith Merril’s piece on the third book) don’t belie that judgement, but they appeared with assessments of works by authors such as Ray Bradbury, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein and were no less respectful or serious than the considerations given these science fiction luminaries.

Galaxy: December 1951, reviewed by Groff Conklin

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald. Greenberg: Publisher, New York, 1951.
219 pages, $2.75

A GOOD example of the "we're property" type of science fiction which assumes that an extraterrestrial, extrahuman race is able to make us do more or less what it wants.

In this well-written novel, many of the accidents, crimes of violence, and unexplained tragedies of the world, and in particular the failure of every attempt at launching a spaceship, are due to the machinations of a group of individuals numbering fewer than a thousand, called the
Watchers.

These Watchers, who inhabit a planet several star systems away, are able to enter the bodies of Earthians at will and make these bodies do anything they choose to. This is accomplished by super-hypnotism machines. The irony of the situation revolves around the fact that the Watchers are sublimely convinced that we are mere dreams created for their pleasure, and have no actual reality.

The story is woven around the final discovery by the Watchers that we are "real," and by us that
most of our Earth’s miseries are caused by these utterly remote aliens, who turn out to be descendants from our own ancestors of at least tens of thousands of years ago.

That the plot and the concepts are not simon-pure originals, both being reminiscent, of Eric Frank Russell's famous "we're property" novels, is unimportant. The skill and the imagination
with which the tale is developed are genuinely satisfying.


Amazing Stories: January 1952, reviewed by Sam Merwin

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald, Greenberg: Publisher, New York ($2.75).

The finest science-fiction effort to date by one of the country's ablest all-around young writers, this is a fascinating story in which a pair of far-distant worlds (and two others) become inextricably interinvolved.

The Dreamers are at the dead-end of a former interstellar civilization, live in a single building which they have come to consider the entire cosmos and pass their adult lives for the most part lying on comfortable pallets and, with the aid of devices left them by their more energetic forebears, living strange visions of life on three highly-varied planets they consider entirely imaginary.

One of the three is Earth in the very near future and, since the Dreamers can actually possess whomever they choose to and have them do the most dreadful things, their existence is far from the harmless idyll they hold it to be. Ultimately it is discovered the Dreamers, unaware of the harm they do, are actually responsible for much of the insanity, crime and suicide that plague our world today.

Happily, among them is a born rebel, named Raul, who is born with a nasty, suspicious turn of mind and decides there is more to the universe than the Dreamers have any idea of. His sister, Leesa, is rebellious, but in a different way. She doesn't want her love-life in dreams and doesn't care who gets hurt as long as her frustrations stay with her.

Between the two of them and some of their elders they manage to make a fine hash of things for Bard Lane, in charge of construction for what should be Man's first successful space ship, and Sharan Inly, the comely psychiatrist who loves him. Ultimately the Dreamers even manage to sabotage the ship and get Bard locked up in a quilted booby-hatch.

From then on it's every man for himself, with the reader coming out well ahead, thanks to the clarity of Mr. MacDonald's concept and the crisp, continued excitement induced by his fine writing. One of the better jobs of the year.



Astounding Science Fiction: April 1952, reviewed by P Schuyler Miller

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg: Publisher, New York. 1951. 219 pp. $2.75

Here is another science-fiction novel which, like several of the publisher's previous books of science fiction and fantasy, has not previously been serialized -- and it's good.

Here on Earth a group of scientists headed by Bard Lane and watched over by beautiful psychiatrist Sharon Inly are trying to build the first ship powered by an interstellar drive. Obstacle after obstacle is put in their way, and it begins to appear that they are somehow "possessed" by hostile hypnosis when the reader learns that the possessing minds are those of a dwindling race of Watchers, stars away across the Galaxy, who believe that the minds they invade telepathically are those of dream creatures of their own invention, and who take childishly -- or senilely -- cruel delight in smashing these dream-creations when they wake.

How Bard and Sharon learn the truth, and how two of the Dreamers, atavistic Raul Kinson and his sister Leesa, uncover the history of their own bleak planet and their three "dream" worlds and fight against the law of their kind to bring reality out of dreams, is the story, It is well and smoothly told, with likable characters a bit beyond the cardboard stage.

Science Fiction Adventures: November 1952, reviewed by Damon Knight

WINE OF THE DREAMERS, by John D. MacDonald. Greenberg, 219 pages, $2.75

Psychiatry returns full circle to the devil theory in this tightly-knit science-adventure novel, first published in Startling Stories two years ago. Pointing to the incessant newspaper reports of persons afflicted with sudden homicidal insanity (see the first three pages of your local tabloid), MacDonald suggests a fantastic but almost water-tight explanation: Degenerate descendants of the extra-solar race which colonized this planet 10,000 years ago, using hypnotic thought-projectors originally designed for benevolent surveillance, invade our minds, force us to cruel or absurd acts for their own pleasure.

Also, obeying a law whose purpose is long forgotten, they sabotage our every attempt to achieve space-travel. This is the peg on which MacDonald hangs a plot which is routine but workmanlike, and occasional passages of mood-writing or social comment that are a little more.

Like all stories that postulate an extra-solar origin for humanity, this one neglects such thorny acts as homo sap's resemblance to Neanderthal, Piltdown Man, the anthropoid apes and other vertebrates not likely to have been carried along on a colonist's vessel. This is the only major flaw in the argument, (though a minor one,- the number of the "Watchers" - 800 - is inadequate to account for all the damage they are supposed to do), and the careful, substantial detail-work is more than good enough to offset it.

MacDonald, a writer with an unusual combination of traits -  industry and talent - has been selling heavily to the slick magazines and other highpay markets of late; this novel is probably one of the last science-fiction stories we'll see from him for some time.

Galaxy: June 1953, reviewed by Groff Conklin

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

It looks as if it has been decided that the next war will eliminate most if not all of the U.S.A., Russia and Europe.

As noted below, Sprague de Camp [in The Continent Makers] makes Brazil the center of his new era. [H. Beam] Piper, in his novelette in [the anthology] The Petrified Planet ["Uller Uprising"](above), believes that South America, Africa and Australia will be the scenes of future greatness. In John MacDonald's new one, India is the "new colossus," the rich and arrogant "U.S.A. of tomorrow," with the original U.S.A. nothing but a rundown tourist trap.

Pessimism or prophecy? Who knows?

Ballroom is an exciting and effective alien invasion novel, a bit reminiscent of Eric Russell's Sinister Barrier. The problem: why is Earth always warring? Why do the "good people" never take control? The answer, when it comes, is both silly and defeatist; but in the process of getting there, MacDonald unreels an enthralling tale, full of parapsychological gadgetry and wonderful supermen from another galaxy in our midst, etc.

Worthwhile, despite the unsatisfactory ending.

Astounding Science Fiction: October 1953, reviewed by Groff Conlkin

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

Again, we're owned. Again, a superman is found to use his un-understood dark talents for humanity. But this time it's a little better done than it has been of late.

By 1967 the United States has been reduced to second-rate status by World War III. Dake Lorin is idealistically trying to work for an international balance which will save his Country from total submersion, and the world from another war. The man who is his ideal seems to betray everything for which they have been working. He tries to reveal the sellout -- finds himself referred to a crime-baron -- is involved with a beautiful girl of remarkable mental powers -- and finds himself a student in a strange school among the stars.

Since the secret of this school of worlds, the importance of certain Earthmen to galactic civilization, and the philosophy behind the plot and counterplot on Earth are the theme of the book, they cannot be revealed here. Enough to say that the motives involved are at least as controversial as the ending of [Jack] Williamson's Humanoids. Maybe there'll be discussion over them.

Startling Stories: January 1954, reviewed by Damon Knight

BALLROOM OF THE SKIES, by John D MacDonald. Greenberg, New York. 1952. 206 pp. $2.75

It is our sad, but civic, duty to report that Ballroom of the Skies is a potboiler which impressed us as being unworthy of the talented typewriter which turned out Wine of the Dreamers and "Shadow on the Sand." Mr. MacDonald seems to have caught a slight case of obfuscation, circa van Vogt and attempted the same stunt of having his story gallop off in all directions.

The result is confusion, as it always is. Moreover, the attempt to create menace and an eerie "other world" atmosphere by style alone is forced and unconvincing.

We are resisting manfully the temptation to say something nice about the book merely because we have, under normal circumstances, so high an opinion of Mr. MacDonald's capabilities. It is our conviction that this is a book which should never have been written or published. It is pretentious and empty.

The theme is the now familiar "we are owned by superior beings" who live among us and guide our destinies and fight over us with other inimical superior beings -- all unknown to us. The hero is a crusading newspaper man, the girl is an alien disguised as a chippy for the purpose of -- who knows?

Buy it if you must. If you're a MacDonald fan you might even like it!

Analog: September 1963, reviewed by P Schuyler Miller

The Girl, The Gold Watch & Everything by John D MacDonald. Gold Medal Books, N.Y. No. S-1259. 1962. 207 pp. 35¢.

This yarn starts like one of the author's highly professional mystery-action books, with the "ninny" hero -- the term is his own, and frequently justified -- stumbling along amid the ministrations of assorted people who are convinced that he has inherited the secret of his late uncle's success. Then he finds that he does indeed have that secret, and how to use it, and the action takes on a touch of Thorne Smith.

The secret is a kind of time-machine disguised as a gold watch. Rather, it is a device like Wells' "new accelerator," that plunges its holder into a red-lit limbo in which he can live an hour's time while the unaffected world passes fractions of a second. He likewise acquires the Girl, an uninhibited hillbilly nightclub singer named Bonny Lee Beaumont who meets him in bed and thereafter proves useful in other ways, not the least that of livening the action by her antics after borrowing the watch on a Miami beach.

There are other girls in passing: a sort of westernized Dragon Lady who leads the opposition and is at one point likened to a pack of Gabors, her TV-actress niece, and an underrated office drudge who has a couple of opportunities to be rated before the skulduggery is over.

The author's smooth hand with a word makes it all quite plausible and a lot of fun.

The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: November 1965, reviewed by Judith Merril

See my previous posting: Judith Merril on JDM.