Monday, October 20, 2014

"The Annex"

In 1966, after having written and published 53 books, all but one of them works of fiction, John D MacDonald decided to take up a different kind of challenge. Intrigued by a suggestion from newspaper reporter John Pete Schmidt, MacDonald decided to try his hand at non-fiction, something he had dabbled in a year earlier with his cat biography The House Guests. A Sarasota physician by the name of Carl Coppolino had been accused by an ex-lover of murdering both her husband and Coppolino’s wife by lethal injection, using an untraceable drug. Coppolino was indicted in both New Jersey (where he supposedly murdered the husband) and in Florida, and the New Jersey trial was to take place first. With a juicy story like this and an A-list celebrity lawyer defending (none other than F Lee Bailey), the Coppolino case was the OJ Trial of its day, breathlessly covered in all the nation’s newspapers and in the newsweeklies.

MacDonald was attracted to the idea of writing a serious non-fiction crime book, and with one of the murders happening right in his own back yard, it seemed natural that it should be him, not some other author or reporter who should write the definitive story of Carl Coppolino. Thus began an intense 17-month period in the life of the author, one that had him travelling back and forth from New Jersey to cover bail hearings, jury selections and the trial itself, and then back to Florida (Venice, where the trial was moved to) to cover the second trial. During this time he wrote little fiction and he was later quoted as saying that this period cost him three McGee books that could have been written but were not. The book that was written was called No Deadly Drug and it was 600-pages long, published in hardcover, and covered the Coppolino story up to the end of the first trial, where the defendant was found not guilty. The book sold poorly and is little remembered today, if it is remembered at all.

But MacDonald did take a day off here and there during his research and coverage of the case to write fiction. One of the short stories he finished was something he called “The Annex,” and he went out of his way at the time to state that writing it was a kind of therapy to relieve him of the stress of writing No Deadly Drug. It appeared in the May 1968 issue of Playboy (No Deadly Drug was published in June of that year) and was MacDonald’s second appearance in this premier men’s magazine. Highly regarded by the author and many of his readers and editors, it is the story of what goes on inside the mind of a dying man. It is typically listed among the author’s science fiction works and has been included in at least three such anthologies. The author himself told an interviewer that it was one of his favorite short stories, and he used it to make the assertion that there were two or three of his short stories that he liked better than any of his novels.

The 5,500-word story is framed by two short sections that take place in a hospital. A young nurse is caught chatting up a handsome intern when she should have been watching a comatose coronary patient whose IV has become dislodged from his arm. “After chewing her out with a cold expertise that welled tears into the blue eyes” of the young nurse, her superior tells her young charge, “An hour before dawn they get restless… as if they had someplace to go, some appointment to keep.”

A paragraph break with three asterisks lets us know we are changing scenes, and the reader enters into a strange, dreamlike world of a deserted city and a man with an appointment to keep. Referred to only as Mr. Davis, the protagonist wakes from a strange bed in “the first gray light of the morning,” and heads to his unrevealed rendezvous.

There were shadows still remaining in the empty streets, so that even though he knew his way and walked swiftly, the city seemed strange to him. They were changing it so quickly these past few years. The eye becomes accustomed to the shape and bulk of structures giving them only a marginal attention: yet when, so abruptly, they were gone, one had the feeling of having made a wrong turn somewhere. Then even the unchanged things began to look half strange.

He arrives at a downtown hotel, a place of onetime grandeur but now reduced to shabbiness. He ponders the fact that his “shabby assignment in an unknown room” could not have taken place in any other kind of locale. Yet he has been here before. The only other person in the hotel lobby is a desk clerk, who walks “toward him out of the lobby shadows,” and who Davis recognizes as someone who used to be a bellhop at this very locale. But the man does not seem to remember Davis. The manager asks for “that thing,” the curious identification that Davis has been given by some unknown others, a “gold miniature of his own dog tag”.

Davis is told the party he is supposed to meet with is in Room 4242, and when he asks for the key he is told that the room is not in the hotel proper, but in “the annex,” which is in the process of being torn down.

“Listen, [said Leo,] they got old foops in there living there since the year one, and lease agreements and all that stuff, so about the only thing they can do is work around them until they get sick of all the noise and mess and get out. There aren’t many left now. I think maybe your party is the only one left on that floor, but I don’t keep close track.”

When Davis asks for the key, he is told there is only one master key, and it is in the possession of one “Mrs. Dorn.” He is to head down some stairs and follow a red pipe until he reaches another set of stairs, which lead up to the annex. While walking there he notices that the red pipe is made of plastic material and he sees it expanding and contracting. Then the pipe disappears into a wall and he has arrived.

These were unexpectedly wide and elegant stairs, marble streaked with gray and green, ascending into a gentle curve. At the top of the stairs he pushed a dark door open and found himself in an enormous lobby. It had the silence of a museum. Dropcloths covered the shapes of furniture. Plaster dust was gritty on the floor. Some huge beams had fallen and were propped at an angle, as in pictures of bombings.

He meets Mrs Dorn, a woman with a “soft and pretty face,” and one who he feels he has known before. She’s walking around marking things with a piece of yellow chalk, writing something like a “D” with a slash through it. As she takes him up to his floor she explains how there are two types of residents in city hotels, the transients and the residents, and the residents all live on the upper floors. They walk for what seems like miles, through oddly lit corridors, past rooms where all the room numbers have been removed from the doors, and past an elderly couple coming out of a room. The man’s voice reminds Davis of his fourteen year old son’s. Eventually they arrive at Room 4242 and Mrs. Dorn unlocks the door. Davis begins to do what he was sent to do…

“The Annex” is a story filled to the brim with dream imagery and symbolism; nearly every paragraph has some sort of universal image of the unconscious. This should come as no surprise to longtime readers of John D MacDonald. Many of his novels contain passages where the protagonist tries to unravel the mystery of some dream, which is described in great, long detail in the text. In The Deceivers, for example, the two main characters discuss a dream one of them had, and the symbolism is obvious to the reader, even if it isn’t to the characters. MacDonald himself was a vivid dreamer and at various times in his life he kept a dream journal at his bedside. (These journals are included among his papers at the University of Florida, but were personal enough to have been kept with his financial and medical records and were sealed until twenty-five years after his death.)

The trouble with MacDonald’s dream references, at least for this reader, is that they are boring, uninteresting and typically stop his narrative dead in its tracks. I usually find myself skimming over these passages so I can quickly jump back into the story. “The Annex” is, basically, one long dream sequence, and the ending framing section is filled with lots of “ah ha!” moments where we learn what it all meant. And while repeated readings of the story provide greater insight into all of the various symbols and related settings, dramatically the piece comes off as obvious. Still, MacDonald’s prose is at the top of its game here, and it really sings in places.

As noted, “The Annex” was anthologized several times after it first appeared in Playboy. It first reappeared in Best SF: 1968: The Year’s Best Science Fiction, edited by Harry Harrison and Brian Aldiss (1969). That same year is was included in Playboy’s Stories of the Sinister and Strange. It was the final story in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology, Other Times, Other Worlds, edited by Martin H. Greenberg and was the lead tale in what was perhaps the most obscure MacDonald anthology ever, The Annex and Other Stories. This collection was something MacDonald helped to prepare in the months preceding his death, a signed, limited edition with a run of only 350 copies containing his four favorite short stories: “The Annex,” “The Bear Trap,” “End of the Tiger,” and “Hangover”. It was published in Helsinki and was printed on special Michelangelo paper made at the Magnani Paper Mills in Pescia, Italy. I believe it was put together to help raise funds for some environmental cause, but I can’t swear to that and can't locate any information about it in my files. The book was printed and signed, but apparently never “released,” and a copy or two usually show up for auction on the internet for very high prices.

The most notable inclusion of “The Annex” in an anthology was, of course, as the seventh and final story in MacDonald’s 1971 collection S*E*V*E*N. A combination of new and previously published stories (all in Playboy), S*E*V*E*N is one of my favorite JDM guilty pleasures, one that I’ve gone back to more times than I can remember, and -- I have to say it -- I usually don’t bother with “The Annex”.

The anthology appeared without warning as a paperback original, without an introduction of any kind, and went through a relatively small number of printings before being permanently consigned to the used book stores of the world. MacDonald’s original title for the collection was The Random Noise of Love, after the first story in book, and he wrote that had wanted to combine “a bunch of related stories into a novelistic structure without it being one of those things where the seams and joints show, and without it sounding as if I had hauled folk in from far left field to join the party.” He claimed that it took “all available concentration to keep everything constantly sorted out in [his] mind,” and that he had gone “underground” while putting it together. I’ve often tried to discern the connecting theme of the anthology, with little success, other than the obvious fact that they all reflect various aspects of love and friendship, and all seem to be seen from the viewpoint of an unreliable narrator. “The Annex” just doesn’t seem to fit in with any of these themes and, for me, it’s just not very compelling reading. I certainly wouldn’t go as far as the author did and include it among his finest works.

I’ve now written about all of the stories in S*E*V*E*N. They are:

Despite what I wrote in my posting titled “Three Years Later” a few pieces back, S*E*V*E*N is now available as an eBook from Amazon and Barnes & Noble (as is The Executioners, leaving only Other Times, Other Worlds as the one JDM original not digitized). Used copies of the paperback are, of course, available, and there’s even a hardcover version of S*E*V*E*N available on Amazon, published in 1986 by one Amereon Ltd, a British concern, I’m guessing. If “The Annex” is all you are interested in, used copies of the original issue of Playboy are usually easy to find for a relatively low price.

Monday, October 13, 2014

A Man of Affairs

John D MacDonald was the only son of a corporate executive, a successful and driven man who endured a difficult childhood of near-poverty, only to emerge, through the force of his hard work and sheer determination, as the vice president and treasurer of The Savage Arms Company. Aloof and emotionally withdrawn, his relationship with his son was troubled and, at times, confrontational. But Eugene MacDonald fully expected his child to follow in his footsteps into the business world.

The son had other ideas. Awakened to the magic of the written word after a year long illness rendered him bedridden, John had more of an artistic temperament than that of an ambitious businessman. And although he dutifully followed his father’s wishes, he did it halfheartedly and performed poorly. His years at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business were marked by average grades and he dropped out in his sophomore year. He eventually finished up his undergraduate degree at the less demanding Syracuse University, graduating in 1938 with a degree in business administration. He went on to obtain an MBA at no less than the Harvard Business School, and immediately entered the business world, where he was, he later admitted, an abject failure. After being fired from numerous entry level positions, MacDonald eventually accepted a commission in the US Army as a procurement officer. It was at this job -- inspecting and purchasing military matériel at various factories in upstate New York -- where he received his most direct business education in the workings of the production line. He performed this duty for three years before being shipped out to the South Pacific during the war.

So when he returned and abandoned business altogether in order to become a writer, it was only natural that he would draw on a lot of his prior life for his fiction. In the early years of his short story career he penned a tale for Bluebook Magazine titled “The Pastel Production Line,” which featured as its hero a industrial engineer whose job it was to observe and suggest production line efficiencies (I know… sounds exciting, doesn’t it?) Once he began writing novels MacDonald gradually began peppering them with characters in various positions of authority and responsibility in the hierarchies of corporate, industrial America. Fletcher Wyant, the protagonist of his 1953 hardcover Cancel All Our Vows, is the treasurer of the Forman Furnace Corporation, an upstate family-owned factory, and the book features much background on how the business works, its problems and its own tribal customs, and focuses especially on the tensions caused by an overly ambitious and ruthless underling that Wyant had hand picked and brought into the company. Area of Suspicion (1954) tells the story of Gevan Dean, the ex-president of another family industry, this time an armament factory (which the author obviously knew a lot about), and his return after a five year absence to resolve a corporate power struggle. Yet another family business, the Stockton Knitting Company, is the centerpiece of Contrary Pleasure, written that same year. The novel delves into many aspects of this particular kind of industry -- textiles -- which was an especially prominent one in Utica, New York (probably a model for the fictional towns in all of these novels). One of MacDonald’s trademark multi-character multi-perspective novels, two of the main characters in Contrary Pleasure include the president and the vice president of the corporation.

But Cancel All Our Vows is really a novel about infidelity and its consequences, and the focus in Contrary Pleasure is more on the family that owns the business than it is on the business itself. And while Area of Suspicion should probably be labeled as MacDonald’s first “business” novel, the plot itself is a wild affair that careens madly from a modern day succubus disrupting the executive suite to a ring of commie rats bent on stealing industrial secrets. A Man of Affairs, a novel which appeared at the end of a very productive 1957, is another in that line of likeminded novels, and it begins as a more focused and serious work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end that way and falls apart as badly as any JDM novel before or since.

Published in December 1957, a few weeks after his The Empty Trap, A Man of Affairs was MacDonald’s twenty-third novel, his twenty-fourth book, his nineteenth paperback original and his eighth Dell First Edition. It was the fourth novel MacDonald had published that year, and the fifth he had written (The Executioners was already written and had been featured in a magazine in October and November, but the hardcover wouldn’t be issued until the following year). Popular Library had just published The Empty Trap as almost an afterthought, a single edition with a very low run of 72,000 copies, and although A Man of Affairs also had only a single edition, their run of 217,000 was much more in line with the normal JDM novels of the era.

A Man of Affairs is also the first novel in a kind of trilogy of business novels, all written around the same time, featuring protagonists in various positions in the corporate and executive suites of industrial America (A Man of Affairs (1957), The Deceivers (1958) and Clemmie (1958)). All contain detailed passages concerning the inner workings of big business and, especially, the toll it takes on the bright young men climbing the ladder to success. That toll is barely perceptible in A Man of Affairs, but it is an undercurrent that the reader can perceive, even if the protagonist can not.

Once again we are in a relatively small town that is probably a disguised Utica, and once again we are dealing with a family owned business. The town is Portston (pop. 70,000) and the business is The Harrison Corporation, an industrial manufacturer of who-knows-what and the main employer in the area. Founded in 1858 by Aaron Harrison, the company’s management and ownership has passed down to each succeeding generation. The current generation of Harrisons are the two children of that last president of the company, and when he died he left his then-vice president in charge. The children, Louise McGann Dodge and her brother Tommy McGann, each have large ownership stakes in the publicly traded company but otherwise have no involvement in its operations.

The book’s protagonist is one Sam Glidden, and his background in the company is fairly unique. When a high school football injury ended his promise of a college scholarship, Sam, who came from decidedly working class beginnings, found himself unable to afford the tuition. He applied for work at Harrison, a company he had worked for before, planning to save for a year in order to get into college. He is hired and then summoned to the office of the president, Thomas McGann, who offers to pay for Sam’s four years of college if Sam will agree to come work for Harrison when he graduates. Sam agrees and it turns out to be a debt that shackles a bright and promising young turk to an old, mismanaged and dying industry. And after Thomas Harrison’s death, when Sam is promoted to vice president under the hesitant, conservative new president Al Dolson, it is made clear that Sam is the driving force behind whatever advantages the Harrison Corporation has in the industrial world.

Sam’s efforts to bring the company in line and into a more competitive position has required the suspension of dividends, which in turn has knocked the wind out of the company’s stock price, down to a little over a third of its price when Sam took over. And with a book value far in excess of market value, the vultures begin to circle: the corporate raiders who smell a bargain, whose only goal in obtaining a controlling number of voting shares is to liquidate the assets of the business -- after, of course, quietly unloading huge portions of their own positions before the general public gets wind of what is happening and the prices tank. The particular shark circling Harrison is one Mike Dean, and he has been quietly buying up chunks of Harrison but is still far short of owning a controlling interest. But with Louise and Tommy’s shares he would have 70% of the votes  and be home free. He has already approached the siblings, through his assistant Fletcher Bowman, and has arranged to have them and their spouses fly down to Dean’s private estate on his private island in the Bahamas in order to discuss getting proxies for their votes.

As the novel opens, Sam, who has just heard about this proposal, is on his way to see Louise at her home in order to try and dissuade her from agreeing to the trip. We learn that working class Sam had a huge crush on rich girl Louise when the two of them were in high school, but Sam only pined away from afar, far too insecure in his social position to attempt to court the wealthy and popular McGann girl. Telling this to Louise when he speaks with her in her home, he learns that Louise had similar feelings for Sam and never acted on them. This sets up a sexual tension that drives a lot of the early chapters of the book, as Louise is married, to a lout named Warren, a typical MacDonald antagonist whose characteristics have been seen frequently in earlier fictional characters such as Del Bennicke in The Damned, Johnny Flagan in Murder in the Wind, John Lash in “The Killer,” and Lew Wolta in “The Big Blue”. Loud, arrogant, confrontational, powerfully built and (usually) alcoholic, this character type was expertly drawn by MacDonald and one has to wonder if there was a real life antecedent. Warren makes the reader cringe nearly every time he opens his mouth.

Sam tries to get Louise to call off the trip, but she refuses, and he manages to get her to compromise by arranging to have her get Sam invited along. She agrees and the five of them (including Tommy’s wife Puss) all fly down to the island on Mike Dean’s private plane.

The novel is told in first person singular, and this affords the reader with much opportunity to listen to Sam’s soul searching and to witness him try and get to the root of what he is really trying to do. Granted, he does not want to lose his job, but he is a talented young executive with no family or even a significant other to tie him down, and he has been courted by industry headhunters and has turned down numerous more lucrative offers of employment. His duty -- and he sees it as “duty” -- is to the promise he made to Thomas McGann, to work in the company and to keep it as a healthy and thriving force in a small community. Indeed, it is his sense of civic duty that seems the more important impetus to his actions, and he thinks about it often. In his early meeting with Louise he tries to explain it to her:

Maybe I’m simple, but to me a company like this is more than something you make money with. It supports directly or indirectly a couple of thousand families and a way of life that doesn’t seem too bad to me. If Dean should wreck the firm, he also wrecks the town.

But Sam’s intentions are not entirely altruistic, and this is what makes A Man of Affairs such an interesting novel in its early chapters. Later on, thinking about the state of the company, Sam lays much of the blame for the sorry state of affairs on those very people he claimed to support and protect earlier with Louise.

It could not be called [a] case of the noble working man versus the idle and decadent rich. Certainly damn little nobility in the working man at Harrison in the past few years. Not the way work standards were set. I am no bloated capitalist exploiter, but some of the situations in our shop sickened me. The way standards were set, on some operations, a man could perform in two hours what we had to pay for on the basis of an eight-hour day. They were running bridge tournaments in the employee lounges. They saw all the afternoon ball games on television. And they were getting a wise-guy boot out of using union strength to screw management. It was a cynicism and a “me first” approach to life which was… destructive… The low productivity per employee was crippling us. A new union contract was coming up in November. I knew they were going to yelp for more money. I was going to go along with the demand for more money provided the union would play fair on work standards.

Once the group arrives on Mike Dean’s little island, the choices get more interesting and MacDonald, ever the moralist, presents Sam with several ethical choices. But first the lay of the land needs to be mapped out for the reader, for there are far more people guesting at Chez Dean than the McGann couples. It’s a dizzying array of JDM “types,” and each seems familiar to the regular reader of MacDonald’s works. There’s the tough but sophisticated attorney who works for Dean, Cam Duncan. There’s Dean’s assistant, Bowman, who we’ve already met. And a girl Friday, Amparo Blakely, a statuesque Latin who is nearing 40 and who seems to Glidden like an Aztec queen. And there are other guests there, people who have nothing to do with the Harrison deal, but who all have their own little connections to Dean, all in need of him in some way or another. An aging Broadway comedienne named Bunny Carson is there trying to get Dean to back her in a new show, and she spends most of her time here maudlen and drunk. A middle-aged public relations man named Guy Brainerd is here, along with his younger, female assistant Bridget Hallowell, and they are putting together a magazine piece on Dean, which will appear in Blend Magazine. Blend’s editor Elda Garry is here as well, both because of the upcoming article and because she is having an affair with Brainerd. There’s a Texas oil tycoon and his third wife, who came down in their yacht with his tramp of a daughter from an earlier marriage. The yacht is skippered by a wonderfully scummy thug who has eyes on the kid. There’s a real estate man who works for  Dean in a Florida land deal, and he has a colorful wife of his own who speaks in an affected Alabama drawl. Not to mention Dean’s staff of cooks, servants and maintenance crew. “All the ingredients for a lot of trouble…”

It’s all very confusing at first and it requires a great deal of concentration to remember who is who and who is screwing whom. It also rings some very familiar bells, mainly in its similarity to an earlier MacDonald novel All These Condemned, which took place in the secluded vacation home of a powerful and manipulative figure, like Mike Dean, and whose cast included showbiz people, businessmen and other various hangers on. But A Man of Affairs is about Sam and his mission to save Harrison,  and these other people -- especially the guests -- are little more than window dressing. One gets the sense that the author would have liked to expand on these characters more so than he does, but if he had it would have been an entirely different (and longer) novel.

Mike Dean himself is presented in wonderful MacDonald fashion, like one of the Caesars when Sam sees him for the first time.

I knew what he would look like. A big head with heavy features of the spuriously noble design that makes you think of togas and Cicero. A shock of prematurely white hair, unkempt in the contrived way of a second-rate poet. [But] I was not prepared for Mike in the flesh. He had a deep tan and he wore a straw coolie hat and an ankle-length sarong, professionally knotted at the waist and thoroughly rump-sprung. He was shorter than he had looked in his pictures… There were hard shifting slabs of muscle in his back and shoulders and chest, and the sarong was knotted around a slightly protruding belly that looked hard as a rock. His eyes were a very pale gray-blue, and his chest hair was heavy and white. He had something of a Hawaiian look about him. He radiated  intense energy, and a conspicuous charm. It was almost impossible to imagine him in any group he would not dominate merely on the basis of an animal magnetism. I sensed that this was a man who would commit himself one hundred and ten percent to anything he decided to do. I sensed that it would be a sorry situation to be standing in his way.

Dean and company don’t seem too interested in immediately broaching the subject to the McGann siblings, so we get to witness a day or two of partying, MacDonald style. Copious amounts of alcohol, dancing, naughty little pranks played on unsuspecting guests (the first involving pinching the behind of the magazine editor), fishing and snorkeling during the day, and beautifully prepared meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Their first evening there Sam and Louise get some alone time to talk, and Louise begins crying. Sam knows her problem is her husband Warren but she doesn’t explain her unhappiness. When Sam helps her up from the dock they are sitting on, they stumble and he kisses her. She says noting and walks back into the house.

This begins another of Sam’s dilemmas. Early the first day he sat with a slightly inebriated Bridget Hallowell poolside and she, in several pages of exposition, gave Sam the names and backgrounds on all of the guests in the house. Her description is telling, at least to the readers familiar with MacDonald’s other works. While Louise Dodge is lovely, dark, “not tall,” with a “fragile and fine” bone structure, Bridget Hallowell is blonde, “round-faced,” “leggedy…” “toffee-tanned” with pale gray eyes. And while the high school crush that Sam and Louise had is slowly reemerging, there’s an abrupt sexual encounter between Sam and Bridget early on, unintentional until it was too late, that complicate things. In MacDonald’s moral world Sam has sunk to the level of the natives.

But it is when Sam is presented with the choice of fighting Dean or going along with his plan and joining his group that the real temptation occurs. His meeting with Dean happens right after a strange scene that is supposed to represent the depths of depravity and Sam is left with a feeling that “this little business vacation was jinxed.” He’s has too much to drink and isn’t quite prepared when Mike and Cam begin their pitch. They want the Harrison Corporation, but they also want Sam Glidden, and will make it very lucrative if Sam agrees. In five or six beautifully written pages MacDonald’s prose comes alive as the three men discuss the deal, the moral and business implications and Sam’s duty to a dead man. There’s even a pointed reference to Faust. Sam is obviously not prepared and begins rethinking his stance, and after he is given time to make a decision, he struggles with his own inner demons.

Basically, what the hell did I owe anybody? By bucking Dean I was asking for five years of gruelling, tense work, and the chance of success was smaller than it had seemed. Maybe getting away had given me some perspective… Louise was depressed and discontented. With the right urging, she’s sell out. Did I owe her anything? Or Tommy? Or Warren? Or Tom McGann, dead over two and a half years? Hadn’t I fulfilled the promise I made him? … Was I supposed to sink with the ship, standing at attention, saluting the McGann banner? … And how about my duty to all those people who depend on the Harrison Corporation? Those poor desperate people who so delight in drawing eight hours’ pay for two hours work… It’s a jungly world. A corporate entity is like a living creature. If it gets sick and wobbly, the other creatures bring it down and gorge on the fat.

And Sam makes his decision. By this time it has been established that Louise and Tommy will do whatever Sam recommends. He makes that recommendation to Louise in the form of a lie, a lie that “had a sick and sour taste,” and he even likens himself at this point to Judas.

And it would be one thing if Sam had to live with the consequences of his decision, but… well, he doesn’t. At this point the drinking and isolation brings out pulp writer in MacDonald, and the novel becomes more and more outlandish and less and less about moral decision making. There’s a fight that, while not completely out of left field, seems artificially inserted in order to spice up the action. Then the wheels really fall off and we are in a completely different novel, with barracuda attacks, sudden fatal heart attacks and a midnight escape that… well, let’s just say that there was a reason MacDonald set the story on a remote island.

I recall the first time I read A Man of Affairs back in the seventies. When I got to this point in the book I honestly thought that some pages had been ripped out of my used copy of the paperback. The effect of the author’s abrupt change in style was confusing and disorienting. Subsequent readings of the book have softened this feeling, but really, MacDonald missed a great opportunity with A Man of Affairs, an opportunity to explore the consequences of responsibilities in his own little unique moral universe. Instead, we end up, in the final quarter of the book, in Doc Savage territory.

(That being said, the coda of the novel is surprisingly well done, if not unexpected. It is a setting lifted directly from the MacDonald family’s own biography and their first stay in Mexico, right down to the city, the gardener and maid, and the glorious view from the walled garden.)

Coming as it did at the tail end of a glut of JDM product in 1957, A Man of Affairs was virtually ignored and slipped into the great unknown of out of print MacDonald until Fawcett reprinted it in 1965. Despite a large printing run, the novel was not reviewed at all -- JDM bibliographer Walter Shine was unable to locate any review of the book -- and it slipped into obscurity. It probably wasn’t helped by its initial cover, an illustration by Victor Kalin featuring the back of Sam Glidden taking up the majority of the space, looking at three sunbathing beauties in the lower left hand corner. Hardly the arresting stuff of his cover for The Price of Murder. It was the third of four Dell covers Kalin would do for JDM, Death Trap his first and Soft Touch his last. The most curious thing about the cover is not the artwork, but the blurb some editor added above the title, one that would be reused on into the Fawcett era of reprints: “A book with a hero.”

I’m not sure what that was supposed to mean; how many books by MacDonald didn’t have a hero? My first copy of the book was the first Fawcett printing, and I simply assumed that they wanted to draw attention to the similarities between Sam Glidden and Travis McGee. Physically, they are described almost identically. But there was no Travis McGee in 1957. I’ve come to the conclusion that the original line was added to try and soft pedal the business aspects of the plot, lest any reader who was twenty pages into the book fret that there wasn’t going to be any action.

Robert McGinnis did the artwork for the first three Fawcett editions, all variations of the same illustration. This time Sam is facing front and is dressed in swimming trunks with a towel hanging over his bare shoulder, drink in hand. He is surrounded by no less that six young lovelies, all in bikinis and all deeply tanned. The idea, I guess, was to leave no doubt as to the kind of “affairs” that were inside the covers. Oh, and the third version of the McGinnis version finally dispensed with the “hero” blurb.

In 1981 Fawcett, as they did with all the MacDonald covers, switched gears and changes artists. The first William Schmidt cover for A Man of Affairs dispenses with Sam altogether and illustrates a typically enigmatic Schmidt cover featuring a floating diving mask, with a small island in the background. Like all Schmidt covers, it means nothing until you read the book. It was Schmidt again who did the final paperback illustration  in 1986 for the final two editions of the book. Here we view his then-typical circle-view illustration, an empty boat churning up a huge wake as it speeds past a small island. This one, I have to admit, stumps me.

As I wrote at the beginning of this piece, A Man of Affairs was the first in a trilogy of novels featuring corporate executives that the author penned in this brief period of his writing career. His next published novel, The Executioners, was something he had actually written before both The Empty Trap and A Man of Affairs, but didn’t publish until after that second novel. I’ll write about why this happened in my piece on The Executioners.

A Man of Affairs is available as an eBook from Amazon and other online sellers. Used paperback copies can be had for reasonable prices.

Monday, October 6, 2014

"Blue Water Fury" ("The Big Blue")

In April 1981 John D MacDonald sat for an interview with fellow writer Dick Lupoff. Done for radio, it was a fascinating conversation that touched on many aspects of MacDonald’s early short story career, writing for the pulps and his relationships with several of the editors of those periodicals. Early on in the interview, Lupoff explains that he had done some research into MacDonald’s biography in “the standard reference works,” and MacDonald replied: “You may find a lot of contradiction, because I lie a lot.”

I remember that when I first read his response I was taken aback. Lie? What does John D MacDonald have to lie about? This is a guy who spends eight hours a day sitting in front of a typewriter. Married to the same woman for decades. The only lies I could imagine were ones used to spice up an otherwise dull biography. Years later when Hugh Merrill’s MacDonald biography The Red Hot Typewriter was published there appeared another admission of occasional mendacity, quoted in a letter JDM wrote to a friend about his upcoming bio written by Ed Hirshberg:

“Should you read Ed Hirshberg’s tome, you will find some obvious discrepancies here and there. That is because he is such a nice, gullible, trusting chap, I just can’t keep from lying to him. I know it is a bad habit, but I keep wondering how far I can go before he realizes it’s a put-on. This is a strange basis for a bio.”

It didn’t take long in the Lupoff interview for MacDonald to prove true to his word. Only a few questions later, when talking about “house names” -- that fairly static list of JDM pseudonyms employed by pulp magazine editors when more than one MacDonald story appeared in a single issue -- he let rip an assertion that was not questioned by Lupoff and has been taken as gospel by a few of his later chroniclers.

“I had one magazine -- I don’t know which -- I’ve still got it around somewhere -- where I wrote every story in it, so that I used about five of those [house] names in addition to my own.”

Well… I’m sure most readers or listeners bought that line when it was uttered, but not me. (I didn’t read a transcript of the interview until 1987 when it was included in the first edition of Mystery Scene Reader.) By then I was well steeped in the bibliography of John D MacDonald and knew about nearly all of his published work, thanks mainly to Walter and Jean Shine’s indispensable A Bibliography of the Published Works of John D. MacDonald. I knew, for example, multiple inclusions of JDM’s stories occurred only in pulp magazines, never in a mainstream or “slick” magazine. I knew that there were eighteen issues of various pulp magazines which contained two stories by MacDonald, and seven which included three. And I knew about the one time when a pulp contained four John D MacDonald short stories. It was undoubtedly this issue MacDonald was referring to in his conversation with Lupoff, and it has long been a sought after collector’s item among JDM fans. It wasn’t a mystery pulp, or even a science fiction pulp, but one of that rarest-of-all-and-hardest-to find collectables, a sports pulp. And if MacDonald had remembered the name of the magazine he would have given the game away.

The July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories does, indeed, contain fifteen stories, but only eleven were works of fiction. The remainder were cheats: running columns, quizzes and other “departments and features.” The four MacDonald pieces and their listed authors were:

“The Glory Punch” by John D. MacDonald (Boxing)
“Bye, Bye Backfield” by John Wade Farrell (Football)
“The Thunder Road” by Peter Reed (Auto Racing)
“Blue Water Fury” by Scott O’Hara (Deep Sea Sport Fishing)

This would only be a bibliographer’s attempt to count a gang of angels dancing on the head of a pin if it was not for the fact that one of these stories was of enduring quality and was one of the author’s proudest short story achievements. “Blue Water Fury,” a title the magazine’s editor came up with after discarding the author’s “Freedom by Violence,” is a 5,000 word story ostensibly about a particular day of fishing but really concerns itself with the weightier themes of domination, determination and freedom.

Told in the first person by a somewhat passive observer, “Blue Water Fury” takes place in Acapulco and the nearby Gulf of Mexico off of the Yucatan peninsula. Referred to only by his last name, Thompson is an American who has been living in Mexico for some time, and he is an expert deep sea fisherman. Planning an outing for the next day he approaches one of his favorite charter boat captains, Pedro Martinez, skipper of the Orizaba, only to be joined by a rival pair who arrive at the same time. Agreeing that the three of them can charter the boat together, they make the arrangements and head across the street to share a beer together. Thompson immediately begins to regret his decision.

The pair are an odd couple, and in another day and in the hands of a different author these two men might have had some homosexual undertones going, but not here, at least not in any overt sense. Lew Wolta, the alpha male, is initially described by MacDonald in terms that are both familiar and predictive for readers who know his work.

“Wolta was a tall, hard, heavy-shouldered man in his late thirties with a huge voice, white teeth gleaming in a constant grin, and washed-out eyes that never smiled at all. He kept up a running chatter, most of which seemed designed to inflict hurt on the younger, frailer Jimmy Gerran, a quiet lad with a humble manner… Over the beer, Wolta said, ‘Yeah, I ran into Jimmy up in Taxco and it was pretty obvious that he needed somebody to get him out of his daze. Hell, I’ve never been in this gook country before, but I’ve got a nose for fun. Leave Jimmy alone and he’d spend all his time walking around the streets.” At that he had slapped Gerran roughly on the shoulder. ‘Tomorrow we hook a sail, boy, and it’ll make a man out of you.’”

When Thompson arrives at the dock the next morning he finds Wolta and Gerran already there, and it is obvious from Pedro’s manner that Wolta has been treating him rudely. In Spanish Pedro tells Thompson that Wolta has been speaking to him “as if I were his gardener.” Wolta is instantly suspicious of the conversation he cannot understand and asks what was said. Thompson replies, “He said that he thinks we’ll have a good day.” Once at sea the experienced Thompson sets the fishing ground rules: two men have lines out seated in the two fishing chairs. Once one man hooks a fish the other must quickly reel in his line. Once the man who hooked the prey either catches or loses his fish, he is replaced by the third fisherman.

Throughout the day Wolta is disdainful of Thompson’s expertise and rulemaking, reacting sarcastically to nearly every utterance out of the narrator’s mouth. And even though neither Woltz or Gerran have ever been deep sea fishing before, Wolta acts like a know-it-all and continually refers to Thompson as “the expert.” Jimmy Gerran seems genuinely interested in the mechanics at hand and asks Thompson to explain everything in detail. After a lengthy explanation of how to use the rod and what to do when there’s a strike, Jimmy asks Thompson how he will know if the fish has been hooked. Woltz roars with laughter and replies, “ He’ll rise up and talk to you, boy. He’ll come up and tell you all about it.”

Wolta and Jimmy are the first two in the chairs, and Jimmy is the first to hit a strike. After a bit of a struggle the catch breaks the line and escapes, resulting in the following exchange:

“Absolutely beautiful!” Jimmy said softly.

Wolta gave a hoarse laugh. “Absolutely butterfingered, pal. You had him and you lost him.”

“I’ve never seen anything like that,” Jimmy said.

“I’d have liked to see him boated,” wolta said. “What the hell good is it to look at a fish?”

Next to land a strike is Thompson, another sailfish slightly smaller than the one Jimmy lost. With little effort Thompson reels it to boatside, where the crew of three (Pedro and two crewmembers) club the fish and bring it aboard. Jimmy looks at it wide-eyed and says “That was wonderful.” Wolta responds, “The experts are always wonderful… Do I have your permission to fish?”

When Wolta makes his own strike, the landing of it is “a comedy of errors,” but eventually, with some unsolicited help from Thompson, he reels in a ninety pound sailfish. After Pedro and crew club and bring the fish onboard, Wolta does a curious thing: he grabs a club from one of the sailors and hits it again.

“It was an understandable thing to do. But the way he did it, the way the club smashed against the hard flesh, revealed something savage and soul-naked about the man… He kicked the dead fish. I didn’t like that and neither did Pedro. A sail is an honorable opponent, a brave fish, a gentleman of the sea. Even dead he isn’t to be kicked.”

It’s Jimmy’s turn again and as he seats himself Wolta calls out from inside where he is getting a beer, “Both the men have got a fish, kid. Now let’s see if you can lose another one.” Jimmy smiles weakly. After a long time without results, Wolta gets impatient and wants to fish again. He begins browbeating Jimmy into setting a time limit, and after repeated haranguing Jimmy agrees.

“The older man had him buffaloed. I knew the signs. I liked Gerran. So all I could do was to think that it was just too bad… While I was wondering how Gerran got himself tied up with Wolta, Pedro hissed and said, in Spanish, ‘There is a monstrous fish to starboard, señor.’”

It’s a monster, indeed, not a ninety pound sailfish, but “five hundred pounds of blue marlin.” Jimmy hooks it with four perfectly timed strikes, and then the battle begins. It’s a long, exhausting affair that tries the limits of the seemingly placid Jimmy Gerran, with an impatient Wolta interjecting cutting remarks while at the same time imploring his companion to give up and let Wolta take over the battle. When it is all over one of these three men is a different person.

Told directly and with not a wasted word or sentence, MacDonald wrote this tale of honor and independence with the style and economy that would become his trademark for the rest of his career. Wolta, especially, is a “type” that MacDonald developed and used repeatedly throughout his career. Perhaps it is because I am currently rereading it for an upcoming posting, but he reminds me especially of Warren Dodge, a character in his 1957 novel A Man of Affairs. There are plenty of others, most notably John Lash in the similarly told story “The Killer.”

MacDonald loved this story and never forgot it. He freely admitted that most of his early work had been lost to memory, and that when he studied most of the possible inclusions for his latter-day pulp anthologies The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff, he had no idea how most of the stories would end. But in 1966 he remembered “Blue Water Fury” well enough to include it in his first short story anthology, End of the Tiger and Other Stories. Mainly a collection of the best of his mainstream slick magazine short stories, it is the only pulp story included in that book.

And although finding any critical mention or discussion of any of MacDonald’s 400 published short stories is almost as impossible as finding an old copy of the July 1949 issue of Fifteen Sports Stories, “The Big Blue,” as it was retitled by MacDonald for End of the Tiger, was actually one of the only shorter works ever discussed outside of the late, lamented and sorely missed JDM Bibliophile. Ed Hirshberg, in his 1985 biography of the author gives the story a few sentences while discussing the author’s growth as a writer. Unfortunately he fumbles the ball embarrassingly, making comparisons to Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea, and decrying a “rather inappropriate ending.” I won’t reveal more, only to say that if you decide to read “The Big Blue,” go read Hirshberg’s paragraph on the piece, if only to see how facile and supercilious it is. And if you’ve ever read The Old Man and the Sea you might actually laugh out loud. As for that “inappropriate ending,” I’ll admit that it’s a bit abrupt in the flow of the narrative, but after a second reading it seems like the perfect coda.

“The Big Blue” even got a mention in that Dick Lupoff interview I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, a rare accomplishment for any of John D MacDonald’s short stories.

Lupoff: Would you care to mention your [favorite short stories]?

MacDonald: Well, I like “The Annex” and I like “The Bear Trap” …

Lupoff: “The Big Blue” -- the fishing story?

MacDonald: I like that one, yes. That was sort of based… You know how little things happen. Budd Schulberg was telling me about going fishing with his father in Acapulco and having another person aboard ship that so enjoyed clubbing the fish that he wouldn’t let the guide do it. He wanted to do it himself. It’s a kind of the germ of it.”

And that’s how (some) great fiction is born.

The story, now forever known as “The Big Blue,” is available in ebook form through Amazon and (probably) other online outlets as one of the stories in End of the Tiger and Other Stories. And used copies of the original paperback are always floating around.