It’s been a pleasant enough couple of days — I’ve done some reading and errand-running and chatting with the Spawn. How about a review?
The other day, I noticed that the front tires of Mrs. M’s car were doing a fine impersonation of racing slicks, so I spent a sizable portion of this morning with the WalMartians, waiting around while they put new shoes on her ride. In particular, I sat in the waiting room by the auto center, with an elderly lady, a young woman in her senior year of high school… and a television.
The TV was connected to a disc player with the Chuck Jones version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The show wasn’t actually playing — it was just the menu screen, but it was pleasant enough chatting with the other customers or occasionally reading a few pages of the book I brought along.
But apparently, that sort of thing Must Not Stand. Although it seemed quite evident to me that the three of us were pleasantly passing the time without the intervention of the Flat-screen Cyclops, one of the WalMartians came in, restarted the video, and left again. (To heighten the absurdity a bit, she started not the cartoon experience to which we’re accustomed, but the cartoon’s commentary track, with the late, great June Foray nattering on about the show’s production as the film progressed.) So we had three adults (more or less), who were as comfortable as one might expect under the circumstances, but it appears the denizens of WalMart couldn’t allow us to risk interacting like civilized folk. We continued to chat as best we could, but the degree of difficulty had risen a bit.
Eventually, the high schooler and the elderly lady’s cars were ready, leaving me alone in the waiting room. Grinch had finished, and the DVD flipped to a menu screen for the Rankin/Bass Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, with accompanying musical overture. Once again, I was alone and had brought a book, so I got up, found a volume button on the TV, and cut it to zero. I had made it through about two chapters when a different WalMartian came in, started the program, readjusted the volume. . . and left.
Again, I was alone in this room, contentedly reading some Donald Westlake while I waited for tires. But I guess that isn’t allowed. Heaven forbid that I sit quietly in this alcove without the dulcet tones of Burl Ives telling me about Herbie the dissatisfied elf. In neither case were any of us (or in the latter case, any of me) asked if we wanted to watch the show. It was just The Way Things Have To Be. Fish gotta swim; birds gotta fly; WalMartians gotta run DVDs in the Auto Center. Fortunately, after a few more minutes the car was ready and I was taking the car back to Mrs. M’s school.
But just before my name was called, a young man in his early 20s ambled in, plopped down across the room from me, and immediately riveted his eyes to the elves’ production number where they sing of their devotion to Santa. So maybe I’m the oddball.
Speaking of reading, last night I read John D. MacDonald’s The Girl, the Gold Watch, & Everything. The experience was a little discomfiting. The book was published in 1962, and it really shows. It appears to have been written as a somewhat ribald, screwball romp, but times have changed to the point that the book now… well, let me explain.
The premise is pretty straightforward. Kirby Winter, a nebbishy young man, inherits a watch from his millionaire uncle. A lot of folks believe that he has also either inherited Uncle Otto’s millions or somehow skimmed them from the estate. So Kirby is now being pursued by a variety of vultures, from cops to con artists (including a femme fatale) who want the money or the means of acquiring same.
Along the way, our hero discovers Uncle Otto’s secret: He had invented a device that could stop (or at the very least, greatly reduce) the passage of time around the device’s user, who remains able to act freely (with certain obstacles involving inertia and such). The device is triggered by the watch. Complications ensue, but eventually our hero outwits the bad guys and gets a happy ending. Nice enough.
However… one of the plots of the book revolves around our hero’s evolution from nebbish to man of action, and the catalyst for this evolution takes the form of a 19-year-old sharecropper’s daughter and jazz singer named Bonnie Lee Beaumont, who… well, I’ll leave it to Wiki:
Kirby’s luck turns when he sleeps in the bed of a friend of a friend who is away for the weekend. In the middle of the night, a naked young woman gets into the bed and makes love to him in the dark, mistaking him for the bed’s usual occupant. Caught in the middle of sleep, all of Kirby’s sexual hang-ups disappear and he performs quite well. Discovering her mistake, the woman – named Bonnie Lee Beaumont – is at first furious but within minutes the two of them fall deeply and enduringly in love with each other and consummate their new-found love for the rest of the night.
As one does. As the plot develops, Bonnie uses the watch for practical jokes (disrobing beach bunnies, putting sand-kicking bullies in embarrassing positions, and such), while Kirby uses it to get out of danger and give the bad guys what-for, while learning that this remarkable power requires moral fiber and remarkable restraint. But in many ways, Bonnie is both sexpot and an ancestress of the type that would later be known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — “You’re mad, and you’re wild, and you’ve helped me gain confidence in my manhood.” As one does.
Also along the way, we encounter Uncle Otto’s assistant, a Marian-the-Librarian type who sees every man as a potential rapist to be treated with frigidity, but at the same time secretly (and later, not so secretly) wants to be a sexpot.
Meanwhile, after some close calls, Kirby gains the upper hand on the con artists I mentioned earlier. Now these folks are Very Bad News, and have no problem with things like torture and killing to get what they want, although the femme fatale prefers seduction and emotional castration as her means to her ends. So at first, Kirby considers using his time stopping ability to kill the FF and her partner/brother/possible partner in incest. But again, he decides that taking this power and using it to determine life and death might lead him down a slippery slope.
Instead, he shows mercy by placing the brother in a setting that makes him look like he’s simultaneously coming on to a lot of “glossy and competent and somewhat virulent” (177) women who we’re told will thrash him, and he strips the femme fatale naked and puts her in the midst of a truckload of sailors on leave, which the third-person narrator assures us will result in gang rape: “If he had gauged their reactions properly, the very first response would be the firm clasp of a bronzed, hairy hand, right over her startled mouth” (177).
And as it turns out, nothing rehabilitates a femme fatale quite so well as a good old fashioned gang rape, so there’s that. The book essentially concludes with the FF deciding to abandon her life of ill-gotten luxury for a home in Key West, plooking sailors. When her brother looks at her, he sees “a horrid benignity there, a calmness, a certain smugness — as though all searches were ended, all fires quenched” (206). She is humming “Anchors Aweigh” as she packs her bags, while Kirby and Bonnie are jetting to Paris for a life of gambling and practical jokes, both involving the watch.
Lighthearted fun, huh? Well, apparently so in 1962 — Wiki tells us the book has seen more than two dozen US printings and been translated into half a dozen languages. And indeed, the book inspired at least two movies (including the original one that piqued my interest many years ago when I saw a little of it.) We’re told the book was advertised as a mix of Thorne Smith and Mickey Spillane, and I can see how they got that. But this is no longer 1962, or even 1980 when the movie was made, and what was once probably a whimsical sort of caper now leaves me with something of a bad taste in my mouth — and it isn’t like I’m a prude or anything.
In point of fact, a number of folks in recent years have complained about the sexual politics in JDM’s work, including the Travis McGee series that I dearly love. But I think it may work better in the sunsplashed darkness of McGee’s world than it does in the comic setting of this one. Or maybe McGee is just a better character, a better voice. I don’t know. And of course, as is always the case with JDM’s work, the novel is a well constructed page turner. But reading it in 2018 didn’t give me the experience I expected when I first identified the book fifteen or twenty years ago. Caveat lector.
As I was looking around Twitter this afternoon, I learned that Boston’s Newbury College will be shutting down at the conclusion of the spring semester. As I noted on Twitter, that is not Mondoville — we’re many miles away from there, and getting along decently, though not luxuriously. Still, it feels a little too close for comfort somehow, and the news reminds me how fragile a college can be, in an age that doesn’t bode well for fragile things.
Per my tradition, I’ll wrap things with some music. One of the nicer things about my time (hopefully not finished) in the area’s music scene has been the chance to meet a lot of nice people in other bands with whom the Berries have shared bills. A band we’ve worked with a lot (just do a search) is Columbia’s husband/wife cat-rock duo, Turbo Gatto. They did a couple of vids not long ago, and I’m glad to be able to show you what I’ve been talking about all this time. This is “Paw Power.”
See you soon!