Underground Reading: Please Write for Details by John D. MacDonald
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Please Write for Details was first published as a hardback (unusual for early John D. MacDonald) in 1959. The paperback edition, a Fawcett Gold Medal, hit the shelves in 1960.
Despite his prolific output, Please Write for Details is one of MacDonald's rare excursions into comedy, for this normally somber author. Based in Mexico, the book tells the trials and titillations of a group of American at the "Cuernavaca Summer Workshop".
The 'art' workshop, the brainchild of a particularly mousy expatriate and his bemused millionaire benefactress, is a mess from the start. The aging hotel location is a shambling ruin, staffed by petty thieves and amateur prostitutes. The two instructors - a painter of mall-art watercolor kitsch and a bombastic failed professor - are polar opposites, each completely worthless in their own distinctive way. And none of the dozen students - all American and silly - are actually there to learn a thing about art.
Some of the best - and the funniest - characters are those that are least seen. A pair of nauseating newlyweds never fails to elicit giggles at their sappy romantic antics (including a truly horrific tendency to feed one another at the dinner table). Similarly, the cannon-voiced old Colonel is hilarious from start to finish - he's on a mission to paint TERRAIN, and has painted hundreds of famous battle-fields, all 'uncluttered' by soldiers and other such nuisances.
Most of the humor, predictably, comes from romantic shenanigans. The book is a cross between "Noises Off" and "Carry On, Mexico". It is worth noting, however, that JDM very carefuly keeps the shenanigans romantic and not sexual. In fact, by the conclusion of Please Write for Details, the reader has absorbed a lengthy morality play, with many a judgement passed on those who (cough, blush) commit acts of carnal sin.
MacDonald renders his verdicts in the way he pairs up the characters.
Barbara and John are the highest tier. Barbara is a recent widow (from love-true-love) and is down in Mexico to snap out of her soul-crushing langour. John is an architect. His business partner's wife just fell in love with him. This love was unexpected and unencouraged, and as John is a true defender of LOVE (in the abstract ideal), he has skipped town to Mexico as his own particular form of martyrdom. These two meet and fall in love - on a mental and spiritual plane. They agree to meet in the undefined future, so that they can marry. They are both excruciatingly 'good' people, and, once they come down from their crosses, are set for a long and idyllic future together.
The next step down is Parker and Bitsy. Parker is a jaded advertising executive. He cheated on his wife, had a breakdown and is in Mexico recovering. Bitsy is a 'long-stemmed Texas beauty', born with a silver spoon in her mouth and a black AMEX in the pocket of her tight-fitting jeans. Both are flawed - Parker screwed around and Bitsy has had several lovers (HARLOT!). However, over the course of the book, they gain a certain sense of self-awareness. Parker realizes that he's done wrong, and Bitsy learns that her role in life isn't to 'have fun', but to take care of her man. They shag, but they get married immediately afterwards, so that's ok. JDM rewards their self-awareness, and, most importantly, their repentance.
The third tier is Monica and Harvey. These two are also flawed, but lack self-awareness. Monica is built like a Page 3 girl, with the 'face of a sheep' and a personality best described as 'painful'. She's also had several lovers (HARLOT!). Harvey has volcanic skin and diarrhetic speech. Although well-meaning, he speaks in lengthy, autobiographical monologues, which bores the pants off of everyone that doesn't have the face of a sheep. He's also screwed around, but that's because of his shameful low-class background. Both are flawed - physically, intellectually and morally - and cursed with a total lack of self-awareness. They are condemned to live with one another - probably very happy in the long run, but we, the reader, still get to snicker at them behind their backs.
Below this tier are the unhappy couples. Paul is a sociopath, who keeps journals of his sexual conquests and would gleefully prey on young widows. (This is only acceptable behaviour if you're also love-martyred). In a weird twist of events, he's repeatedly raped (the author's word) by the buxom hotel maid, who is then taught by the conniving kitchen staff to 'ask for ten dollars' every morning. It is a strange, slapstick combination. Paul - used against his will and eventually reduced by events into an infantile, semi-comatose state (not kidding) - gets what he deserves. The maid is one of nature's innocents (HARLOT!), but isn't condemned for it. In her 'natural ignorance', her zest for shagging goes largely unpunished.
As bizarre and contrived as all these pairings are, they give Please Write for Details enough of a solid core, and layered plot, to keep it from degenerating into farce. MacDonald may have sat down to write an erotic comedy, but the end result was much more telling.
Although generally very funny - and, as noted above, surprisingly complicated - there are two troubling flaws with the book. The first is the depiction of the entire non-white population of Mexico, the second is the treatment of Gloria.
Racially, this book is a disaster. The Mexican cast is represented by the 'innocent savage' prostitute/maid, a conniving and larcenous servant, an alcoholic gardener, a thoroughly stupid driver, an unhygienic cook and a disgusting kitchen boy/petty thief who is redeemed when he learns about the noble job of 'serving rolls at the dining table'. At best, the Mexicans are portrayed as corrupt and primitive savages, at worst, they're seen as intolerable leeches - an unfortunate side effect of having to live in Mexico. Throughout the book, they are degraded, subjected to physical abuse and mercilessly mocked.
The second problem is the treatment of Gloria Garvey. A wealthy divorcee (thrice over), she's tall, young, messy, alcoholic and still very attractive. She's also one of the book's most interesting characters. She's a wild driver (something she picked up from an Italian racer), a financial genius and prone to flights of fancy (such as founding the Summer Workshop in the first place). She's generous with her time, but stingy with her money. She lives frugally, but well, and seems to be the only person at the start of the book who is really enjoying herself. She stands up to men, and is in the enviable position of getting to choose her partners (and discard them). HARLOT HARLOT HARLOT.
For no understandable reason, she is condemned to the worst fate in the book. In the climax of the book, the author pairs Gloria with a belligerent, vicious ex-boxer, who beats the hell out of her, ruins her life, lives off of her money and alienates all of her friends. Gloria is reduced to a slouching, broken, meekly-manner, bruised, hollow-eyed shadow of her vivacious former self. She is thoroughly and viciously slappenfuked, but there was nothing wrong with her.
Setting aside these two sour notes, Please Write for Details is an enjoyable romp. John D. MacDonald can do wonders with an ensemble cast, and Please Write for Details is no exception.