Underground Reading: Mad Baxter and Big Red's Daughter
Thursday, March 15, 2012
Two vintage romantic adventures from Fawcett Gold Medal: Big Red's Daughter and Mad Baxter. Will the strapping manly-men triumph over adversity and win the girl? [Spoiler] Yes [/Spoiler]
John McPartland's Big Red's Daughter (1953) is a sterling example of the 1950's quest for masculine identity. Jim Work is back from Korea. He has no family, no job, no demands or loyalties - merely a bit of money in his pocket and pleasant memories of the California coastline. He heads to Carmel to check out the university, vaguely thinking that this could be the next step towards his future.
A car accident (Jim's battered Ford vs a glamourous MG) introduces Jim to the locals. A stunning young woman steps out of the car, followed by her vicious boyfriend. A few blows are exchanged and Jim's first impressions prove correct: this is the woman of his dreams... and she's dating a jackass. Jim, within a bare few pages, has the focus he's been missing. He doesn't know how he's going to woo Wild Kearny, but he knows that he must try.
Jim's outclassed from the very beginning. Buddy isn't just great in a fist-fight, he's got money, charm and a certain brutish appeal. Wild isn't the only one taken with him, all the local ladies are in his thrall. And, even if Buddy weren't in the picture, Wild is out of Jim's league. She's beautiful, rich and connected. She's not just a part of local society, her father is "Big Red" Kearny, a legendary gambler and underworld figure. (Despite the title and cover strapline, Big Red actually has very little to do with the book.)
Still, Jim plows on. His quest for Wild's attention puts him through one adventure after the other. Some are straight out of a romantic comedy (Wild asks Jim to pose as her fiancé) others from a gloomy noir (Jim's mistaken for an international drug smuggler). The sole connection between all of these increasingly ridiculous scenarios? Jim being someone he isn't. He's not Wild's boyfriend, he's not a smuggler; he's not a gambler or a murder or a fugitive. Jim doesn't know what he is, but Big Red's Daughter sends him through a prolonged process of elimination until he finds out.
Of course, the reader knows from the beginning: Jim's the picture of decency and determination, a man who served his country and is now trying to find his place in it. He defines himself as someone who loves Wild Kearny, and, irrational or not, Jim sticks to it.
Although the story is from Jim's point of view, both Jim and Wild come across as strong characters. Wild is flawed, but never depraved - like Jim, she's a basically decent person, struggling to be herself in the wake of everyone else's desires. Jim's sincere enthusiasm doesn't make it easy for her, but Wild manages to hold herself apart (without even seeming icy) until she can decide for herself. Although the era is littered with fulsome love interests, Wild Kearny is one of the most naturally appealing, combining all the (beautiful, rich) symptoms of the archetype with a genuine character beneath. Although Big Red's Daughter sprawls itself across every possible romantic genre - from comedy to thriller to noir - it keeps focused on what matters: the relationship between Jim and Wild. The plot is dated, as all vintage romances are, but their connection keeps the story fresh.
Wade Miller failed to impress me with Branded Woman, and fares little better in Mad Baxter (1955). Although thematically similar to Big Red's Daughter, Mad Baxter embraces all that Big Red's Daughter declines. It focuses on action rather than contemplation and objectification rather than characterisation.
The titular character is the antithesis of Big Red's Daughter's Jim. Mad is also a veteran (this time of WWII), but rather than retire from violent business has kept with it. He's a mining contractor, sent to strange places all over the world to trick or abuse the local labor into producing for his clients. Although he declares himself (with clear hypocrisy) to be a "peaceful man", Mad invariably resorts to his fists. He's a wild one - fond of young women, strong drink and the occasional punch-up. Jim Work is introduced to the reader in his second-hand Ford, carefully driving the streets of Carmel and getting run into by Buddy Brown. In contrast, Mad Baxter is introduced in a Jeep filled with blasting powder, plowing recklessly up the Sicilian countryside, with Mad singing lewd songs and smoking cigars.
Mad's in Sicilily to re-open an old Roman silver mine and explore it for lead. His bosses have been clever. The mine is on the territory of the Demonti clan, but the labor is contracted through the Piombos. The two families hate one another. The small town that they share is the home to a long-running blood feud: a vendetta.
When Mad pulls in, the town seems home to a happier event. There's a wedding going on, and the strangers are overjoyed to see him (if slightly perplexed). Mad wants to get to work so drives on with no excuses. Later, he learns that he's committed not one, but two horrible mistakes. His first mistake was from ten years ago. While stationed in Italy, Mad had a one-night stand with a beautiful Italian girl. Being the man he is, he told her he loved her and would marry her. Oops. The second mistake (you can see it coming, can't you?), was to think she wouldn't remember. Mad manages to re-introduce himself to Sicily by driving past his own wedding.
Hijinks ensue. The Demonti family (Mad has managed to leave Grazia Demonti at the altar) are out for blood. The Piombi family are delighted to join in, further muddying the waters with their enthusiasm for rampant destruction. To give Mad credit, he tries to defuse the situation, but, unsurprisingly, offering to buy the Demonti a compensatory mule doesn't quite save the day.
The hijinks also continue, with seemingly endless twists and turns. Mad and Grazia encounter one repeatedly (generally with one or the other in chains) and discover there's a little somethin' still smouldering away. The two bloodthirsty families manage to foul things up repeatedly with their antics, as does a love-struck Piombi girl who has her cap set for Mad. Mad Baxter is a slapstick comedy in paperback form.
Mad eventually has a revelatory moment. He's tired of being a carefree agent of chaos and capitalism: he wants to be a family man. Grazia is the woman for him, and he's willing to take her as a wife. Plus, [actual spoiler] she's had his kid from that night a decade before, so Mad can buy into a pre-packaged nuclear family without having to change a single diaper [/spoiler]. Grazia is less willing. She's been humiliated repeatedly by Mad Baxter and lost most of her life in the vain hope that he wasn't an asshole. Mad's up for it - but Grazia isn't. How to resolve this impasse?
Obviously, our old friend slappenfuk. Mad and Grazia have a tussle in the woods, culminating in a solid thumping and a right good rogerin'. She's won over - there's nothing a recalcitant woman needs like a beating. Now they both know who is boss, and with order established, they can be a family. Hooray!
Yet, surprisingly, the slappenfuk might not even be the worst part of Mad Baxter. The portrayal of Sicilians is something akin to Tintin in the Congo, with Mad Baxter worshipped as a god by wacky, naive savages. He constantly lies and swindles the foolish natives, trading shiny dollars for lead mining, mocking their quaint customs and schtupping local virgins. It is repulsive to the point of exhausting, Mad as representative of the worst sort of Marshall Plan exceptionalist jingoism.
And, beyond the sexism and nationalism, Mad's a pretty poor example of masculinity. Jim Work is an everyman who battles temptation and classification to be true to himself. His reward is a marriage of equals (relatively speaking )and the respect of his peers. The vision of the masculine American dream in Mad Baxter is reprehensible in comparison. Mad's life is a prolonged adolescence that comes to an abrupt halt when he chooses to accept responsibility. His reward is that said responsibility arrives in its most convenient and adoring form. Mad never suffers or develops as a character - he has adventures and chooses his own victory conditions. As a representative of what men should be, he's both daunting and uninspiring - a teenager's vision of how adulthood works.