Thursday, July 31, 2008

Friday's Forgotten Books: Contrary Pleasure by John D. MacDonald

Aside from the Travis McGee series, The Executioners (Cape Fear), and A Flash of Green, many of the John D. MacDonald books are difficult to find. That’s a shame because MacDonald is a great storyteller and his distinctive style is nothing short of exceptional.

I found a copy of Contrary Pleasure (1954) at a secondhand store. Oddly, a saucy blonde who has nothing to do with the story graces the cover.

The plot revolves around Ben Delevan, reluctant patriarch of the Delevan family and president of the Stockton Knitting Company. At 50 years of age, he laments that he has spent the majority of his life within the “worn and ugly walls” of the manufacturing company, inherited upon his father’s death. He sees a way out when a proposal for a merger comes his way, but guilt rises when he considers the impact on his relatives who have come to depend on the family-run business.

Contrary Pleasure is a soap opera similar to Dallas. Substitute Delevan for Ewings and knitting for oil and we’d have the screenplay for the oft-mentioned Dallas movie. The difference is, in MacDonald’s hands, the story is powerful and the writing poetic.

In typical MacDonald fashion, his flawed main character philosophically wonders about:

“...a civilization where this delicately engineered river of asphalt had become too cramped, too slow, too dangerous. Then it would become secondary and the bright plastic would fade and the light tubes fail and fabrics with catchy chemical names would flap in the night wind off the marsh.

It would die then, but without grace. Not the way the old city had died. The old city died in the way a forgotten doll is found up there behind trunks with rounded tops, wooden legs carved with care. And this would die like a tin toy, stamped into the ground and rusting.”

MacDonald said: "Every writer is going to put into the mouths of the people he wants you to respect opinions that he thinks are respectable. It's that simple." In the Travis McGee novels (I am a big fan), a lot of the eco sermonizing was a little obtrusive but here it works. What I respect about John D.'s environmentalism is that it wasn't meaningless diatribe but genuine passion and this was fifty years before it was the “in thing.”

Each of the character's lives is told in captivating detail. The ending is satisfying but perhaps could have been a little stronger. Even so, this book was a delight to read because MacDonald, in the words of Stephen King, is "the great entertainer of our age." I’m sure you will enjoy Contrary Pleasure.


Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi David,

" in MacDonald’s hands, the story is powerful and the writing poetic."

that would do it for me. thanks for letting me know about this book. I had forgotten all about this side of MacDonald's writing.


David Cranmer said...

I'm rarely disappointed with John D. and there is quite a collection of his novels waiting to be rediscovered.

Btw, I really enjoyed your When A Bright Star Fades in the Last Hardluck issue.


That's a wonderfully kitsch cover image. So dreamy like the photographer smeared Vaseline over the lens.

Terrie Farley Moran said...


Thanks so much for reading, Bright Star. I am honored by your compliment.