Monday, April 13, 2015

70’s cult favorite MacDonald Harris finds new fans with re-release of silver-screen ode ‘Screenplay’

Guest Contributor

I happened upon MacDonald Harris’ Screenplay in the New Books section of my local library (Islands Branch, Live Oak PL). Never heard of the guy, but a good title and an interesting book jacket hook me every time.

A few pages into Screenplay and I was a fan. I went online and reserved the other two works of his that my library stocks: Carp Castle and The Balloonist.

Screenplay’s plot is reminiscent of Jack Finney’s time travel stories. A wealthy young man living in an exclusive area of Hollywood takes in a boarder who turns out to be a famous “silents” director with the ability
to shuttle between the 1920’s and the 1970’s. One day the wealthy young man follows him, and – well, I won’t spoil it for you.

MacDonald’s tight prose keeps the verbiage to a minimum. He never meanders a la Finney but rather encapsulates the rhythm of the story in a few succinct words that may need dictionary interpretation. (Even if a yen to increase your vocabulary is not part of your reason for reading, the story still unfolds nicely.)

So – on to The Balloonist. Here is where I became more interested in MacDonald the writer than in the story. After all, I am a writer (#Bonaventure Pilgrim) and the writing process – sleuthing out possible MacDonald influences and making admittedly unsubstantiated connections – hallows my approach to writing. MacDonald’s writing does call attention to its excellence.

Reading up on him, I learned he originally trained as an engineer but ended up as a writing prof at UC Irvine. Possible little connections between that master of the fantastic – Walter Disney – and MacDonald began falling into place.

Could MacDonald have been infected with the Disney spiritus mundi of southern California of the 60’s? Disneyland was a stone’s throw from where MacDonald lived and worked. MacDonald’s children would have been the right age to be taken there on an outing when the theme park opened. Though the Disney-MacDonald connection is particularly strong in The Balloonist’s and Carp Castle’s plotlines, their sexual departures are more this century than last.

The Balloonist’s plotline: a Swedish engineer living in Paris in 1908 unwillingly falls under the sexual spell of an intellectual beauty – Luisa – but stays constant to his dream of reaching the North Pole before Peary. As he balloons over the ice with his two male companions, he reminisces about Luisa’s sexual hold upon him. The Balloonist absolutely clobbers one with engineering details that may or may not be fiction but which endow the engineer narrator with credentials the lay reader comes to trust so that, when the story turns erotic – even bizarre – we still cling to the Disney wacky weird scientist persona – think 20,000 Leagues under the Sea – trusting the narrator’s ill-fated decision will be vindicated. (The depictions of the ice are so beautiful that now I’m wondering if MacDonald ever saw Rockwell Kent’s fabulous iceberg paintings? Kent too was an adventurer.)

Reading Carp Castle – the Disney-MacDonald connection lights up in neon. Green neon to be exact. Carp Castle is the story of a mesmeric cult leader named Moira who, dressed in green, holds séances under a green light. Extremely wealthy, she purchases a dirigible in which she embarks with her followers on a voyage looking for a fabled paradise in the arctic. The similarities between Carp Castle and a cornball film Disney produced called Island at the Top of the World can’t be pooh-poohed. In the film, a British aristocrat arranges an expedition to a fabled arctic island in a dirigible. Both book and movie inevitably encounter the same disaster.

MacDonald was cultishly popular back-when. The Overlook Press is reissuing his novels hoping a new generation of admirers will discover him. I don’t recommend galloping through one MacDonald book after another the way I did. They are fine stories and each one deserves time for its individual spell to capture the reader’s imagination.

Let me know what you think and, if you have read his other books, which you would recommend ( Screenplay is my fave.

Deirdre Kindthistle lives and writes in Georgia’s “beautiful Golden Isles.” For more, see

McDonald Harris was the pen name of Donald Heiney (1921-1993). He co-founded the UC-Irvine writing program and was the author of 18 novels. The Balloonist was nominated for the National Book Award and, in 1982, he received the Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

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