The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag
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|Author||Robert A. Heinlein|
|Genre||Science fiction short story|
|Media type||Print (Periodical & Paperback)|
The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag is a novella by Robert A. Heinlein. It was originally published in the October 1942 edition of Unknown Worlds magazine under the pseudonym of "John Riverside". It also lends its title to a collection of Heinlein's short stories published in 1959.
A man comes to an investigator with an odd request: he wants to have himself followed, because he has no idea what his own profession is. The story evolves into a discussion of the reality of both life and art.
Jonathan Hoag, a lover of art and fine dining living in Chicago, realizes that he has no memory of his daytime activities when asked, at an evening dinner, what he does for a living. Furthermore, when he washes his hands in the evening, he discovers a red-brown substance, possibly dried blood, under his fingernails.
He contacts a detective agency, Randall & Craig, and asks them to follow him during the day. The partners, actually the husband and wife team of Ted and Cynthia Randall, agree to this. The mystery begins immediately: they routinely try to collect fingerprints from their client, but find that Hoag left none, even when not wearing gloves. Such memories as Jonathan Hoag has turn out to be false, except for his home address, and a doctor, Potiphar T. Potbury, whom Hoag consulted about the substance under his fingernails. The doctor had thrown him out of his office and told him not to return.
The first time the pair tails Hoag, Cynthia sees him turn and talk to her husband. Then Cynthia is menaced by Hoag after she tails him in an office building. When she is reunited with Ted, he tells her that he had a completely different experience: after uneventfully tailing Hoag into the building and up to Hoag's office on the thirteenth floor of the Acme building, Ted discovers that Hoag is a jeweler working for a company called Detheridge & Co., and that the red substance is jeweler's rouge. Both realize that something is terribly wrong, especially once they discover that the building has no thirteenth floor.
Ted has a series of "dreams" in which he is taken through a mirror into the offices of Detheridge & Co., where he is told to leave Hoag alone by an assembly of conservative businessmen. He ignores the dreams, until in one final dream Cynthia is taken through as well. The businessmen reveal themselves as "Sons of the Bird", disciples of an old pagan religion; Hoag is a nemesis of theirs. They cause something to be sucked out of Cynthia into a bottle, and return her and Ted to their apartment.
Ted wakes up to find Cynthia in an apparent coma. He realizes that the dreams were true, and in a manic burst of activity, paints over all the mirrors in the apartment. He then calls Potbury, the only doctor he knows, to come and examine Cynthia. Potbury diagnoses her with lethargica gravis, but when Ted repeats the mantra of the Sons of the Bird to him, "The Bird is Cruel!", Potbury covers his face just as the Sons did. Realizing Potbury is one of them, Ted overpowers him and locks him in the bathroom. He calls Hoag, who comes to the apartment. Told about Potbury, Hoag says that lethargica gravis is just a way of saying "deep sleep". They open the bathroom door, only to find that Potbury is gone, and the mirror has been scraped free of paint with a razor. However they find a bottle in Potbury's black bag. When they open it, Cynthia revives.
To solve the mystery once and for all, they take Hoag to their office and subject him to questioning under drugs. After a few questions, Hoag wakes up with a strong, dominant personality—completely different from the nervous, weak man they have heretofore worked with. He declares the session over, and tells them to meet him later in a park just outside the city. He gives them a list of things to bring, and leaves them in a state of some puzzlement.
Reaching the park, with the collection of fine foods and wines Hoag requested, Ted and Cynthia find him there. They picnic on the epicurean fare, and Hoag tells them he is an art critic. The art in question is their entire world, created by an "artist" as a student project. Critics live as inhabitants in the world, not knowing they are Critics, in order to judge the experiences. One such experience is eating and drinking, as Hoag points out, since the simple act of gaining energy to live had not been thought of as an "experience" previously. Another is sex, but this is thought to be ridiculous until Hoag realizes that it is the basis for "the tragedy of human love" that he sees between Ted and Cynthia. Hoag's artistic judgment is that, while there is much that is amateurish in the world, overall its Creator has real promise.
The Sons of the Bird are responsible for all the things that Ted and Cynthia have seen, including the times they saw Hoag during the day. They only encountered the real Hoag in their home and office. The Sons were an early artistic mistake, hurriedly "painted over" rather than eliminated in the rush to complete the work, but still holding power. Now they are to be expunged completely. Hoag was recruited to report on them; the substance under his fingernails is their ichor, placed there to make them fearful.
Hoag tells the couple to leave the city, not stopping to talk to anyone on the way. He places one last grape in his mouth, and then becomes still. Leaving his inert body, the two drive through town, but finally yield to the urge to tell someone about Hoag's body. When they roll down their car windows, however, all that is outside their automobile is a pulsing, luminous mist, though all the other windows show an apparently normal scene. They drive on in a state of shock.
In the epilogue, the Randalls now live in an unnamed remote rural area by the sea. They do everything together, have no mirrors in their home, and every night before going to sleep "he handcuffs one of her wrists to one of his".
Alexei and Cory Panshin described the novella as "the last and strangest of the stories that Robert Heinlein contributed to the Golden Age before he ceased to write during World War II." Galaxy's Floyd C. Gale found it "a brand of fantasy-mystery [that] would shock-present-day  Heinlein lovers."
- Alexei and Cory Panshin, SF in Dimension, Advent:Publishers, 1980, p.394
- "Galaxy's 5 Star Shelf", Galaxy Science Fiction, February 1961, p.141
- The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag (2013) at the Internet Movie Database
- "The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag", ComingSoon.net