I get this crazy feeling. Every once in a while I get it. I get the feeling that this is the last time in history when the offbeats like me will have a chance to live free in the nooks and crannies of the huge and rigid structure of an increasingly codified society. Fifty years from now I would be hunted down in the street. They would drill little holes in my skull and make me sensible and reliable and adjusted. [The Quick Red Fox, 1964]
I remember a vacation I took with my parents during my early and impressionable teen years. We stayed at a quaint (translation: ramshackle) hotel which was tucked among the trees and set alongside a scenic lake. Nowadays, this is exactly the sort of peaceful vacation I would seek out; but back then, along with a teenage boy’s squirmy embarrassment at being seen with his parents, I was bored out of my mind. Fortunately, the hotel room contained a shelf full of gaudy paperbacks with broken spines and slightly damp pages, the detritus of other vacations. Here I came upon a particular novel which not only held my adolescent self engrossed for the rest of that trip but also helped to alter my perspectives on books, reading, society, adult life in general, and men and women in particular.
Was this a young man’s first encounter with Catcher in the Rye, Huckleberry Finn, or The Great Gatsby? No, what I had come upon was Nightmare in Pink, a forty cent Fawcett Gold Medal paperback whose pink cover sported a presumably naked woman hidden behind a discretely angled leg and a sketch of the hero, a rough-and-ready sort of guy described by the blurb as a “Soldier of fortune, thinking man’s Robin Hood, a man who works just this side of the law to make a living stealing from thieves.” This was Travis McGee, and the novel was the second of a series by John D. MacDonald (each distinguished by a different color in the title) that stretched to twenty-one novels, beginning with 1964’s The Deep Blue Good-by and ending with 1985’s The Lonely Silver Rain. McGee does not sit behind a desk, fiddle with a computer, or fret about his retirement plan the way you and I do. He docks his 52-foot houseboat, The Busted Flush, at a Fort Lauderdale marina, where he leads a beachbum lifestyle and takes his retirement in chunks. Once the money runs out, however, he has to start looking for jobs: “salvage” operations, as he calls them. These operations involve people who have lost something of value, had it stolen from them, or been conned out of it, and go to McGee as a last resort. He offers to recover what’s been lost, and his fee is half of its value, expenses taken off the top. For an action hero, smart and savvy, good with his fists and endlessly attractive to women, McGee is also a meditative type, cynical about society’s rules and conventions. “... I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.” [The Deep Blue Good-by, 1964].
McGee’s knight-errantry comes at a cost. He often wonders if he is doing the right thing, or what the right thing might be. His ethical and moral digressions, not typical of this kind of fiction, enrich McGee’s personality with an unusual depth and complexity (although they sometimes make him sound like a bit of a blowhard): “Each of us takes up the shticks that compose the adult image we seek. I'd gone the route of lazy, ironic bravado, of amiable, unaffiliated insouciance. Tinhorn knight of a stumbling Rosinante from Rent-A-Steed, maybe with one little area of the heart so pinched, so parched, I never dared let anything really lasting happen to me. Or dared admit the flaw...” [A Tan and Sandy Silence, 1972] But for all his analysis and introspection, McGee is an operator who knows his way around the real world (the world of banks, corporations, building contractors, real estate, and law firms) and mostly relies on his cunning to thwart the sort of villains who thrive in such unsavory places. When that doesn’t work, he might have to beat them to a bloody pulp. Other times, however, it is the villains who beat him. The violence is these novels is real and graphic and, unlike many action heroes who step away from their fights without a scratch, McGee’s wounds involve hospital time, with stitches, drains, and IVs.
Despite the fact that the McGee series was begun more than forty years ago, his adventures are not period pieces. In each novel, McGee and his closest companion, Meyer—the economist who resides in the neighboring boat slip (his boat is named the John Maynard Keynes)—share concerns about the state of the world and why everything seems to be going to hell, and these issues have not dated with time but become more relevant. One of McGee’s special issues is the environmental impact of overdevelopment on his native Florida: "We're getting a thousand new residents a day... We get thirty-eight million tourists a year... And the rivers and swamps are dying, the birds are dying, the fish are dying. They're paving the whole state... Everything is going to stop working all at once. Then watch the exodus." [Cinnamon Skin, 1982]. Meyer, an especially prescient observer, explains to McGee the “one huge ugly fact” behind what he sees as the inevitable collapse of the world’s economy and makes it sound closer to today than 1980: “There is a debt of perhaps two trillion dollars out there, owed by governments to governments, by governments to banks, and there is not one chance in hell it can ever be paid back.” When McGee asks what will happen, or if the debt will ever get written off, Meyer looks at him with a pitying expression: “All the major world currencies will collapse. Trade will cease. Without trade, without the mechanical-scientific apparatus running, the planet won’t support its four billion people, or perhaps even half that.” Triggering this situation “is the crisis of reduced expectations. All over the world people are suddenly coming to realize that their children and grandchildren are going to have it worse than they did, that the trend line is down.” [The Green Ripper, 1980]
The appeal of Nightmare in Pink to my young imagination was strong and powerful. Not only did that one shabby volume alleviate the tedium of a holiday with my parents, it sent me on a mission to find every MacDonald novel in existence and to devour them all. As new ones came out, I pounced on them, too. This mania lasted throughout many years, and even outlasted John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986. I’m not sure how these books would hold up to rereading today, but on some level I doubt if it would even be necessary, as many of their plots, characters, and scenes are still vividly imprinted on my brain. What was it about these stories that so attracted a person as unlike Travis McGee as it was possible to get? Probably the main reason is that they are well-written, fast-paced, and almost unbearably exciting suspense stories. I was also impressed by the social background, which struck me as very much an imitation of the real world, even if an intensified one, and saw for the first time the shape of an adult universe where business, politics, and money (things I still don’t quite understand) really mattered. Then there was the character of McGee himself, and his dangerous allure for women... and it is here, I guess, that I should discuss another aspect of these books that I haven’t mentioned before, and that is how steeped they are in the hot odor of male fantasy.
The truth is, if you're looking for realistic portrayals of women, you should be looking elsewhere. Otherwise you might find much to cause offense. If, however, you consider when these books were written and the genre they were written in, you might have to give McGee and MacDonald some credit. On more than one occasion, McGee is appalled by the cheap and tawdry affair, the casual fling, and the prevalence of the so-called Playboy philosophy. From his very first outing, in The Deep Blue Good-by, 1964, he muses: “These are the playmate years, and they are demonstrably fraudulent. The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhausting quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of very much value to anyone else.” Despite the stream of women who keep flinging themselves at him, McGee is always on the lookout for authenticity in his lovers: “Only a woman of pride, complexity and emotional tension is genuinely worth the act of love, and there are only two ways to get yourself one of them. Either you lie, and stain the relationship with your own sense of guile, or you accept the involvement, the emotional responsibility, the permanence she must by nature crave. I love you can be said only two ways.” But love for a series hero is easier to find than to keep. It should be noted that in a large percentage of the twenty-one novels, the women McGee gets involved with end up dead in one way or another, relieving him of the burden of commitment, and of having to spread his emotional involvements from one book to the next.
Back when the fires of literary ambition burned in my own belly, John D. MacDonald seemed the man to emulate. His was one of those writing lives which began in the pulp magazines, graduated through paperback original novels, and eventually transferred to initial hardcover bestseller status. He wrote forty-one novels before inaugurating the McGee series and quite a few after, and they are all to a greater or lesser degree worth tracking down and reading. Among the non-McGee novels which I remember most vividly (and in no particular order) are The End of the Night, 1960, about a group of thrill-seeking young people known as the “Wolf Pack” who travel from state-to-state on a killing spree; The Executioners, 1957, (titled Cape Fear in its two movie incarnations) about a psychopathic ex-con bent on destroying the prosecutor who sent him away and his family; A Flash of Green, 1962, about a group of real estate developers who will stop at nothing to dredge and destroy a beautiful bay in a west Florida town in order to create their commercial/residential property; Condominum, 1977, a late novel about the quick and easy building shortcuts taken in the construction of a huge condominium complex and the consequences when a hurricane of almost biblical ferocity comes bearing down on the coast. He even wrote a surprising autobiographical account of life with his cats and other house pets [The House Guests, 1965] which was totally lacking in sentimentality and, as I recall, quite charming.
Where would you find John D. MacDonald’s novels today? Unfortunately, the popular fiction collection of the branch library system does not have much by MacDonald, as there must be a statute of limitations on the notion of “popular.” (Maybe that’s why McGee, in the paragraph-three quotation above, is “wary” of “lending libraries”.) The research library does better. In earlier days, the disposable paperback was not as a rule collected—more for preservation reasons than anything else—but we began to acquire the McGee novels when they started to appear in hardcover. Then, once the paperback originals were reissued as hardcovers, we did some retrospective collecting and now have many of the earlier novels, as well. (To my infinite regret, I once shed my entire personal collection of John D. MacDonald, which I would now have gladly donated to the library. The road to hell, they say, is paved with good intentions.)
If you plan on reading any of the Travis McGee novels, don’t worry about where to start, because each adventure is unique, and they can be read in any order. A few characters and minor plot threads recur from book to book, and McGee himself seems to age only in the minute increments of series fiction. The only exception is the final novel, The Lonely Silver Rain, written a year before MacDonald’s own death, which is suffused with an elegiac atmosphere and resolves some earlier dangling plot points, as if MacDonald somehow knew this would be the final episode. I realize I’ve been doing a lot of direct quoting from these books, but Travis McGee is a very quotable guy, and the urge is irresistible. In looking through The Lonely Silver Rain once again, I came upon another quote which I likely overlooked the first time around, but which struck me now on a personal level, once I translated the setting from Florida to my own final years of living in Manhattan, in a neighborhood adjacent to the East Village:
Without my realizing it, it had happened so slowly, I had moved a generation away from the beach people. To them I had become a sun-brown rough-looking fellow of an indeterminate age who did not quite understand their dialect, did not share their habits—either sexual or pharmacological—who thought their music unmusical, their lyrics banal and repetitive, a square fellow who read books and wore yesterday's clothes. But the worst realization was that they bore me. The laughing, clean-limbed lovely young girls were as bright, functional, and vapid as cereal boxes. And their young men—all hair and lethargy—were so laid back as to have become immobile. [The Lonely Silver Rain, 1985]