Second Reading

John D. MacDonald's Lush Landscape of Crime

By Jonathan Yardley
Tuesday, November 11, 2003

An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.

For my money, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee is one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period -- and millions of readers surely agree. There are, as is announced across the top of each Fawcett Crest paperback volume in the series, "32 Million Travis McGee Books in Print!" Most of the other crime novels that MacDonald wrote over his long and astonishingly prolific career have been consigned to out-of-print oblivion -- in many cases most undeservedly so -- but Travis rolls along, keeping MacDonald's memory alive and reminding us that he was a far more accomplished and important novelist than is generally recognized.

McGee was born in the early 1960s. MacDonald, then in his mid-forties, had built a substantial following for the crime novels he published in paperback originals and the short stories he published in pulp magazines, but that following was limited largely to readers of genre fiction. Then, in 1962, he somewhat reluctantly agreed to start work on a series built around a single character. The first, "The Deep Blue Goodbye," appeared in 1964. It was followed by 20 others, the last of which, "The Lonely Silver Rain," was published in 1985, a year before MacDonald's death.

McGee is owner of the "Busted Flush, 52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale." He's a World War II veteran, 6 feet 4 inches tall, solidly built. He isn't "exactly a clerical type," in the words of one of the many woman for whom he does important favors: "You are huge and it is obvious you have been whacked upon, and you look as though you damn well enjoyed returning the favor." He's catnip for the ladies, but he is by his own admission "an incurable romantic who thinks the man-woman thing shouldn't be a contest," who believes "the biggest and most important reason in the world [for lovemaking] is to be together with someone in a way that makes life a little less bleak and solitary and lonesome."

The subject of this Second Reading could be any of the McGee novels, but I've chosen "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" because it was the first that I read. In 1976 I was the book editor of the Miami Herald, across Florida from MacDonald's home on Siesta Key. He was about to publish "Condominium," his first hardcover, non-genre novel, which had been chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and I had been commissioned by the club to write a brief piece about him for its newsletter.

This entailed a hurry-up course in MacDonald's fiction, which I'd never read. I mainlined a couple dozen of his novels, from early mysteries to McGees to "Condominium" itself. I was bowled over. This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.

MacDonald himself turned out, when I interviewed him in his comfortable, unpretentious house, to be a large, calm, genial, quiet yet talkative man: a gentleman. By then he had established himself, as I wrote in a profile of him for the Herald's Sunday magazine, as "the pre-eminent 'Florida novelist,' " a distinction earned by remarkably close observation of the state: its grifters and operators and big-bucks crooks, its decent ordinary people, its overdeveloped land and polluted water. He had harsh things to say about Florida in "Condominium" and many of his other books. When I asked him about this he said: "I've always recognized that Florida is a slightly tacky state," and added, "You love it in spite of itself."

Close questioning revealed not merely that he had a complex love-hate relationship with his adopted state (he was born, in 1916, in Pennsylvania) but that he was a constant reader with high standards. He thought some genre novelists were taken too seriously, just as Thomas Pynchon was ("One is overvalued because the critic finds some elements of literacy in it, the other because he can't understand it"), and he was a tough critic who expected others' prose to have "felicity, an element of aptness." One passage from my tapes deserves full quotation:

"I just cannot read people like Leon Uris and James Michener. When you've covered one line, you can guess the next one. I like people who know the nuances of words, who know how to stick the right one in the right place. Sometimes you can laugh out loud at an exceptionally good phrase. I find it harder and harder to find fiction to read, because I either read it with dismay at how good it is or disgust at how bad it is. I do like the guys like John Cheever that have a sense of story, because, goddammit, you want to know what happens to somebody. You don't want a lot of self-conscious little logjams thrown in your way."

So, you quite properly ask, how well did MacDonald meet the standards he set for others? Very well indeed. "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" proves the point. McGee has been taking his ease in the Busted Flush when a woman steps aboard the boat at 4 in the morning. He had a one-night stand with her a few years ago, now sees that the "years had aged her more than she could reasonably expect and had tested and toughened her." She presses a package upon him and asks him to safeguard it; inside is nearly $95,000. Two weeks later she is killed by a truck outside a town up the Atlantic coast. "Knight-errant" that he is, McGee goes there to have a look:

"It was easy to see the shape and history of Bayside, Florida. There had been a little town on the bay shore, a few hundred people, a sleepy downtown with live oaks and Spanish moss. Then International Amalgamated Development had moved in, bought a couple of thousand acres, and put in shopping centers, town houses, condominiums, and rental apartments, just south of town. Next had arrived Consolidated Construction Enterprises and done the same thing north of town. Smaller operators had done the same things on a smaller scale west of town. When downtown decayed, the town fathers widened the streets and cut down the shade trees in an attempt to look just like a shopping center. It didn't work. It never does. This was instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores."

There you have it: sharp, seamless prose, bull's-eye aim, romanticism and cynicism playing subtly off each other. The writer is MacDonald but the speaker is McGee, who is the narrator of all the novels in the series. The relationship between McGee and his creator is intimate, fascinating and a bit difficult to unravel. MacDonald doesn't seem to be projecting when he makes McGee a tender, accomplished Casanova, or when he gets McGee out of big trouble with astonishing feats of physical strength and resourcefulness; MacDonald himself seems to have been a one-woman man, happily married for nearly a half-century, and much of the violence in his novels is depicted with tongue in cheek, stylized and exaggerated.

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