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.
There can be no doubt, though, that McGee speaks for MacDonald. That was made plain right off the bat in "The Deep Blue Goodbye," when McGee introduced himself by ticking off his aversions: "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." As enemies lists go, that one is fine. But just to make things interesting, MacDonald has another voice in the McGee novels: McGee's friend and occasional sidekick Meyer, "a semiretired economist . . . the listening ear of a total understanding and forgiveness, a humble wisdom." Humble, yes, but tart as well. Here -- yes, one more long, juicy quote -- he reports to McGee after reconnoitering a singles' apartment complex in Bayside:
"There's a kind of . . . watchful anxiety about those people. It's as if they're all in spring training, trying out for the team, all trying to hit the long ball, trying to be a star. . . . Pools and saunas and a gym. Four-channel sound systems. Health fads. Copper bracelets. 'The Joy of Sex' on each and every coffee table, I would guess. Water beds, biofeedback machines. There doesn't seem to be any kind of murky kinky flavor about them. No group perversion scenes. Just a terrible urgency about finding and maintaining an orgasm batting average acceptable to the peer group."
Bingo. As one who quite inadvertently spent a good deal of time in a couple of those places in Miami in the mid-'70s, I can testify that Meyer/MacDonald has hit the game-winner. Every detail and every nuance in that passage is exactly right. But MacDonald always got it right. He was endlessly curious, and it didn't hurt that he'd been to Harvard Business School. Unlike most American novelists, he knew about the real world and viewed it with interest, with dismay perhaps, but only rarely with contempt. He had an eye that saw everything and a memory that soaked it all up. To flesh out "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" he had to familiarize himself with marina management, planetary movement, the marijuana trade, the specs of a Beechcraft Baron airplane, biofeedback and strategy for lane changes in traffic -- to mention only a few.
The abundance of keenly observed detail gives the McGee series its texture, but McGee himself is the rock at its center. He does what he calls "salvage work," described in "The Deep Blue Goodbye" by one of his lady friends: ". . . if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come in and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you just . . . live on that until it starts to run out." As McGee says in "The Dreadful Lemon Sky," he believes that "retirement comes when you are too old to enjoy it, so I take some of mine whenever I can," living at ease on the take from one piece of "salvage" until his funds run low and it's time to go back to work.
MacDonald concluded, after collecting a baker's dozen of his early stories ("The Good Old Stuff," 1982) that "a precursor of Travis McGee" is to be found in Park Falkner, the protagonist of a couple he published in 1950. Perhaps so. But MacDonald refined and deepened the character; indeed about the only resemblance between the two is that each fancies himself a force for justice in a world where there's far too little of it. There's a whiff of meanness in Falkner that is nowhere to be found in McGee, who is out to do good, in his own quixotic fashion, and he does a bunch of it.
The second time around for "The Dreadful Lemon Sky"? Pure joy. Justice is done, blunt opinions are expressed, a lady or two is made happy, and the Busted Flush still floats. If you're new to McGee and wonder where to begin, any place will do, but there's a lot to be said for starting with "The Deep Blue Goodbye" and reading the books in order of publication. That way you can watch as they get better and better. You might like to know, too, that the titles are color-coded to help you tell them apart: turquoise, lavender, orange, tan, crimson, pink, purple, gold, etc. Florida colors, for the best "Florida novels" you'll ever read.
"The Dreadful Lemon Sky," like all the McGee novels, is in a Fawcett Crest paperback, uniformly priced at $6.99.
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is email@example.com.