Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Travis McGee is no fan of Chicago

In John D. MacDonald's One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966), his honorable tough guy beach bum protagonist, Travis McGee, offers an opinion of Chicago, which he's visiting in order to help out an old friend. I'm going to quote at greater length than usual, because each paragraph of McGee's reflections seems worth looking at:
I went out and walked south on Michigan Avenue. In nice weekend weather it is one of the specialties of the house. Chicago is a strange one. It is not on my list of favorite places. Insofar as restaurants and lounges and hotels are concerned it is strictly hinterland, strictly hick. And as you go down the scale it becomes more shabby and shoddy than rough. I do not know why anyone should expect anything special in that line from a place where the Hefner Empire seems to represent some sort of acme of sophistication, based as it is upon fantastic centerfold mammalians for the pimpled self-lovers, upon a chain of bunny-warrens styled to make the middle-class sales manager feel like a member of an in-group, and upon a laborious philosophical discourse which runs interminably in the ad-happy magazine and in the polysyllabic style of the pseudo-educated, carrying the deathless message that it is healthy to screw and run if everybody is terribly sincere about it.

A great university they have indeed, but if you take a train there from the center of the city, you pass through whole areas of the South Side which make the worst of Harlem look like Scarsdale. It is a gigantic shameful tinderbox everybody is trying not to notice. If you are a stranger and want to leave the university area after dark, they insist on getting you a cab.

The best of Chicago, I think, must go on quite privately, and it must be very fine indeed. Private homes and private clubs, and a lot of insulation and discretion, because as I hiked along Michigan I saw and admired what I had come to see, strolling, window-shopping flocks of women of that inimitable smartness, style, loveliness, assurance, and aroma of money which will make headwaiters and captains all over the Western world leap, beaming, to unhook their velvet ropes before they even hear the name. I feel they live in Chicago in very much the same spirit the early settlers lived in the wilderness full of Indians. They keep the big gates closed. They consort with each other, and they import those specialties their rude environment cannot supply, and when they need relief from that nerve-twanging combination of unending drabness and glittering boosterism, they take their ease at the truly smart spots of the world and, when asked where they are from, tell the truth with that mocking inverted pride of the fellow pinned to the sod with a spear who said it only hurt when he laughed.

Statistically it is probably the one city in the world where the most people have been killed in arguments over professional athletes. The middle of the city, where nine bridges cross a large sewage canal called the Chicago River, is beginning to look as if Martians had designed it. For untold years the city has limped along under what might well be the most arrogant, ruthless, and total political control in the country. In a kind of constant hysterical spasm of self-distaste, the city uglifies itself further each year by chopping away more tress and paving more areas for all those thousands of drivers who seem to have learned their art at Daytona.
Some thoughts:

1 Let's just get this one right out there: Can anyone who make his home in Florida, by choice, criticize anywhere else in America? Seriously, McGee. I know you've been to New York and 'round the world, but you do live in Ft. Lauderdale. There's a reason there's a whole Twitter account dedicated to sharing bizarre stories whose headlines begin "Florida man . . . "

2 That said, the impression I have been given by long-time residents of Chicago before my time isn't all that far off from what McGee complains about. As I was watching James Caan in Thief recently, I marveled at just how old, unsophisticated, and down-at-heel the bars and restaurants and offices he visited in 1980 Chicago were. Like a lot of American cities, Chicago spruced itself up mightily in the '90s and '00s. Also like a lot of those cities, we're really only now beginning to come to terms with the fact that a lot of that sprucing up was at the expense of neighborhoods, schools, and working people, but there's no question that along the Michigan Avenue and lounge-club-restaurant axes, we've moved beyond McGee's complaint.

3 It's no real surprise to see McGee (and, implied throughout, McDonald) take a swipe at Hugh Hefner. Whereas Playboy stood for free love, McGee always stood for love freely given, but carefully chosen, and backed up by emotions.

That said, McGee's attitude toward and relationships with women, all these decades later, seem tired and dated in a not-dissimilar way to Hefner's. McGee's approach to women is, I think, deliberately intended by MacDonald to be essentially feminist--much like, in a different way, a strain of feminism has always run through Playboy (which a book I handled publicity for a few years back, Carrie Pitzulo's Bachelors and Bunnies, does a great job of explaining). But both are tripped up by their emphasis on the relationship with men, and on the liberating potential of sex; the result, if (and I mean this seriously) well-intentioned, ends up emphasizing differences between the sexes even as it proclaims some essential sense of equality. It's hard, reading about McGee healing yet another damaged woman through a month of gentle, caring sex as they sail through the Keys, to imagine that attitude leading to a place where women are assumed to have all options equally open, all choices fully available to them. It's not wholly fair to condemn McGee (and MacDonald), for it was a different time, and I do think he was trying. But with the perspective of nearly a half century, his jab at Hefner seems like it's traveling across a much narrower divide than he thinks.

4 We still have the great university, my employer, and the South Side, though in much better shape than he's depicting, is still rough. What's interesting (and depressing) to think about is that he was writing before the destruction of the West Side, before the full effects of white flight, redlining, and the 1968 riots. Chicago's damaged and forsaken places were about to get worse, and we're still failing to acknowledge it or deal well with the consequences.

5 The line about the interior life of Chicago being the real life is I think substantially true today, if I may deliberately misinterpret it a bit. McGee is talking about the sophisticated and emotionally mature hiding out from the savages, whereas what I see speaks more to Chicago's greatest little-known virtue: you can actually live here. Jobs, and pay scales, that would in New York or San Francisco or London leave you living on the outskirts and scrambling, roommated and credit-carded, here can enable you to create a stable upper middle class life. You can have a nice apartment near good transit and a park, and you can have a kitchen, and maybe even a dining room--so, unlike those cities, you can have a social life that revolves around the home, yours and those of friends, with dinners and drinks and porch parties. It is a city that enables the domestic, and in that way McGee is right: who cares what's going on with the crowds in Grant Park so long as I have a shaker, gin, ice, and a couple of friends who can swing by on their bicycles?

6 The boosterism . . . even then that was coming up. The fact that he's right--Chicago boosterism gets really old really fast--doesn't, however, mean that Rachel Shteir's much-discussed New York Times slam of Chicago wasn't just as poorly argued and devoid of critical insight as its sharper critics said. Just as there have, it seems, always been the boosters, there have, presumably, also always been those who prefer reality.

7 As for the Chicago River: it's getting better. Still noxious, but nothing like the Gowanus Canal, say, and (in part under EPA orders) getting better. Well worth a kayak trip, if you've not tried it--just don't drink from it, for god's sake. And while the younger Daley's reign may have nearly matched his father's in all the charges McGee levels against it, the one thing you can say for Richard M. is that he loved trees. Not only did he stop chopping them down, he started planting them everywhere. He left us many legacies, most of them ticking or toxic, but the green I see all around me every day, whether the young trees starting to shade the lakefront path or the forest that is the view out into the neighborhoods from my seats at Wrigley Field, is one thing I'll always be grateful to him for.

Come back in winter, McGee. Then you'll really have something to complain about.

1 comment:

  1. Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?” That’s from Kingsley Amis.