Monday, August 11, 2014

Thanks to Random House's reissues, I (relatively) suddenly find myself with thirty John D. MacDonalds on my shelves

Random House started reissuing John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee mysteries a year and a half ago, and I've enjoyed having an excuse to revisit a series that was really important to me when I was in high school. Along with Robert B. Parker's Spenser novels, the McGees were key to my transition from the coziness of Agatha Christie to a more hardboiled American school of crime.

The McGees hold up remarkably well. Having spent so much time with Donald Westlake's relative reticence over the past few years, MacDonald's use of McGee and Meyer as his dual-persona mouthpieces took some getting used to, but while the natural staling of politics means that MacDonald once in a while strikes a wrong note, overall his sociopolitical asides remain effective--and, most important, consistent with his tarnished knight-errant. Florida is, was (since at least Andrew Jackson, and probably the Spanish), and always will be an absolute destructive mess, it seems, as unfathomable to outsiders as it is confounding to natives.

One thing that remains particularly interesting is how MacDonald uses McGee to acknowledge the frustration and weariness of the series writer. Through the middle of the series--three or four books leading up to 1978's The Green Ripper--McGee is explicitly weary with himself, frustrated by the role he's cast himself in, doubting its truth and value both, but unsure about how he might either rejuvenate himself or break out of it. That, dramatized, is the problem of the series author--and one of the reasons that I remain astonished by (and incredibly respectful of) Westlake's twenty-four years of letting Parker lie fallow: mechanically putting a character through recognizable paces is a creative risk, one that can kill character and creator both. Yet rather than deny the problems he faced continuing to write stories about his meal ticket, and thereby letting his books curdle into cynicism, MacDonald took them out and looked at them, and let us see them, too.

For McGee, the answer is lasting love, which instantly reenergizes him--and its inevitable loss, which sets him dangerously aflame. For MacDonald, presumably, rejuvenation came from allowing McGee a possibility previously denied--the possibility of lasting change--and seeing where that led.

I've been skirting the one substantial flaw in MacDonald's books: sex. McGee is at his most dated when it comes to women--not because he is a midcentury sexist, but because the feminism he believes in and practices is, much as he scoffs at Hefner, fundamentally a Playboy feminism. It's a feminism of difference, one that allows self-determination regardless of gender but nonetheless falls back too often (for our contemporary tastes) on men being men, women being women, and freely given, heartfelt, passionate sex being the cure-all. Even McGee sees the occasional excess, lacerating himself here and there for his fuck-a-wounded-bird-to-health technique--but that doesn't stop him from maintaining the approach.

Worst of all, McDonald fails to heed my sole rule of writing: Always describe hangovers; never describe sex. Oh, does he describe sex. It's well-meaning, inexplicit, but nonetheless cringe-inducing, like when you hear someone say "make love" in seriousness. A passage from The Brass Cupcake will suffice as evidence:
I rose with her on the wave crest of a thing long denied, only vaguely conscious of reaching between us and thumbing open the buttons of the jeans, then sliding my hand around her and peeling the jeans down over the twin concavities of alive plum-tautness, dimly conscious of the thud as the moccasin fell at the end of the couch, of her breath that was like the beating of a wing against my throat, of the infuriating intricacies of robe belt, of the twin alivenesses hard under the blue T shirt, of the whole urgent mounting need of her, as vivid as a scream.
"Twin concavities of alive plum-tautness"? Jesus. (And that moccasin--in 1950, that's surely borderline Bohemian?)

That passage aside, The Brass Cupcake is a fine crime novel, and, as MacDonald's first, surely gave his editor a sense that here was a rare talent ready to cut loose. Bad sex aside, I'm grateful to Random House for reissuing it and a slew of other MacDonald standalones. Those are the books that a young Westlake read as he was starting out, and about which he wrote:
Gold Medal originals, with their yellow spines, were my education in popular fiction. At first I devoured them all indiscriminately, but gradually I began to go past the yellow spine to the brand name, to differentiate Vin Packer from Harry Whittington, Edward S. Aarons from Peter Rabe, and to accept some new titles more eagerly than others. There were the writers to skip, there were the old reliables, there were the few really good writers with surprises and felicities somewhere within every book, and there was John D. MacDonald. Almost from the beginning, he was in a class by himself, and I think the secret was that he never wrote a scene, not a scene of any kind, as though he were writing for the pulps. There was never overstatement, never sleaze, no wallowing in the mire. He accepted my, the reader's, intelligence as a given, and not many did that.
My complaints about the sex scenes aside, I can't disagree.


  1. I read a bunch of the Random House reissues last year for a piece I did on MacDonald, and I have to disagree with you on the McGee books -- I don't think they hold up all that well. But I was amazed at how good some of the earlier, pre-McGee books are. Let me put in a plug for a few of them: The Keys to the Suite, The End of the Night, The Only Girl in the Game, Slam the Big Door, A Flash of Green, The Crossroads -- they're not just good, tough (and very, very bleak) crime novels, they're surely among the best American novels of the 1950s and early 1960s.

  2. Maybe I'm being too kind: the plots of the McGees are a bit more repetitive than one would like, the women McGee falls for have a mortality rate rivaled only by Star Trek redshirts, and there are a lot of McGee-voiced authorial asides. But I do still find myself enjoying the McGee/Meyer interplay, and the glimpses of Florida's underbelly (to say nothing of the oddness of the late-'60s social club/country club/medium-sized city social elite scene) are enough--when mixed with a healthy dose of early reading nostalgia--to keep me going.

    I read Slam the Big Door and The Keys to the Suite last month and thought both were excellent. (Slam the Big Door isn't even a crime novel, it turns out--just a book about self-destruction.) I'm really pleased Random House has reissued so many: I wouldn't have been confident that there would be a big enough market for the standalones.

  3. They told me at R House that the plan was to put out everything, either in pb or ebook or both.

    I agree with you about McG/Meyer and the Florida landscape, and there are one or two McGees I genuinely still admire, like Pale Gray for Guilt (although it requires you to believe that McGee could convincingly fake being a stock-market shark). I'm put off by the flaws you mention, plus the whole wish-fulfillment daydream of McGee's invincibility. And also there's the gratuitous sadism so often directed against women (which seems like the flip side of McGee's sentimentality about them). And then, of course, there's McGee's endless laying down the law about stereo systems and perfect martinis and all that, which MacDonald doesn't seem to recognize as being totally philistine... It's like being trapped in an eternal mid-Sixties issue of Playboy. By the way, though, another good standalone is Where is Janice Gantry, which is like a trial run for the McGees, but (in my opinion) is a much more solid and plausible novel.