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.