Thursday, March 01, 2007

Book Review: John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Good-By

Before I went to Miami last week (on business; no pleasure whatsoever), I looked for a book to read on the plane. I wanted something set in Miami, or at least South Florida. I had already read almost all of Carl Hiaasen's books, but I hadn't tried anything by John D. MacDonald.

MacDonald is considered one of the masters of the modern crime novel. One of the things that makes a series of crime novels great is a charismatic and introspective protagonist, one like MacDonald's most famous character, Travis McGee. McGee is a sort of private detective who lives on a houseboat called the Busted Flush, docked in slip F-18 Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale. He won it in a card game.

MacDonald had already written more than 40 books by the time he started the Travis McGee series in 1964. His 1958 novel The Executioners was filmed in 1962 as Cape Fear, and again in 1991 (dir. Martin Scorsese). Rumor has it there is a movie version of The Deep Blue Good-By due in 2008.

Back to the novels. McGee takes cases when he needs money. Otherwise he's a man of leisure. McGee's observations and his way with language, his descriptions, are a pleasure to read.

For example, listen to how he describes a modern house:
It was one of those Florida houses I find unsympathetic, all block tile, glass, terrazzo, aluminum. They have a surgical coldness. Each one seems to be merely some complex corridor arrangement, a going-through place, an entrance built to someplace of a better warmth and privacy that was never constructed. When you pause in these rooms, you have the feeling you are waiting. You feel that a door will open and you will be summoned, and horrid things will happen to you before they let you go. You can not mark these houses with any homely flavor of living. When they are emptied after occupancy, they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away.
That could be Tom Wolfe in his 1981 polemic From Bauhaus to Our House -- though it's more earnest and much less bitchy. It's a funny thought for a lazy houseboat-dwelling unofficial PI to make, and their are plenty more like it.

Carl Hiaasen, the Miami Herald columnist and MacDonald's South Florida crime novel heir, owes tons to the Travis McGee series. In fact, as he says in the introduction, he grew up near where McGee's houseboat was docked in the books. Writes Hiaasen, "His bittersweet view of South Florida was the same as my own. For me and many natives, some of McGee's finest moments were when he paused, mid-adventure, to inveigh against the runaway exploitation of this rare and dying paradise."

McGee is quick to violence when it's necessary -- all the better to entertain us readers -- but he's painfully aware of its consequences and its effects on himself. Here's McGee taking down a man he's been chummy with in order to get some information:
It was midnight when we left the back-street club. He had a cocky, wary friendliness. As he unlocked the door of the Lincoln and swung it open, I chopped him under the ear with the edge of my hand, caught him and tumbled him in. And felt a gagging self-disgust. He was a semi-ridiculous banty rooster of a man, vain, cocky, running as hard as he could to stay in the same place, but he had a dignity of existence which I had violated. A bird, a horse, a dog, a man, a girl, or a cat -- you knock them about and diminish yourself because all you do is prove yourself equally vulnerable. All his anxieties lay there locked in his sleeping skull, his system adjusting itself to sudden shock, keeping him alive. He had pulled at the breast, done homework, dreamed of knighthood, wrote poems to a girl. One day they would tumble him in and cash his insurance. In the meanwhile it did all human dignity a disservice for him to be used as a puppet by a stranger.
What an awkwardly sad scene. McGee's gentle humanity is always tempered by his animal urges and tendencies. In another scene, a female friend comes on to him. Instead of taking advantage of what he sees as her vulnerability -- she's on the outs with another man -- he carefully and tactfully turns her down. Only to pick up and screw a beach bimbo after she leaves.

Another woman, one he's been nursing back to health after a suicidal drinking binge following her kidnapping and rape, can't reconcile the gentle man who saved her life with the one who proclaims such indifference to violence. "Isn't it a waste?" she asks.
"Waste of what?"
"Of you! It seems degrading. Forgive me for saying that. I've seen those African movies. The lion makes a kill and then clever animals come in and grab something and run. You're so bright, Trav, and so intuitive about people. And you have ... the gift of tenderness. And sympanthy. You could be almost anything."
McGee doesn't take it well.
"Why didn't I think of that! Here I am, wasting the golden years on this lousy barge, getting all mixed up with lame-duck women when I could be out there seeking and striving. Who am I to keep from putting my shoulder to the wheel? Why am I not thinking about an estate and how to protect it? Gad, woman, I could be writing a million dollars a year in life insurance. I should be pulling a big oar in the flagship of life. Maybe it isn't too late yet! Find the little woman, and go for the whole bit. Kiwanis, P.T.A., fund drives, cookouts, a clean desk, and vote the straight ticket, yessiree bob. The when I become a senior citizen, I can look back upon ..."
He stops when he notices he made her cry.

In the end, he doesn't get the girl, or even save her. And he doesn't get rich stealing back the money and jewels from the bad guy he was chasing. Nothing really goes right, but that's the kind of crime novel I like. A perfectly imperfect character -- both masculinely agressive and femininely caring, crusading and nurturing, quick to action and prone to reverie. And a perfectly imperfect plot that delivers the sex, money, and fisticuffs, all without compromising the protagonist's moral code (unless it plays into the plot) and finishes with him back on his boat, alone, and waiting till he runs out of money again to take another case.

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