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Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Deep Blue Good-By

When I read John D. MacDonald's Dress Her in Indigo some time ago, I thought I might give it a try and read all of the Travis McGee novels. So I went to the first one, The Deep Blue Good-By, and now I'm not so sure. I mean, McDonald is a great writer, a worthy successor to Raymond Chandler in the literary-crime writer. Not many writers can come up with a line like: "In appearance, it as though somebody bleached Sinatra, skinned him, and made Willy wear him."

But the book, which was released in 1964, is a relic from another time, and even for that time period seems excessively chauvinistic. McGee, McDonald's creation, is a throwback to, well, basically he's a caveman. The women in this book are pathetic creatures with hardly a thought in their heads, and desperately need rescuing. Or they are merely playthings for McGee.

This is the first McGee book and establishes certain things. He lives in a housebout, the Busted Flush, which he won in a poker game. He drives a Rolls that has been converted into a pickup. He disdains working for anybody, and while not a licensed private eye, does jobs that involve returning valuable things to their rightful owner, and he takes a fifty percent cut. He is tall and presumaby good looking, a man's man. McGee narrates the books, and describes himself thusly: "Travis McGee, that big brown loose-jointed boat bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, signifier, that knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society."

The plot has McGee helping out a friend of a friend. She's the daughter of a dead man who spent time in prison. While in the lock-up, he had a cellmate, Junior Allen, who figured out that said man brought back a fortune in jewels and buried it somewhere. He figured out where and took it all, and went on to ruin two women's lives. McGee finds the second woman, who is a wreck. He nurses her back to health, and of course she falls in love with him. McGee finds the man and in a couple of well-written action scenes, disposes of him in the depths of the Atlantic. There are only a few jewels left, though.

As long as McDonald is writing the noir stuff, it's great. McGee is a worthy successor to Philip Marlowe, as if Marlowe had left L.A. and started wearing shorts and boat shoes. He's a great cynic, though of course secretly a romantic: "I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts,  Green Stamps, time clocks, newpapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."

In short, he is a kind of that men used to want to be. Down the dock there is a permanent party going on, and McGee strolls down, finds a girl he wants, and takes her home for sex, as if he were buying a roll of paper towels. While nursing the other woman back to health, he doesn't touch her, but of course he is her white knight and she eventually wants him. And McGee views all women by their appearance: "After the promise of Gerry in clothing, her figure was a mild disappointment. She had high small breasts, and she was very long-waisted. The long, limber torso widened into chunky hips and meaty thighs and short sturdy legs." McGee, and perhaps McDonald, was pretty much a pig.

But if this antediluvian attitude toward women can be overlooked, we get stunning prose like this, describing rootless teenagers: "Bless them all, these forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school  into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is competition for bag boys in the supermarkets."

So, I'll see if I continue with this series. Maybe they get less andro-centric.

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