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Thursday, July 27, 2017

Nightmare in Pink

After being dismayed by the rank misogyny in John D. MacDonald's first Travis McGee novel, The Deep Blue Good-by, I was leery of moving on to the next one, but I couldn't resist. I'm glad to say that in Nightmare in Pink, McGee does admit that women are people.

Published in 1964, it's an interesting time capsule of ideas about not only sex, but also on psychiatry, as the climax of the book takes place in a mental asylum. It should be noted that at this time there were many books and movies about being sane but trapped in an institution, and was just after One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest was written. This goes back even further to Farewell, My Lovely, when Phillip Marlowe was drugged by a "doctor." I wonder if this is a remnant of the distrust of the practice of psychiatry.

The main plot has McGee, who lives in Florida, going to New York City at the behest of an old army buddy. His sister has recently been widowed, and there's a large amount of money involved. McGee follows leads until he realizes he's blundered and fallen into the hands of the enemy, who have committed him. He admits: "I had walked into the Armister situation with all the jaunty confidence of a myopic mouse looking for a piece of cheese in the cobra cage."

Of course he saves the day. As for his libido, McGee is resistant to seducing his friend's sister, and even turns her down, but she persists because I guess he is just irresistible. He says of himself, "I wished to be purely McGee, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl-finder, that big shambling brown boat-bum who walks beaches, slays small fierce fish, busts minor icons, argues, smiles and disbelieves, that knuckly scar-tissued reject from a structured society, who waits until the money gets low, and then goes out and takes it from the taker, keeps half, and gives the rest back to the innocent."

For MacDonald, who was a quiet office worker for much of his life until he started writing stories for pulp magazines, this must have been some sort of wish fulfillment. McGee, who narrates, talks about women coming to stay with him on his houseboat for a few weeks and being cured of whatever. He is, of course, referring to giving them a proper fucking, so he is providing a service.

Though the books tend to have an antediluvian attitude, they are dizzyingly written. MacDonald has his way with all sorts of subjects, such as this marvelous digression on poodles: "There was a preponderance of poodles. This is the most desperate breed there is. They are just a little too bright for the servile role of dogdom. So their loneliness is a little more excruciating, their welcomes more frantic, their desire to please a little more intense. They seem to think that if they could just do everything right, they wouldn’t have to be locked up in the silence—pacing, sleeping, brooding, enduring the swollen bladder."

But he doesn't write sex well: "And then there was the sweet drugging time of resting, all unwound, all mysteries known, somnolent there in a narrow wedge of light from a bathroom door open a few inches. Time moves slowly then, as in an underwater world. She had hitched herself to rest upon me, so distributed that she seemed to have no weight at all. She had her dark head tucked under the angle of my jaw, her hands under me and hooked back over the tops of my shoulders, her deep breasts flattened against me, used loins resting astraddle my right thigh, a spent mild whiskery weight."

Deep breasts? Loins? Whiskery weight? Hoo boy.

Reading a Travis McGee novel is like looking at a Playboy magazine from the same era. I'm not against this, so I think I'll keep going.

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