Saturday, March 16, 2013

John D. MacDonald; A Review

To all you readers out there:  Have you ever come across a fine writer who, when the supply of his books run out, you wish there were more?  I've known a few.  Robert B. Parker, and his Spenser series comes to mind.  But my favorite all time is mystery writer John D. MacDonald.

Fortunately for MacDonald fans he was prolific.  He wrote 78 novels, including 21 of the Travis McGee novels, and over 500 short stories.    Even so, over the last 30 years I've read MacDonald's novels over and over until their dog-eared.

John D. MacDonald was serving in the OSS during World War II, stationed in India and Ceylon.  Because mail was censored he began writing short stories and sending them home for his wife's amusement.  His wife, Dorothy, sent the first one to a mystery magazine publisher and they accepted it for publication.  That first $25 dollar check was encouragement enough for MacDonald, so that when he came home from the war he began churning out short stories for the pulps.

As the pulp magazines began going out of business MacDonald transitioned to novels.  Some were mysteries, others were period pieces, chronicling the America of the 50's.  He was so good at writing of the human condition, love, greed, lust and envy, he began to pick up a large readership.  With MacDonald, don't confuse "quantity" over "quality".   His novels are so well crafted as to lead Kurt Vonnegut to say "To diggers a thousand years from now, a discovery of MacDonald's books would be on the level of finding the remains of King Tutankhamen".

When the 60's rolled around MacDonald created his first series character, a Florida "boat bum" named Travis McGee.  McGee lived on a houseboat at Bahia Mar, Slip F-18, Fort Lauderdale.  His means of support was playing "errant knight", slaying the criminal dragons and recovering loot stolen from the good guys from the bad guys.  For which Travis McGee took half, then reverted to his life of pleasurable sloth.  The Travis McGee series rocketed MacDonald to the top of the best sellers list where he remained until his death in 1986.

Fans loved Travis McGee, the character.  They loved MacDonald's tight mystery plots and his humor.  But it was MacDonald's "asides" that captivated the reader, as he wrote of environmental pollution decades before Earth Day.  He wrote about greedy businessmen long before the Wall Street disaster of 2008.  He wrote about the value of "character" and he wrote about the rewards of valuing human relationships and the corruption of the soul when we value each other too cheaply.

Humor me as I cite a rather long excerpt from MacDonald's "A Tan And Sandy Silence":

McGee has just experienced a very humid and intense attempt at seduction by a vile and nasty murderess whom he knows is an accomplice in the murder of a dear friend.  He is lying low in the bushes, trying to rope the culprits in for their ultimate punishment.  After getting "heated up" through this seduction attempt he sends the lass on her way, but is now trying to drive away the lust for such a delicious but corrupt morsel:

"The buttons tripped certain relays.  I had to go back into the mind, into central control, and reset those relays, compensate for the overload, switch the current back to those channels designed for it.

I went searching through the past for the right memory, the one which would most easily turn growing desire to indifference.

I thought a memory of Miss Mary Dillon long ago aboard The Busted Flush would do it.  There were more than a few, but they would not come through vividly enough to achieve turnoff.

Lisa made it so damned easy, so completely available, there was not more importance to it.  And with no importance to an act, why did it matter whether or not it happened?  Why did McGee need some cachet of importance in this world of wall-to-wall flesh in the weekend living room where the swingers courteously, diligently, skillfully considerately hump one another to the big acid beat of the hi-fi installation, good from 20 to 20,000 cycles per second?

Is McGee still impaled upon some kind of weird Puritan dilemma, writhing and thrashing around, wrestling with an outdated, old-time, inhibiting and artificial sense of sin, guilt, and damnation?  Is that why he couldn't accept the lifetime gift of Lady Jillian offers?  Is that why he has this sickly, sentimental idea that there has to be a productive and meaningful relationship first, or sex degrades?  So bang the doxy, because easing the ball-pressure is reason enough.

Who needs magic and mystery?  Well, maybe it is magic and mystery that an Antarctic penguin will hunt all over hell and gone to find the right pebble to carry in his beak and lay between the funny feet  of his intended, hoping for her favor.  Maybe sex is a simple bodily function, akin to chewing, sneezing and defecation.  But bald eagles fly as high as they possibly can, up into the thinnest air, making the elegant flight patterns of intended mating all the way, then cleave to each other and fall, fall, fall, mating as they fall fluttering, plummeting down toward the great rock mountains.

The way it is supposed to work nowadays, if you want to copulate with the lady, you politely suggest it to her, and are not offended if she says no, and you are mannerly, considerate and satisfying if she says yes.

But the Tibetan bar-headed goose and her gander have a very strange ceremony they perform AFTER they have mated.  They rise high in the water, wings spread wide, beaks aimed straight up at the sky, time and time again making great bugle sounds of honking.  The behaviorists think it is unprofessional to use subjective terms about animal patterns.  So they don't call this ceremony joy.  They don't know what to call it.   These geese live for up to fifty years, and they mate for life.  They celebrate the mating the same way year after year.  If one dies, the other never mates again.

So penguins, eagles, geese, wolves and many other creatures of land and sea and air are stuck with all this obsolete magic and mystery because they can't read and they can't listen to lectures.  All they have is instinct.  Man feels alienated from all feeling, so he sets up interrelationships.  But the basic group of two, of male and female, is being desensitized as fast as we can manage it...

It is these kind of "asides", this kind of reflection, that makes MacDonald such a valued read.  You might learn more about gyros and servomechanisms from Tom Clancy, and you might enjoy the cold and hard violence of a Spillane or Crais, but if you want to learn more about the human condition, told sometimes with pathos and sometimes with humor, you could do no better than to find yourself a good John D. MacDonald novel.

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