Free Fall In Crimson (John D. MacDonald,1981)
As I mentioned when I began reviewing the Travis McGee series last year, I had read most or all of the books, in rather random order, in my early to mid-twenties. Along with the series debut, The Deep Blue Good-by, this was the one that left the strongest impression on my fading memory.
If I live to be eighty and decide to revisit the series again, that will probably still be the case. I’m not sure where the best McGee novels should place on a highbrow literary scale. But if you wanted to trace the rot that was developing in apple pie America’s Ship of Fools from the early sixties to the early eighties, you couldn’t find a better guide than the series as a whole. And if you wanted to define the series in shorthand, the first book and this one, third from last, would get the job well and bitterly done.
The early part of the tale finds McGee wandering about a bit. A little self-conscious brooding here, a little sex therapy to help him get over his latest dead girlfriend there. The story kicks into gear when a character called Preach puts his hand on McGee’s shoulder and explains exactly what McGee is going to do with the half of the biker bar he just inherited from an old army buddy. From there, it gradually picks up speed and, by the end, it’s roaring like a hell-bound freight train, one that smashes straight into the world of MacDonald’s fantasy ego (McGee), inflicting enormous, perhaps irreparable psychic damage on his not-so-fantasy ego (McGee’s erstwhile, egg-head pal, Meyer) along the way.
This all comes after one of the author’s most convincing and frightening psychopaths–a man who makes Preach look like a kindergarten teacher–has left a string of dead bodies at McGee’s not-so-purely psychic doorway.
As a closing down of whatever spirit of hope and optimism the sixties and seventies had represented in the “real” world (whilst McGee and his creator were going about their brooding, bloody business), Free Fall In Crimson is chilling far beyond its underlying monsters-hiding-in-the-basement foundation. As a return to the primitive–a reminder of how thin civilization’s margin really is–the scene where McGee arises from playing dead, just in time to wave at his mad dog biker antagonist ascending to the heavens in a hot air balloon, is a pulp version of Hawkeye spotting Magua disappearing into the primeval Appalachian mist. Barbarism, it seems, always lives to fight another day, no matter how often or skillfully its champions are snuffed.
And really, what truer message could we have asked any novel to deliver straight from the black heart of 1981, the inaugural year of our steady march to Hell?
Cinnamon Skin (John D. MacDonald, 1982)
The end was fast approaching for both McGee and his creator and there was a great deal of business that needed attending. After some stumbling about in the seventies, the author’s hand is once more swift and sure. The bitterness remains, and cauterizes. Here’s a gimlet eye cast on his future, our present:
Soon the bosses of the microcomputer revolution will sell us preprogrammed units for each household which will provide entertainment, print-out news, purvey mail-order goods, pay bills, balance accounts, keep track of expenses, and compute taxes. But by then the future managers will be over on the far side of the thickets, dealing with bubble memories, machines that design machines, projects so esoteric our pedestrian minds cannot comprehend them. It will be the biggest revolution of all, bugger than the wheel, bigger than Franklin’s kite, bigger than paper towels.
Beyond the usual laments for our lost civilization, though, and even beyond the usual crime story (a good one, involving the death of a spiritually numbed Meyer’s niece) is an attempt to bring Meyer himself back to life. And when does life return? When he’s up to bitching about it, of course, in his long-winded, professorial way:
Meyer studied the question and finally said, “It’s energy without a productive outlet, I think. Most of these Mohawk cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they made an industry out of government. State office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups…thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device, to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone state, and as the light wanes, they dance.”
To which McGee answers:
“I’ve missed your impromptu lectures.”
So you know Meyer will be alright, will recover from the spiritual wounds inflicted on him at the end of the previous novel. Whether he’ll also survive the novel’s final journey deep into a Mexican jungle, which climaxes with one of the series’ best dark hearted denouements, is another question, satisfactorily answered all around.
Docked a small notch for yet another of McGee’s semi-serious affairs, which rarely served as anything more than filler anyway, but here amounts to an outright needless distraction.
The Lonely Silver Rain (John D. MacDonald, 1985)
A good, almost great, ending to a fine series. The story itself is one of MacDonald’s best, and meanest, a nice, sharp survey of the honest mistakes that could blow up in somebody’s face in the heydey of Miami’s cocaine cowboy culture run amok. The danger, to McGee and others, is palpable, brought close enough to make the reader sweat and leaving no one inside the story unscarred.
A lost daughter shows up at the end. Too close to the end to make much of an impression, actually. I imagine MacDonald had plans for her in future volumes. If so, they were ended by his sudden passing. We’ll never know if he would have put the final scar on McGee’s soul by killing her off.
Underneath all that, however, there’s a final parting shot, an aside, fifty pages from the end, that seems to exist for no purpose except to remind the future it would see nothing new:
I walked to the hotel and bought a morning paper…The murders looked ordinary. A Haitian had drowned his crippled sister in a bathtub. A drunk passed out in his own driveway and his wife ran over him with a Ford station wagon–seven or eight times. A naked secretarial trainee had shoved an ice pick into her supervisor. A crazy had burst into the bus terminal at a full gallop, firing at random blacked with a .22 target pistol, killed one, slight wounded four. A thirteen-year-old girl had shot a fourteen-year-old boy to death in a dispute about whose turn it was to ride a bicycle. Everyday stuff.
Yes it is. Quaint even. What we can now think of as the good old days.
I don’t think either McGee or his creator would be surprised.
And the moderns…
Being There (Jerzy Kosinski, 1970)
By request (though I’ve been meaning to get around to it for a few decades…sometimes I just need a little nudge).
Is there such a thing as careful satire?
Kosinski seemed determined to explore the possibility here (I haven’t read anything else by him so I can’t say if it’s typical). He seems committed to keeping the world occupied by his clueless central character on a perfectly–and I do mean perfectly–even keel. Of course it all has an air of faint plausibility:
Facing the cameras with their unsensing triple lenses pointed at him like snouts, Chance became only an image for millions of real people. They would never know how real he was, since his thinking could not be televised.
That’s both sharp and somewhat poignant. More of that kind of thing might have left the book on the cutting edge all these years later, but there really isn’t enough of it for that. Since the plot isn’t much, even Kosinski’s clean, nicely pruned style, adding not one single unnecessary detail, can’t move this along as swiftly as his best ideas deserve. I didn’t have any trouble reading it straight through, and I’m glad I finally did, but, on nearly every page, I couldn’t help feeling that yes, this is true enough, but the world has moved on. A novel of its very peculiar moment, I’d say, that hasn’t quite transcended it.
A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)
A man of letters imagining his British world gone to hell a heartbeat before the outbreak of Beatlemania. God only knows what he thought of that. (He must have written those thoughts down, somewhere. He was a man who wrote everything down. But I’d hardly trust his words on the subject, whatever they were.)
At this distance, Burgess’s Joycean experiments with language (which could get pretty tiresome even when Joyce was deploying them) seem mostly lifeless, unnecessary and not a little annoying, too often completely devoid of either wit enough or horror enough to justify the reader’s labor, let alone the author’s. Better, I think, to have confined his vision to straight pulp. Then he might have produced something along the lines of Evan Hunter’s Last Summer, which, albeit having the advantage of being written at the end of the tumultuous decade the books bracketed instead of the beginning, is still a far better and more prescient take on the societal breakdowns that took root in the 1960s, right next to all the inspirational idealism.
I mean what if a passage like this (a prelude to listening to the classical music that seems to calm the savage beast)…
Then I tooth-cleaned and clicked, cleaning out the old rot with my yahzick or tongue, then I went into my own little room or den, easing off my platties as I did so.
…read like this?
Then I brushed and clicked my teeth, cleaned out the old rot with my tongue. Then I went into my own little room and eased off my feet.
I mean, droog still resonates, along with horrorshow (can’t get more modern than that!) and O my brothers. But yahzick and platties , and what felt like a hundred more, sound more like poor man’s Alice in Wonderland than the language of modernity’s breakdown, which, as Burgess makes clear in his introduction to this 1986 edition, he didn’t believe in anyway. Worse than that, they break the rhythm, which, as a result, rarely gets going and, when it does, is soon snuffed out by too much more of the same.
Burgess did have hold of something frightening, i.e. a bit of the future. But fuzzying up the language amounted to a mask, a dispersal of dread rather than an intensification. I can only wonder what he was really afraid of.
(Note: In the introduction, Burgess gives profuse thanks to the publishers of the 1986 edition for restoring his original last chapter, which his original American publisher and the famous film version had both excluded. They did him no favor. The re-added chapter gives this dystopian novel the one thing no dystopian novel can bear: a happy ending. Better to have ended it a chapter sooner, with the novel’s only really chilling sequence and a genuine sense of doom and despair lingering over the enterprise. Instead we get all that numbness…and then hopefulness.)
Dispatches (Michael Herr, 1977)
Next to this–another one that’s been on my shelf for decades, waiting–Being There and A Clockwork Orange barely exist. Herr was a reporter, not a novelist, but this is one modern, and modernist, classic that doesn’t merely live up to its own pretentious hype but trashes it.
For starters, Herr possessed a quality that is rare for a novelist, let alone a reporter, let alone a historian, let alone a “new journalist”: He had a way with words.
That way might range from scalpel-like reductions of complex experience (“Flying over jungle was almost pure pleasure, doing it on foot was nearly all pain.”–it’s the “almost” and the “nearly” that sell the twinned experiences as both singular human events and found poetry), to long, dreamlike passages that remain eerily precise, so that the writer is never dreaming alone.
This, a keen reportorial eye, and a sense of the absurd honed at places like Hue and Khe Sanh allow Herr to achieve a rare instance of someone reaching modernism’s long assumed goal, a place (or is it the place?) where madness and discipline walk hand in hand.
Our little adventure in Viet Nam was already in the Deep Doo Doo phase by the time Herr got there in 1967. Like Pop Time, War Time moved faster then, back on the other side of the divide that opened up and swallowed us a couple of years after Herr finally published this in 1977.
Nearly every page brings heartbreak and rage, often inseparable. Not so much because of then (though there is that) as because of now. I don’t know of any book that speaks so directly and eloquently to our refusal to learn anything at all except the one lesson that has remained inescapable–that when embarking on our current quarter-century-and-counting adventure in the Middle East, for which Nam turned out to be a dry run, we can have–hell, have had–a thousand phases, and they must never, ever include Deep Doo Doo.
Herr gets to that and every other phase of the original nightmare, though, and gives us sharp character sketches of all the players, from the headiest brass to the lowliest grunt. Every one of those characters is still recognizable. No amount of doo doo can cover the resemblances. They’re too striking.
I mean, who does not recognize this man?
…a hale, heartless CIA performer. (Robert “Blowtorch” Komer, chief of COORDS, spook anagram for Other War, pacification, another word for war. If William Blake had “reported” to him that he’d seen angels in the trees, Komer would have tried to talk him out of it. Failing there, he’d have ordered defoliation.)
You think he’s not in a drone room somewhere right now, wearing another name and another face, having the time of his life?
Not after reading this book you won’t.
I’ve read a lot of books about Viet Nam. This and H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty (a bare bones collection of the dry-hump memos passing and passing and passing between State, The White House and DOD in the mid-sixties) are the only two I’d deem essential.
That’s because both, in their very different ways, operate from the same implicit assumption. No question of war and peace ever rises to the level of a moral debate when the object is not victory or defeat but something–anything–else. And it’s entirely possible that, way down underneath where the lingering ghosts of conscience are stored, our current overlords will keep the current war–now in its twenty-fifth year with no end in sight–going on forever simply to affirm a rigid principle.
No more Dispatches!