McGEE AND THE MODERNS (Monthly Book Report: 5/16)

McGee….

Free Fall In Crimson (John D. MacDonald,1981)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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)

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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!

LONERS (Monthly Book Report: 4/16)

The Green Ripper (John D. MacDonald,1979)

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After a couple of mildly disappointing entries bracketing a four-year break, this was at least a partial return to form for the Travis McGee series. The love of McGee’s life, hanging on at the end of the previous book, is swiftly dispatched here and, of course, it turns out to be by nefarious means, though, in a somewhat unusual twist, it isn’t because she’s hanging around with McGee.

The book then turns into a somewhat standard revenge plot, with McGee going hard and mean after the perpetrators. It all takes a while to get going, but, once it does, MacDonald’s real strengths are back on full display.

To wit, McGee in self-analysis mode:

“If you are in a line of work where a bad guess can get you a pair of broken elbows, you tend to become a quick study.”

McGee on the sclerosis of modernity:

“They were not going to try to sell me anything. They did not have the twinkle, the up-front affability. They were not here to enforce one of the idiot rules of the bureaucracy that grows like high-speed cancer. They did not have that look of fatuous satisfaction and autocratic, patronizing indifference of fellows who come to tell you that you forgot to file Form Z-2324, as amended. Or to tell you that you can’t cut down your pine tree without enlisting the services of an approved, accredited, licensed tree surgeon. They looked important. As if they had come to buy the marina and put up a research institute.”

McGee to the gravedigger who responds to his reading Emily Dickinson over his dead girl’s ashes by asking if it’s ‘one of those religiions?’:

“Sort of.”

On being taken alive and held captive by the cult that was ultimately responsible for his girl’s murder:

“There was a cook in the camp. Even a slight taste of wine in the stew. Boiled onions, carrots, celery, tomatoes. And a lot of it. After my dinner I read a religious comic book. All about Samson yanking down that temple. Samson looked like Burt Reynolds. Delilah looked like Liz Taylor. The temple looked like the Chase Bank.”

On becoming an accepted member of the cult and being taken to task for his unacceptably bourgeoisie outlook by an intense young woman who insists “You have no right of approval or disapproval over anything I do or think or am” which most explicitly includes her commitment to murdering hundreds of people whenever and wherever the cult is ready to give the order:

“I’m just trying to understand is all.”

And the answer:

 “Don’t try. Just accept.”

On the other female cult member, the one who is sent to sleep with him:

“Poor little assassin. She had gone out into the world with an empty head, and somebody had crammed a single frightful idea into it, dressed up with a lot of important-sounding rhetoric. She couldn’t know the frightfulness of the idea because she had nothing by which to measure it.”

On the bleak aftermath of killing twelve people–none of whom actually carried out his girl’s murder and only one of whom had anything to do with it at all–and the emptiness of knowing the monsters who were really responsible are forever out of reach unless the information he’s been able to subsequently supply to the bureaucracy he despises ultimately allows it to impose a justice he will never hear about one way or the other:

“There was no great moment of my saying, ‘Aha!’ or ‘Eureka!’ It just slowly came clear, like the mist rising on a mountain morning. There was a black, deep, dreadful ravine separating me from all my previous days.”

In other words he had 1979 as the year of no turning back all pegged to hell. There’s value in remembering that in these days when we have government-funded studies of indeterminate length and cost to tell us all the very same things.

John Ford: Interviews (Gerald Peary, Ed. 2001)

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Ford was a notoriously cranky and unreliable interview subject. The cantankerousness and obfuscation are on full display here, in a collection of interviews (often spiced with impressionistic addenda from the journalists conducting them) that range from 1920 to 1973.

What else is on display? Just what you might expect: Nuggets of sharp insight into the business and art of film-making and the vicissitudes of human history and human nature that gleam from nearly every page, the most significant of which is probably this, from 1936:

“After all,” Ford said, sitting back, “you’ve got to tell your story through the people who portray it. You can have a weak, utterly bad script–and a good cast will turn it into a good picture. I’ve thwarted more than one handicap of that kind with the aid of two or three really fine actors.

“With the exception of the stars who are signed for parts by the studios in advance, I insist on choosing names for myself. And I spend more time on that task than any other.”

I haven’t kept up the category as I should, but there’s a reason, after much consideration, that I created a category here called “John Ford’s People.” Alone in Hollywood, and nearly alone in the world, Ford, the hard-bitten, isolate “picture maker,” placed his entire emphasis on human beings and, most specifically, human limits. He comes back to this, again and again and from every conceivable angle, throughout this volume covering fifty years of foolish, repetitive questions, for which it turns out he had far more time and patience than the false narrative he was forever mocking has allowed.

“Do you never laugh?” one of the questioners asks, in 1966.

“Yes, I laugh all the time. But inside.”

This little volume is the sound of John Ford laughing inside. Highly recommended for those who “get it.” Even more highly recommended for those who don’t.

SHORT AND SWEET (Monthly Book Report: March, 2016)

The Empty Copper Sea (John D. MacDonald,1978)

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Here, MacDonald returned to his hero, Travis McGee, after a four year break. Sometimes authors take a break from a series because they’ve run out of ideas. Sometimes they return with a fresh perspective and renewed energy.

That didn’t exactly happen here.

I said in last month’s review of 1974’s The Dreadful Lemon Sky that I preferred McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. There the balance was a bit off. Here, there’s barely any action at all. There’s a client, a problem and a love story. The client barely registers. The problem is a good one, but it’s treated with too much side-eye, too little direct involvement (for either McGee or the reader), to ever grab hold. The love story therefore takes center stage, but it takes too long in arriving and isn’t quite convincing enough or marvelous enough or sensual enough to be compelling all on its own.

That doesn’t mean the book is a complete waste to time. MacDonald had, if anything, become an even more acute social observer as the years went by and one can learn a lot about the suffocating power of modern bureaucracy by spending time with even the least interesting entries in this series.

And when the action–and the horror–finally do arrive, they are chilling enough.

Still, a thriller shouldn’t wait for the final twenty pages to become thrilling. The series has four books to run. I hope this is an anomaly.

MARKING TIME (Monthly Book Report: 2/16)

The Affair (Lee Child, 2011)

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I kind of liked the Tom Cruise movie based on Child’s Jack Reacher character and I saw a couple of the books cheap in a thrift store so I decided to give the series a go. This is the sixteenth entry (the series began in 1997), but, serendipitously, it’s told in flashback, so the action takes place a few months before the action of the series’ first novel. In other words, I wasn’t as far out of the loop as I might have been.

Good pulp always has it’s finger on the pulse of the future and Child has apparently decided that the only way ahead is to trust in our superheroes, who, along with the usual manly virtues, must combine the qualities of Superman, Super-Sleuth and Sociopath in about equal measure.

In other words, we’re doomed.

Skillfully done (laying aside the usual caveats about a book set in the south by a writer who doesn’t have much feel for the region), but I can’t help wondering if Child actually knows how creepy his hero is.

Maybe if I read further….

(NOTE: Child is a professed admirer of John MacDonald’s Travis McGee series and comparing the two can make you appreciate just how hard it is to bring a touch of something more than craft to such endeavors.)

Personal (Lee Child, 2014)

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Verdict’s in:

We’re still doomed.

Child still doesn’t know how creepy his hero is.

Those matters being respectively obvious and unresolved, all that’s left is the plot, which is meh. Up a notch for no sex therapy.

The Dreadful Lemon Sky (John D. MacDonald, 1974)

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After Child, a return to the McGee was refreshing, though this is just above middling.

The jabs at the march of profit-driven history flow sharp and terse: “I found a shopping center and found that they had left some giant oaks in the parking lot. This runs counter to the sworn oath of all shopping center developers. One must never deprive thy project of even one parking slot.”

There’s more than that of usual, but I confess I still admire McGee in action to McGee contemplating his navel. Unfortunately the balance favors the latter here, at least until the very end, when death is all around and leaves a genuine pall.

And the character sketches are among the sharpest in the entire series, including an eerily perfect template for Bill Clinton, if Bill Clinton had never made it out of Arkansas…or Florida.

JUST THE McGEE (Monthly Book Report: October, 2015)

…and, for last month, nothing but the McGee:

A Tan and Sandy Silence (John D. MacDonald, 1971)

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By now, the various working parts of the series were well-oiled bits of machinery: McGee the social critic; McGee the adventurer; McGee the Lothario-with-a-conscience. Commerce aside (as it never quite can be in popular pulp) the series is best when the second element is preeminent, there’s a healthy dose of the first, and the third is kept in check. Throughout the late sixties, MacDonald had real trouble holding the right balance, as if he couldn’t quite let go of wanting the series to be something more than high-end entertainment. (Oddly enough, he found what he was looking for when he got back to basics-with-a-twist–see the last entry below.)

Beginning with the previous book and continuing here, he found himself mostly back on stride. There’s still a little flab. But it picks up speed as it goes along and, by the time everything is coming to a head, McGee can toss off maxims like, “Tourists are invisible, except to the man trying to sell them something,” without slowing down, even while a girl is buried up to her neck on a hidden beach and the tide is rolling in.

A fourth element–McGee being gnawed by new doubts as he ages (doubts that both lead into and emanate from a scene where he is watching that tide while trussed and bound)–also makes its presence felt more strongly than before, though not so it distracts too much. All in all a strong entry, nearly on a par with the early years.

The Scarlet Ruse (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

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Better still and continuing the momentum. Here the basic adventure and the usual elements are underpinned by the threat of McGee and his little houseboat community losing their slips at Bahia Mar due to a local ordinance. It all works out in the end, but the subplot adds an extra layer of melancholy to a story that is bound to have some extra resonance for those of us who grew up in the Florida MacDonald knew so well.

The plot is strong–a stamp collection pilfered from the bank vault of a mobster who doesn’t yet know it’s missing, unless by chance he stole it himself–and McGee finds himself pitted against not one but two formidable villains who are also pitted against each other. There’s real danger and, in the end, and real damage to the hero both physically and psychically.

But having grown up across the Indian River from the Kennedy Space Center at the Space Age’s highest tide, my own favorite passage, which distills why these books are always going to be worth reading, was this one:

So I told her about the radio tape years ago, made in Lauderdale, and broadcast only once before NASA came galloping in, all sweaty, and confiscated it. The interviewer had asked one of those good and tough-minded and free-thinking men of the early days of space orbiting how he felt as the rocket was taking off. Maybe it was because he had heard the question too many times. He answered it with a question. “How would you feel, taking off, sitting up there on top of fifty thousand parts, knowing that every one of them had been let to the lowest bidder?”

“Grissom?” she asked. I nodded.

(For those who weren’t there or don’t recall, Gus Grissom was one of those who burned to death on top of a pile of those lowest-bidder parts. Future historians, pondering American decline, could do worse than focus on that moment as a tipping point. Those presently inclined to blame it all on the hippies could do worse than to focus on it in the here and now, when it might just possibly still not be too late to change course.)

The Turquoise Lament (John D. MacDonald, 1973)

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And coming off three straight strong entries, MacDonald raises his game to its highest pitch, with the best book in the series to date and a novel that could stand on its own even if you entered knowing nothing whatsoever of Travis McGee, his friend Meyer, the Busted Flush, or the State of America, circa 1973, though all of those elements are turned to good advantage here.

The basic story floats free of the series in some respects, but also culminates MacDonald/McGee’s trending pessimism and creeping self-doubt. McGee, already at full-blown mid-life crisis, answers a call from a much younger woman who once had a serious school-girl crush on him. She’s either going crazy or her husband wants to kill her. She wants him to find out which.

Not normally in the McGee’s line of business, but her late father once saved his life so he takes it on as repayment of the debt.

And, perhaps because he’s started out too close to the situation, he proceeds to get exactly everything wrong, with consequences that lead step-by-stop to both a crisis of faith and a deftly intertwined, hair-raising climax that pits McGee against one of his most terrifying and amoral villains.

The elements that sometimes make the books drag a bit are kept to a minimum and the sex-therapy is replaced by a genuine love story punctuated with the kind of sour-sex, hardcore, nail-anything-that-moves release you would expect from a McGee type in the real world, absent the need to set sexually liberated hearts aflutter (and I don’t just mean the women).

He survives it all in the end. Even the love story. And I look forward to the final decade of the series knowing this basically means he can survive anything–even being the protagonist of a novel the Bellow/Updike types would have killed to have their names on , if they’d only had the contacts.

And I can’t close this without quoting my favorite zinger of the series so far:

The medical industry is never ready for inquiry. They never used to like to answer questions. Now they have the excuse they could be sued. They overwork the excuse.

Doctors and lawyers, lined up perfectly to fit my life experience.

I’ll be real surprised if it gets any better than that.

RAMBLING AROUND (Monthly Book Report: September, 2015)

No sooner do I start thinking I’m gonna read so many books I need categories every month than I get life-whammied back down to the usual number. Oh well…One thing I am doing, beginning this month, is writing off books that I know I’m not going to live long enough to finish. Hence, my lifelong habit of finishing any book I start, no matter how boring/bad/mind-numbing it may be, is going by the wayside. Details at the end.

As for what I did finish…

The Odessa File (Frederick Forsyth, 1972)

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Forsyth’s followup to The Day of the Jackal, which I liked so much last month. This, too, is efficient and fast-moving. But the little shocks to the system that accompanied the journey of the Jackal are not repeated so, while it’s highly diverting, and a solid entry in the valuable Nazis-sure-are-evil-and-we-should-never-forget sub-genre, it’s no more than that.

The Long Lavender Look (John D. MacDonald, 1970)

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Latest in the Travis McGee series I’ve been reading in order and, after a late-sixties’ slump, this is a big rebound. The first hundred plus pages move at locomotive speed, so that the inevitable slow-down for the sex therapy session (which the McGee herein actually gives a name–right there on p. 133, he calls it “bedroom therapy” leaving each of us to decide for ourselves whether such self-awareness duly compensates for routinely trying our patience), actually comes as something of a relief.

MacDonald had a wise formula for getting his man off the schneid and it amounted to this: Find some way to get him back in the swamps with the Florida crackers.

Here, among the people the author seemed to know best and trust least, the tension always ratchets. So, although 1) there’s a bit of a letdown at the very end, when McGee’s creator basically pulls some punches so his man can avoid a true, final confrontation with the book’s most terrifying villain (a good-looking swamp girl with less than no morals, cat-like cunning and man-like strength); 2) a continuation of the trend that has McGee’s “therapied” women ending up dead or mutilated or both in scenes that have begun to play more and more like mercy killings; 3)  the hero’s vaunted “humanity” is really beginning to wear paper thin, rather like Natty Bumppo’s sermons, and 4) the once piquant social commentary has been replaced by long-winded griping about what’s on television, this is still a fine entry in the series.

Beyond an early look at the speed culture which permeated rural America in the first blush of “liberation” and has long since turned into the even more frightening and nihilistic meth culture that haunts trailer parks and mountain hollows in our own time, there’s also an anecdote on cruelty in the Indian sub-continent which should provide you with something to think about the next time you want to complain about say, Christianity, or the Western world’s concept of the rule of law, there’s also a neat twist on Double Indemnity, as McGee and his soon-to-be-dead-or-mutilated lady friend find themselves having to dispose of a body they didn’t kill.

All that plus a race-along plot that emerges like an unfolding nightmare steaming from a cypress swamp.

And, to top it off, an occasional bit of ominous perfection suitable to an emerging dank climax…Let’s just say I think I’ve been to this place and was very glad to stay the hell away, swamp girl or no swamp girl:

Read the signs on the boxes. Stane, Murrity. Floyd. Garrison. Perris.

Perris was a one-story block house painted a pale, waterstained green, with a roof of white asbestos shingles. There was a gnarled and handsome oak in the front yard. There had been white board fencing, but it was rotting away. There had been river gravel in the drive, but most of it had rain-washed away. Some dead trucks and cars sat out to the side of the house, hip deep in the raw green grasses of spring. There were parts of other dead vehicles strewn around. There was a big frame building behind the house, with both overhead doors up, so that I could see into it as I turned into the drive, see a little of work-benches and hoists and tools. A dainty little baby blue Opel with a savage little snout was parked under the spreading shade of the live oak out in front, its slanting windshield splattered with the grease of the exploding bugs of high-speed travel.

So, in the rural America where harsh reality and pulp fantasy are forever merging, the message, as always, is clear: Unless you were born here, stay away.

Linda Ronstadt (Vivian Claire, 1978)

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(I found no picture of the actual cover worth printing when this was available instead)

A quickie paperback produced at the height of Ronstadt’s fame and sent to me by a loyal reader (who knows who he is, and to whom, upon recently perusing the price of this on Amazon whilst searching for a possible cover image, I now realize I may owe more than a salute…many thanks!).

I have no idea who Vivian Claire is. She evidently wrote three of these in about a year (the others were on David Bowie and Judy Collins), and then disappeared…a nom de plume perhaps?

But, whoever she was, this is a valuable book. The relationship drawn between Ronstadt’s life, personality and music isn’t particularly deep, of course, but the outline is convincing and affectionate. And, if there is hardly time to fully explore the mountain range worth of crap an exceptionally sensitive soul residing in the body of a gorgeous, massively insecure femme had to put up with in the Cocaine Cowboy L.A. of the sixties and seventies, there is certainly enough to give a flavor.

That, plus copious quotes the singer herself gave various interviewers in the early years, before exceptional fame made her even more guarded than nature had already done.

The most telling of those was this:

“The only way I got through high school was by keeping a record player going constantly in my mind.”

No thousand pages on the price inevitably exacted by industrial education systems, or why people keep shooting up schoolrooms, could ever say more.

As for those which have fallen prey to my new commitment to waste as little of my life as possible going forward:

The Grid (Philip Kerr, 1995)

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Generally engaging pulp writer attempts to imitate a novel written by a computer. Succeeds all too well.

Abandoned on page 80.

Saints Rest (Thomas Gifford, 1997)

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The word is that the “traditional” publishing industry is dying because of technology (never mind that technology had, in every single previous generation dating back several thousand years, been an incomparable boon to the same industry). Maybe we should take a closer look at the possibility that continually publishing books with no redeeming virtues whatsoever played a part?

I mean when a sentence that reads “How in the name of all that was holy had it come to this?” passes for a relief because at least it’s brief…and the author is well known…and the blurbs are copious…

Well, maybe that’s just an industry that wants to die.

The book, for what it’s worth, concerns political intrigue of the Saintly-Democrat-Defending-America-From-Evil-Republican-Fascists variety. For the opposite number you probably have to go to a religious press, but honestly I’ve never come across one of these that was any good, irrespective of viewpoint, so call this one my bad.

Abandoned on page 78.

…I also read a couple of books which I’ll be reviewing for BWW soon, so it wasn’t really all that slack a month, just a little less than I’d hoped for.

Til next time….

 

UTOPIAS, DYSTOPIAS, MYOPIAS AND A BRIEF ROUNDUP OF THE USUAL SUSPECTS (Monthly Book Report: 8/15)

Since I’ve disconnected my television satellite and I’m not currently working on any side projects, I’m starting to have more time to read. I don’t know if the trend will last, but for now, I’m making two changes to the book report.

First, when there are more than the usual three or four books, I’m going to try to put them in categories, rather than simply reviewing by strict chronology according to the date I completed them.

Second, my policy with book covers up to now has been to post a copy of the edition I read, if I can find it. Seems like the more I read, the more of a chore and/or impossibility that becomes, so, starting now, I’m just going to use the cover of the edition I like best. Based on this month’s experiment, that will probably mean lurid for the pulp, stately for the classics, and functional for everything else.

So, sticking to the announced categories…

Utopias

Well, a pastoral anyway…

The Prairie (James Fenimore Cooper, 1827)

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And so, at long last, I fulfill a teenage promise to myself and finish the Leatherstocking Tales. This was the third written of the five, but the last chronologically for the character of Natty Bumppo. I’ve written at length elsewhere about the modern world’s odd and foolish neglect of Cooper, but I have to admit this was my least favorite of the series.

Cooper’s usual strengths, namely his unsurpassed descriptions of a wilderness Fitzgerald could evoke so swiftly and efficiently on the final page of The Great Gatsby in part because Cooper had done the heavy lifting for a century’s worth of readers in a pre-visual age, his action sequences, and his ability to wring real tragedy from melodramatic plots and a more than occasionally turgid literary style, are all present here, but severely muted.

Moving the setting from the upstate New York he knew like the back of his hand to midwestern plains he knew chiefly from the witness of others robs his descriptive passages of their authority.

Dealing with a landscape and tribal cultures he knew less than well meant he had to basically transport his stock characters into unfamiliar and sometimes ill-fitting skins.

With Chingachgook killed off and Natty aged out of both his heroic skill set and his appeal as a leading man (who broke a heart in The Deerslayer and had his broken in turn in The Pathfinder), the romances fail to spark.

And with the conflict between the woods and the town (or the fort) replaced by a roving fight between rootless and unsavory settlers, more unsavory Sioux, and noble Pawnees (standing in for the noble Delawares of Natty’s younger years), the great theme of civilization encroaching on the wilderness and vice versa never comes to life until the very end.

Even so, the book is hardly without worth. There’s some good comic relief from a naturalist who is Natty’s equal for stubbornness and pluck, though not for intelligence. (If classic Hollywood had taken on the story, Donald Meek could have played him perfectly).  And there’s a genuinely horrific scene, after the not-for-the-faint-of-heart fashion Cooper had mastered if not invented, in which the rude settlers are forced to punish one of their own for killing one of their own.

Plus, Natty’s long day’s journey into night is handled with grace and aplomb, a fitting end for the character, even if the series carried on until the 1840s and found its pinnacle in The Deerslayer, set first and written last, by which time Cooper knew a lot more than the thing or two that had already made him America’s first major novelist, and an undismissible guide to our national psyche, by the time this was written.

Myopias

Jake’s Thing (Kingsley Amis, 1978)

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Yet another reminder that, if satirists have their uses, they also have their limits.

Based on his famous and, as the English say, spot-on preference for John MacDonald (“by any standards a better writer”) over Saul Bellow (“a human heart chap”), plus happy experiences with The Anti-Death League (a genuinely great spy novel from 1966) and Lucky Jim (his misanthropic career maker from 1954), I’ve cut Sir Kingsley a fair bit of slack over the years.

That slack has now stretched to cover The Green Man (1969), The Russian Girl (1992) and this. And unless somebody can convince me he had another Anti-Death League in him–or at least a novel which isn’t yet another variant on Lucky Jim–I’m done.

I’m done even though this had a smile on nearly every page, a laugh on more than a few and a potentially intriguing premise: “Is male menopause any sort of crisis for a misanthrope?”

Amis was a Conservative Hedonist. He practiced a style of world-weary, seen-it-all, Englishness that probably reached its peak with Lucky Jim and had evidently worn thin by the time the Sexual Revolution got up a real head of steam. Conservative Hedonism was certainly preferable to it’s Liberal counterpart. Real Hate is more bracing than Fake Love in both Art and Life. But it’s lost its sting now that the age of cultural collapse it foreshadowed has arrived in force.

Laughter’s precious, alright, but it’s not worth the supercilious slog that Amis began extracting from his readers as the price of the ticket. And, God help him, somewhere along the way he started trying to invest in character development, almost always a deadly notion for a satirist.

One can ponder “Jake Richardson,” or Kingsley Amis, and get a glimpse into why and how civilizations fail alright. It’s when enough people who might have done better, don’t.

Not saying there’s no value in being reminded.

But one reason I never got into Seinfeld or Larry David or any other recent version of the lineage Amis the Elder (his son, God help us, writes too) had picked up from H.L. Mencken (a truly corrosive misanthrope who was evidently a frustrated Hedonist, always the kind who both start this sort of thing and are bound to be the best at it), is that, at some point, very soon after you take its measure, the corrosiveness is just plain tiresome.

Life’s too short.

Oh yeah. The “thing” is impotence…or lack of desire to perform even in the face of undiminished capacity….or the male member.

One of those. Or maybe all of them.

All nice subjects for satire. This would have made a great short story, so if I do try Amis again it will probably be through that route.

I’m old enough myself to have commitment issues whenever I get ten pages into a novel and realize it’s already going in circles around a very familiar track.

Dystopias

NOTE: I usually avoid dystopian novels written by anyone but Philip K. Dick, for the same reason I usually avoid novels about psychotics written by anyone except Patricia Highsmith. If a standard exists, met over and over by the standard setter, why bother with the rest? That said, the classics of certain genres do beckon when I’m in the mood to further my education, hence, the following:

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1931) and Brave New World Revisited (1958)

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Huxley’s great insight was his recognition that the old truth about Religion and Art being incompatible with the New Age’s rising Gods (one of which is, amusingly, always called Science or, even funnier, Reason, the other of which, given that it covers everything from political boot-licking to industrial criticism, must never, ever be called anything as mundane as Journalism and therefor can never, amusingly or otherwise, be called anything at all) was reaching a new, feverish pitch, even when he knocked his original dystopia into a novel of sorts.

The world more or less survived the first go-round with Perfection. Fascism came and went. Soviet style communism was still going strong when Huxley “revisited” his own vision in the late fifties, but has come a cropper since.

We’ve found new ways to terrorize and undermine ourselves here lately.

Still, his vision was on-track in the macro sense. We’ve been fairly resistant to Big Brother, but we do love our machines and our drugs and we are using them to reshape ourselves into something already recognizable as the very subversions of “brave” and “new” that Huxley glimpsed in outline in the early thirties.

Like most dystopian novels (Dick excepted), Brave New World is a bit of a chore once the premise is established, but I’m glad I finally read it–sense of accomplishment and all–and I agree with those who insist it was a more likely vision of the future than Orwell’s.

Still, it’s less likely than the vision at the back of all the other western visions, laid down by John the Revelator after a mad dream incurred on the Isle of Patmos. Like I said. Only Philip K. Dick has got past him.

The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1986)

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…And while I was in a dystopian mood, I thought I might as well tackle this one.

It’s a little more engaging than Orwell or Huxley. There’s an approximation of a human character at the center (she narrates) and a neat twist at the end. The vision itself isn’t very complicated or compelling. It’s made up out of bits and pieces of standard dystopian rubble and glued together by the even more standard Good Liberal horror of (and complete misunderstanding of) Evangelical Christianity. Anyone who has ever attended a Wednesday night business meeting at the local First Baptist, or understands even a little bit about how the chaotic anti-structure of Protestant sects actually works, will get a wry smile out of the notion that such folks will be running the New World Order, Star Chamber fashion, any day now. (The Handmaid’s Tale is set in what is supposed to be a disturbingly near future.)

On the positive side, the book is well written and there are a lot of sound general insights. Nothing that couldn’t have been gleaned from a good captivity narrative, mind you. (I know, because I just finished a captivity narrative myself and have been studying the sources.)

What really made this a grind, though, was that the specifics, despite being oh-so-carefully rendered, simply weren’t very convincing. It read like a philosophical treatise, not something the author felt in her bones.

So a lot like Brave New World–or 1984–after all.

The book was published in the eighties. If Atwood wanted to remain contemporary a generation hence she should have put jihadis in control of her world.

Of course, if she had, she would probably be dead or in hiding now.

I have no idea whether this was a failure of imagination on her part, or a failure of nerve.

And, despite her obvious skill, no desire to investigate further.

…the Usual Suspects

The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

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Jesus. The first half of this is so touchy-feely I thought I’d picked up a Harlequin Romance by mistake. There are letters for God’s sake, and no sign of the usual gimlet eye, sizing up the late twentieth century, let alone any sort of adventure going on.

It picks up in the second half. But even then is seems more like a misguided attempt to imitate Ross MacDonald than anything I’d want or expect from the McGee.

Weakest of the series so far.

Dress Her In Indigo (John D. MacDonald, 1969)

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I hate to say it, but the late sixties were not a good time for MacDonald/McGee. At least this time around he has the makings of a good story. even if it’s back to Mexico with not much to say that he hadn’t already said better.

There are too many twists and turns here and they don’t all make a lot of sense. When the bereaved father of a lost girl turns out to be not the out-of-shape midwestern businessman we’ve been led to believe but a stone cold torturer/murderer, the problem isn’t so much that it’s a stretch, or even that it’s a long stretch. It’s that the revelation comes as a total surprise to McGee, but not to the reader.

Believe me, I’m a pure sucker. You can have me agape with the least effort imaginable. But even I saw every twist coming, except for one very small, and genuinely unsettling one near the very end.

In short, too much sex therapy, as had become the norm (though at least this time around it’s the various fantasy women providing and McGee receiving). Too much intricate plotting (leave it to the other MacDonald, i.e. Ross, not to mention Agatha Christie, for they were good at it). Too much Meyer (I like Meyer, we all like Meyer, but McGee doesn’t need a true Watson). And yet again, no really memorable villain.

The McGee was clearly in a slump. The late sixties had thrown both him and his creator. I have fond memories of some of the books coming up so I’m looking forward to a rebound. This was a little better than the last one, but it’s also the first in the series that had me checking page numbers, which is the equivalent of checking your watch in a movie, wondering just how much longer until it’s over.

Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett, 1978)

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Having finally caught up last month with The Day of the Jackal, which story I knew from the fine film version, I decided to give this one, which inspired an even better film, a try.

Turns out the movie was a solid improvement (whereas the film of Jackal just held its ground). In part, because more liberties were taken.

The book is fine, a definite page turner, but it isn’t quite as good as Jackal, which was even better than the movie it inspired.

I don’t know if Follett was attempting a spin on Forsyth or anyone else, but coincidentally or not, his central track, in a story with an otherwise rather similar structure, ran opposite.

In Jackal, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in that case a paid murderer, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of espionage) from being revealed as a sociopath until the last possible instant.

In Eye of the Needle, the trick was to keep the lone man trying to outwit the powers of the police state (in this case, a German spy loose in the England of WWII, who must necessarily be an expert in the craft of unpaid murder) from being revealed as something other than a sociopath. This is where the movie was an improvement (even though most critics didn’t get it…do they ever?).

Here, the murderous spy is merely cold-blooded, a standard Nazi-oid type most of us have encountered so frequently in fiction and film we’re bound to find ourselves stifling an occasional yawn by now, now matter how skillfully he’s rendered.

The film changed a few key sequences to hint at a man who got into it for excitement and love of country but knows he has lost his soul along the way. Given that for a premise, his affair with a lonely woman makes strong dramatic and emotional sense. In the novel, it’s far more mechanical and efficient. Still compelling, mind you, but the compulsion is strictly intellectual.

The movie of Eye of the Needle leaves an echo. The novel, well done as it is, is over when it’s over.

HEROES AND VILLAINS (Book Report: 7/15)

One Fearful Yellow Eye (John D. MacDonald, 1966)

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In which MacDonald/McGee catch the Literary Virus, Pulp Strain. Not the worst case I’ve seen by any means (he had a thing for Updike which, for a thriller writer, is probably not quite as bad as having a thing for Mailer) but dreary enough. The one strong element is that the monsters aren’t revealed until late, much later than usual. Keeping you in suspense about who to watch out for isn’t one of the hallmarks of the series and delaying the identity of the real villain works when not much else does. And if they’re Nazis on the run? Well, it wasn’t as tired a trope in 1966 as it is now.

The other hallmarks are here: sex therapy, don’t get too close to McGee to early in the story if you’re a female of the species because the ride isn’t gonna be worth it, sharp social insight. For once, though, the plot doesn’t really pick up any pace, not even at the end when the pulse should be pounding.

It’s possible MacDonald sensed he was foundering, because he took a whole year off before publishing….

Pale Gray for Guilt (John D. MacDonald, 1968)

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…Which is much stronger. Not quite up to the very best in the series but definitely back on track.

Forty-five pages in we get this:

“Near the cities, all the old highways of America pass businesses that have gone broke. End of the dream. The spoor of a broken marriage can be kept in a couple of cartons on a shelf in the garage. Broken lives can be tucked neatly away in graves and jails and sanitariums. But the dead business in a sub-marginal commercial strip stays right there, ugly and moldering away, the frantic advertising signs of the final convulsive effort fading and tattering over the weeds.”

On the money, of course. MacDonald rarely puts a foot wrong when he hones in on tattered dreams. But that passage isn’t just tossed in to show us how prescient McGee can be. It’s deep in the marrow of the plot, which springs from a dead business that has been subsumed by a rapacious, big-dog-eats-small-dog process which has become so familiar in the decades since that it’s become virtually impossible to think any other process could exist and which here leaves plenty of broken lives before its done.

Incidentally it’s been said about California, but it might be truer that what happens in Florida eventually happens everywhere and the twinned sociopathies of the big time businessman who stomps on small businesses with all the care and concern an elephant spends on a caterpillar underfoot and the small town cop who does the system’s bidding at the business end of the affair are each the stuff of today’s headlines, not the mention the stories that never make the papers.

Again, a strong entry and more proof that, at least in the McGee series, MacDonald did most of his really first-rate writing about the place he knew best.

The Day of the Jackal (Frederick Forsyth, 1971)

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A political thriller that is all thrills, no politics, and stronger for it. The plot is a step-by-step manual for political assassins (this concerns one targeting Charles DeGaulle) which has since inspired a few real life attempts. The tension generated is remarkable by any standard and especially so for a book where we know the famous target died in bed.

The skill displayed throughout is considerable, far more than I expected based on, The Dogs of War, which is the only other Forsyth I’d read. But the key to the technique isn’t revealed until fifty pages from the end when the Jackal, having murdered a woman he’s been using for a temporary cover with his bare hands goes about her bedroom calmly altering his physical appearance in order to assume yet another identity and you read: “The naked body on the floor he ignored.”

Up until that moment it’s been possible to believe the Jackal is simply a cool, calculating professional, different from a plumber or an accountant in degree rather than kind.

After that moment, he’s revealed as a psychopath and far more chilling for having had his soul masked under expert journalism for three hundred pages prior.

Highly recommended, even if you’ve seen Fred Zinneman’s excellent movie version numerous times and enjoyed it as much as I have.

Go Set a Watchman (Harper Lee, 1957)

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Reviewed here.

SUMMER’S HERE…AND THE TIME IS RIGHT FOR TURNING MY BRAIN INTO A BLUNT OBJECT (Monthly Book Report: June, 2015)

Boy, the pulps are taking over. I may start eating broccoli again soon but, for now, it’s strictly cheeseburgers:

The Shot (Philip Kerr, 1999)

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Kerr is probably best known for his Bernie Gunther series, of which I read the first three some years back. Here, as there, he doesn’t expend a lot of effort on style. I gather he strictly rises and falls on the quality of his ideas.

The idea here is a good one. A shadow version of the Kennedy Assassination that holds its tension nicely until it takes one turn too many at the very end (or maybe just finally takes a wrong turn). As such things go, it’s a bit better than Don DeLillo’s crit-friendly Libra, though not nearly as good as James Ellroy’s fever dream American Tabloid, which is almost certainly the best novel ever written by a pud-pulling fascist.

A Deadly Shade of Gold (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

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Given the setup–an old friend is murdered over Aztec gold and McGee wants to help his woman find both the gold and the killer–I had hopes our hero would avoid the sex therapy.

He doesn’t, and, worse, his failure doesn’t ring true. But it’s a small complaint. This is the best and most ambitious of the series so far. It’s nearly twice the prescribed formula’s length and that length allows the formula to open up. Of course, we have the usual sharp socio-political insights, some of them even weighing in on the future, as first-rate pulp has to do in order to remain first rate. So we get McGee on the burgeoning Education Industry:

“It was a building to turn out the men who could house fabulous technicians with that contempt for every other field of human knowledge which only the truly ignorant can achieve. It was a place to train ants to invent insecticides.”

But here, that’s just the setup. The hero is swimming with the sharks soon enough and the real reward is a tangled-but-plausible plot that moves from Miami’s Cuban exile community to the high art antique world (where McGee, for once, actually trades sex for information, though he’s improbably decent enough to feel bad about it) to Mexico’s second tier resorts to a washed-out California paradise nobody in their right mind would ever want to live in, all without dropping a stitch. Somewhere in there, the ugly elements of our current predicament emerge, crouching, waiting to take form.

And, hey, because it’s John D. MacDonald, you can have fun, too. If that’s your thing.

Bright Orange for the Shroud (John D. MacDonald, 1965)

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The sub-plot is a fairly interesting twist. One of McGee’s sex-therapy successes, Chookie the dancer, provides similar therapy for a down-and-outer who comes limping back into their lives after he’s been taken for a ride by a gold-digger who turns out to be part of a larger, nastier shakedown. Not to give anything away, but Chookie and the down-and-outer end up getting married.

Not until they’ve outlasted one of MacDonald’s truly terrifying villains.

It was MacDonald who created the role Robert Mitchum defined in the original Cape Fear (a role that Mitchum strode through with the kind of easy menace such men actually possess in life and which thoroughly defeated Robert DeNiro when he gave it a go a generation later). He repeated a version of it in the kick-starter for the McGee series and it’s hard to believe he can take it any further than he does here with Boo Waxwell, who defines the middle-class fear of the hillbilly so well he jumps off the page and into the nervous system.

You want to know why people carry guns?

Because Travis McGee is a fine fantasy.

In my part of the world, Boo Waxwell’s always around somewhere.

Darker Than Amber (John D. MacDonald, 1966)

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This one’s notable mostly for the first serious involvement of Meyer (McGee’s Watson) in one of the cases. It works smoothly enough and there’s always the pleasure of the writer honing in on the faces-behind-the-faces who generate so much of the world’s misery (Meyer: “A corporate financial statement is the most nonspecific thing there is. If a man can’t read the lines between the lines between the lines, he might as well stuff his money into a hollow tree.”…there’s our long journey down the rat-hole in a nutshell).

But, after a promising beginning, the plot doesn’t amount to much. Putting McGee up against a bunch of second-raters isn’t likely to generate much tension. Granted, it’s always harder to sustain interest once a formula’s elements become too comfortably familiar, but I don’t think that’s the reason this was the first in the series that had me checking page numbers and looking at my watch.

Start finding out for sure, next month I guess.

Til then…

LONERS (Monthly Book Report: May, 2015)

[NOTE: There was actually a good bit more May reading. I’ve already posted my review of Paul Williams’ Outlaw Blues. I also read the sixth book in the Travis McGee series thinking it was the fifth so I’ll review both next month. Also working my way through the Library of America’s Ross MacDonald volume which I hope to review for BWW later in the month. With all that, the regular book report is a little slim but a couple of worthwhile entries nonetheless.]

Shane (Jack Schaefer, 1949)

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“His past was fenced as tightly as our pasture.”

I read this as a teenager, long before I first saw the classic film it inspired and was duly impressed. As someone who went away for a while and “came back” to the western years later (I always watched some films, but not nearly enough to understand the genre properly, and stopped reading them almost entirely), I’m more impressed now.

Even more than that very great movie (which, remarkably, improved it in some ways) Shaefer’s finely wrought novel is an elegant blend of cowboy, homesteader and gunfighter history and mythology, told sparingly and without fuss by one of those adult-narrators-recalling-childhood who, like Scout Finch or Mattie Ross, is entirely, even disarmingly, honest, but, at such a distance, perhaps not entirely reliable.

These days it’s also striking in part for how much was taken for granted in 1948 that now seems sufficiently ancient as to be biblical:

 “They had the stump way up at a high angle. They were down in the hole, one on each side of it, pushing up and forward with hands flat on the under part reared before them higher than their heads. You would have thought the stump was ready to topple over clear of its ancient foundation. But there it stuck. They could not quite push it the final inches.

“Mother watched them battling with it. ‘Joe,’ she called, ‘why don’t you use some sense? Hitch up the team. Horses will have it out in no time at all.’

“Father braced himself to hold the stump still. He turned his head to look at her. ‘Horses!’ he shouted. All the pent silence of the two of them that long afternoon through was being shattered in the one wonderful shout. ‘Horses! Great jumping Jehosephat! No! We stared this with manpower, and by Godfrey, we’ll finish it with manpower.'”

Not to mention the simple description of the quintessential American…

“Nobody’ll push him around or scare him away.”

Now vanished of course. Good riddance to some, and maybe he never really existed. It’s a fable after all. But it may be worth remembering that the idea of him once existed. And that it’s only very lately we’ve convinced ourselves he’s no longer necessary….

Shaefer’s narrator, speaking from a point somewhere between the novel’s publication date and the age of its setting, seems already well aware of the distinction between myth and memory and the ways in which each anticipates the other:

“A haze of thinning smoke was by the ceiling over them all, floating in involved streamers around the hanging lamps. This was Grafton’s saloon in the flush of a banner evening’s business. But something was wrong, was missing. The hum of activity, the whirr of voices, that should have risen from the scene, been part of it, was stilled in a hush more impressive than any noise could be. The attention of everyone in the room, like a single sense, was centered on that dark figure just inside the swinging doors, back to them and touching them.

“This was the Shane of the adventures I had dreamed for him…”

That last is a nice corrective for those who think those old guys who translated western myth and, yes, western history, for the new and improved twentieth century didn’t know what they were about.

The Quick Red Fox (John D. MacDonald–1964)

QUICKREDFOX

Fourth in the Travis McGee series, which I’m planning to reread in its entirety in the coming months.

Remarkably, this was MacDonald’s fourth McGee book in the space of a year and, knowing him, he probably had a couple of others out as well. The pace tells a bit here. There are certain things you have to leave by the wayside if you type that fast.

That said, so far, these books have all been rewarding well beyond the already considerable pleasures of top level pulp aesthetics that make them hum right along.

This one puts McGee among the Hollywood elite, searching for a blackmailer who has photos of a famous actress (Liz Taylor famous apparently, though the character doesn’t seem based on anyone in particular) taking part in an orgy.

No big deal now, of course, when the only problem would be managing the roll-out and the publicity leaks. But, 1964 being almost as long ago as 1864 in psychic time, that sort of thing was, in those days, still a scandal that could have wrecked a career.

McGee, though, is certainly done with all that “Shane” stuff. Having a series to maintain, more books to sell, a new mythology to peddle, he scoffs at the notion that a man who can’t or won’t fit into ordinary life may be missing out on something:

“I am not a nine to five animal. I cannot swallow the myths which say nine to five is a Good Thing because that’s the way nearly everybody else gets stuck.”

Four books in and I already know that when McGee starts talking like that–like he’s left the “myths” behind–he’s a few chapters away from being in love with “the one.”

In this case it’s the actress’s secretary and this time he swears (repeatedly, to himself and to us) it’s not just sex therapy.

Of course, I also know it’s not going to work out somehow or other and the way it doesn’t work out in this one isn’t quite as effective as the way it didn’t work out in The Deep Blue Good-by. It works well enough but not so well I didn’t start wishing he (or his creator) would leave well enough alone.

Too bad, because the plot is otherwise lean and tough, the social insights sharp as usual. There’s an especially nice paean to San Francisco, in 1964, already “lost” as it has continued to be for somebody or other every few years since.

And there’s this, an ode to the future we now inhabit:

“Our dear Uncle owns over 23,000 polygraphs. Lie detectors. God alone knows how many industry owns. Not satisfied anymore with giving you the whole series of Multiphasic Personality Inventory tests, they want to make damn well certain you are not merely giving them the answers you think they want.”

And, okay, I have to admit, even the romance isn’t without its familiar charms:

“I liked Dana’s delight….I knew I had to watch it, or I would be trapped into the hopeless project of trying to find ways to delight her.”

So even the least of these so far (replete I should add, with the contempt for the bourgeoisie shared by every thriller writer I know except Ross MacDonald and, I suspect, the true reason “crime” fiction is held in so much higher regard than its “western” equivalent), is satisfying on multiple levels.

All that, plus a theory of “the one percent” that beats anything Occupy Wall Street came up with.

Can’t wait for 1965 to get here!