The Sage of Bahia Mar

June 29th, 2011

John D. MacDonald

I have been revisiting Travis McGee, one of the great serial novel characters of the last century (the others are Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin).  John D. MacDonald wrote 21 books about Mcgee, and I have been reading them seriatim, following not only the character’s development and maturation but also that of the author.  McGee was a self-described “boat bum”, living aboard a fifty-two foot houseboat named The Busted Flush at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar marina, Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  He fought in the Korean War, so by now, if he lived this long, he would be in his eighties, although it’s hard to imagine him doddering around a retirement community, plaid pants pulled up to his navel.  He’d be one of those trim, energetic octogenarians doomed to outlive everyone he loves.  He made his living as a “salvage consultant.”  If someone had something taken from them – money; reputation; valuable artifacts – in such a way that the law couldn’t recover it, McGee would try to get it back.  If he was successful, he would take his expenses off the top, then split the recovery down the middle, on the theory that half of something is better than nothing. 

Yeah, they were thrillers, filled with vivid characters, exciting action, convoluted plot, and an almost painfully precise sense of place.  Because MacDonald wrote “genre fiction,” he is given little literary cred, but fuck the literati, says I.  You know how Archer Mayor nails the distinctive character of each little Vermont town he sets out to describe?  MacDonald had the same grasp of Florida’s landscape, and a tragic sense of how the state was changing, its environment and society eroding under the pressure of demography and greedhead development in the latter part of the twentieth century.  Although McGee memorably visits New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico, Pago Pago, and other destinations, McGee is best when he is closest to his roots, in the peninsula.

The great subject of the McGee books, their overarching theme, is the difficulty that men and women, victims of acculturation to the sexually bizarre, confused and predatory society of post-WWII America, experienced in connecting as humans.  My mother, a voracious reader of mysteries, didn’t like the McGee books because she found Travis annoying.  Particularly in the earlier books, he is always encountering a damaged woman, usually sexually frigid as a result of abuse she has suffered, and rescuing her through the miracle of his own authenticity and his respect for her integrity as a person.  Not a bad formula, and he gets laid a lot, but it does become a bit wearing, before McGee grows out of it in the later books and starts to seek something deeper, more mutual.  MacDonald could never be described as a feminist – more accurately, he was a humanist, who subscribed to the theory (in the words of the bumper sticker) that women are people too.

Among the great pleasures of the McGee books are the frequent, trenchant asides in which MacDonald, speaking through the highly intelligent, sensitive, and socially disaffected Mcgee, gives vent to observations and ideas about what is happening in and to the culture around him.  He had some blind spots.  In a couple of the books, he expresses embarrassingly ignorant and contemptuous notions about gay people.  A charitable reader might observe that the last major gay character to appear in the books is depicted with more nuance and humanity and respect than were earlier ones, so it seems his attitudes may have been evolving; after the date of the Stonewall Riots we don’t hear much about gays at all, which may be evidence of a seemly reticense.  Or maybe McGee and his creator merely shared the ignorant homophobia of their times.  Whatever.  We forgive Dickens for his women and Jews.  Mostly, the aperçus MacDonald put into McGee’s mouth are spot on.  Here are some typical paragraphs set in Houston from Cinnamon Skin, published in 1982, so prescient they gave me a little shudder when I encountered them today:

Walking back through the mall to the exit nearest our part of the parking lot, we passed one shop which sold computers, printers, software, and games.  It was packed with teenagers, the kind who wear wire rims and know what the new world is about.  The clerks were indulgent, letting them program the computers.  Two hundred yards away, near the six movie houses, a different kind of teenager shoved quarters into the space-war games, tensing over the triggers, releasing the eerie sounds of extraterrestrial combat.  Any kid back in the computer store could have told the combatants that because there is no atmosphere in space, there is absolutely no sound at all.  Perfect distribution: the future managers and the future managed ones.  Twenty in the computer store, two hundred in the arcade.

The future managers have run on past us into the thickets of SP/M, M-Basic, Cobal, Fortran, Z-80, Apples, and Worms.  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, bigger than the wheel, bigger than Franklin’s kite, bigger than paper towels.

I love that bit about paper towels.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 29th, 2011 at 10:11 pm and is filed under Literature. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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