monday, february 06, 2006
The Deep Blue Goodbye - John D. McDonaldOne of the most beloved and revered characters in American fiction is Travis McGee. There is something ineffably compelling about this unique detective whose residence was a houseboat he won in a poker game. But McGee, that “tattered knight on a spavined steed,” certainly wasn’t sui generis. He was very much the product of the author that created him, John D. McDonald.
McDonald was a business school graduate who served in the OSS during World War II. He started writing after the war and after a meager beginning he blossomed into a prodigious and prolific talent and it was his forty-fourth novel that sealed his literary fame. The Deep Blue Goodbye was published originally in 1964 and was the first of 21 books that followed the character across two-and-a-half decades.
McGee is six-feet-four, two hundred and five pound veteran of the Korean War who now lives an unusual Bachelor existence on his houseboat docked in slip F-18 of the Bahia Mar marina in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He doesn’t work in the sense of having a job. Instead he gets by as a one-of-a-kind treasure hunter. Essentially, if you have lost something of value and cannot get it back by normal means, he would get it for you. His fee? Half the value of what it is worth.
The treasure in The Deep Blue Goodbye is the stolen fortune of a young woman whose father had smuggled a fortune in gems back home from overseas. The thief is a cruel and cunning man named Junior Allen who also has a penchant for brutality toward women – taking an intense pleasure in destroying their lives completely.
McDonald’s books, the McGee series in particular, drew more than the simple cape of noir and manipulations of plot that made up the bulk of pulp detective. McDonald, like Raymond Chandler, heralded back to the works of Charles Dickens in the sense they were good stories on one level, but sharp social criticism on another. The McGee series is as much about the ills of modern society – racism, ecological destruction, infidelity and the collapse of any sense of moral behavior – as it is about finding the bad guy. In fact, solving the mystery is often an ancillary incident.
One thing that stands out in the book is McGee's harsh cynicism. He has an intensely dour perspective of the America and the material nonsense that envelops everyone who lives there. His sharp perception has done more than simply provide him with an ability to ascertain the actual meaning of innocuous things it has given him a weary interpretation of a culture that is too busy being in love with itself.
McGee is so repulsed he has pulled up his ties and retreated to a vagabond life on his houseboat. He lives his life on his own terms but forever arm's length from the culture that surrounds him. But, ironically, that gives him the best perspective for seeing it and chronicling it. Reading the books you watch American culture change from the Kennedy/Camelot era through the counterculture movement of the late 1960s, to the jaded hedonism of the 1970 and into the “me” decade of Reagan’s America.
There is a kind of romantic Byronesque glory to the character that makes him possess such wide appeal but McDonald always had more up his sleeve than creating an avatar for deprived youthful ideals. He was always sharp enough to show the price his beloved character paid. McGee often loses the people he has finally had the courage to reach out to and make connections with.
Even here at the start, in the pages of The Deep Blue Goodbye, you begin to suspect McGee's anchorite tendencies are not completely a statement of independence but rather a product of the toll of his losses. Somewhere in his heart he knows that the sad, deluded people he scorns have a sense of belonging he knows he will never be able to attain.
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