Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Generation Gap Part 2

February 23, 2015

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By Kevin Comer

In the last few years I had been ever more uncomfortably aware that one day, somewhere, I would take one last breath and a great iron door would slam shut, leaving me in darkness on the wrong side of life. But now there was a window in that door. A promise of light. A way to continue.

— Travis McGee consoles himself in The Lonely Silver Rain (1985).

In Dress Her in Indigo (1969), Travis McGee and Meyer meet wheelchair-bound T. Harlen Bowie in his suite at an upscale assisted living facility, where he explains his reasons for wanting them to investigate the life wayward daughter Bix led in Mexico before her death:

“Mr. McGee, I know damned little about what my daughter, Bix, felt and thought and believed. I’ve had a lot of time to think. And a lot of the thinking has been painful. Appraisal of myself as a father—very, very poor…”

In a 1967 journal entry, JDM laments his similarity to his father: “He appears most often when I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror at such an angle that the look of my mouth and jaw reminds me of him and it always makes me despise myself instantaneously, then tell myself what else can you expect from genetics, for God’s sake, and was he so bad of a man? What kind of a man was he? I am afraid I shall never be able to determine that, but I will be able to accept the fact that I cannot appraise him truly. I cannot root him out of me in certain physical ways, nor in certain habits of mind and emotion, I expect. It seems wasteful to have to keep trying, or wanting to try.”

For his part, JDM’s father, Eugene, had occasion to write of JDM: “I can see myself in him in so many different ways.”

Born in 1888 in New Haven, Connecticut, Eugene MacDonald was a completely self-made man. The son of a violent and impoverished father who worked as a gardener and handyman, Eugene lifted himself up by his bootstraps in the spirit of his guiding light, the novels of Horatio Alger. He wrote in an unpublished memoir: “The stories gave me confidence, hope and ambition.”

Eugene started working at age 14, yet completed high school with excellent grades. He seems to have been able to make a very favorable impression on people. A congressman on his paper route—one of several concurrent jobs—offered to sponsor him for West Point; another customer arranged a scholarship to Yale. Concern for his mother kept him from accepting either opportunity.

After using his meager savings to finance the family’s escape from his father’s rages to his uncle’s home in Washington, D. C., Eugene gradually worked his way up in the world through a myriad of odd jobs and correspondence courses. By the time JDM was born in 1916, he had entered the middle class.

Eugene’s big break came in 1918, when while moonlighting as an accountant, he discovered his wealthy client had overpaid his taxes by $100,000 ($2,380,000 in 2015 dollars, but that’s another matter). The grateful client made him secretary-treasurer of his rail tank car business. At age 30, Eugene was in the money.

When that firm fell on hard times, Eugene joined the Savage Arms Company in Utica, New York as a vice-president and treasurer where he remained for the rest of his career.

Eugene was a stern and gloomy father, except perhaps at Christmas, according to JDM’s sister, Doris. His conversation with the children consisted most often of the aphorisms of success, such as: “You get out of a thing just what you put into it.”

His father had definite ideas about what JDM’s educational and career goals should be. When Eugene was unable to convince JDM to pursue a career in law, he prevailed upon him to study business. JDM began his college career in 1933 at the very prestigious Wharton School of Finance affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia.

Eugene had come up the hard way. He did whatever work was available to get ahead and take care of his mother and sister. Multiple paper routes, sewing hooks and eyes on cards, working as a lamplighter, doing telephone maintenance, mailing seed packets, polishing shell casings, bookkeeping, and taking correspondence courses in his free time. He’d found poverty and hardship very motivating.

When JDM returned home and enrolled at Syracuse University three months after dropping out of Wharton during his sophomore year and—like Johnny years later—scampering off to try his luck in NYC, Eugene made him take part-time jobs to pay for school. And when he struggled to find his footing in the work world, Eugene declined to help. He wrote: “During the last year he has supported himself, his wife and baby not at the scale of living to which he has been accustomed, but none the less they have not suffered for something to eat or a place to sleep. In my contacts with him I have tried to make him independent, and I think he is succeeding.”

JDM apparently took a much different tack when it came to his son Johnny (Maynard) and money. Johnny’s education and spontaneous travels were fully funded. Money was never made an issue according to Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter (2000).

It’s clear JDM resented his father’s austere—emotional and financial—parenting style. He could have thought him the sort of unconscious hypocrite unable to give “warmth and understanding and love” Meyer describes in Indigo. When Eugene died in 1961, JDM had a near breakdown and developed symptoms of acute anxiety. Twenty years later, he wrote: “He had copped out on me. [He] died before I could prove to him what a great kid I was (at 44!). I never seemed to be able to live up to what he expected of me.”

JDM was 30 when he made his postwar declaration of independence from the expectations of his father and Maynard was the same age when he made his. We can’t know what happened between the 1964 publication of The House Guests and 1968, but it’s hard to imagine a more potent symbol of rejection than changing your given name when you’ve been named after your father, even if perhaps that wasn’t your conscious intent. Add embracing a seemingly extreme form of mysticism and moving as far away as you can get and it’s got to have stung—and resulted in much more parental angst than suggested by the lightly ironic “he’s eating worms in New Zealand” recalled by No Deadly Drug (1968) collaborator, Pete Schmidt.

I think it’s possible Eugene may have felt JDM’s determination to become a writer paid a penny a word to produce adventure stories was roughly equivalent to declaring, “I’m going to eat worms.” After all, armed with a Harvard MBA and emerging from the Army as a lieutenant colonel, JDM could easily have become one of the successful executives in a northeastern industrial firm that populated so many of his novels during the ‘50s. There’s no doubt an anxious parent would have felt JDM wasn’t playing the odds.

If he wasn’t put off by the racy covers, Eugene—who had found “confidence, hope and ambition” in the novels of his day—may have come to terms with JDM’s choices in the wake of his success. JDM and Dorothy maintained their ties, both to family and the region, returning each year to spend the summer months at Lake Piseco. Eugene would have plainly seen that JDM had listened to him when it came to getting out of something what you put into it.

We can only wonder to what degree JDM and Dorothy came to terms with Maynard’s decision to structure his life around SUBUD on distant shores. But I don’t doubt that JDM loved Maynard all the same; anymore than I doubt Eugene loved JDM. We are who we are. We have hopes for our children; we worry about their choices; sometimes we suffer. That’s the nature of the generation gap. And nature can be cruel.

The denouement of Dress Her in Indigo is bleaker than most in the canon. Although Travis McGee delivers more than T. Harlen Bowie asked for, there is no joy in it. Falling in with the wrong crowd, his lost child has been complicit in her own exploitation and abuse. The damage done is extreme and irreparable. The future holds little promise. Were these the fears of a father whose generation gap encompassed oceans?

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Generation Gap Part 1

February 9, 2015

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By Kevin Comer

How many chances do you get to raise a child?

— T. Harlen Bowie asking a rhetorical question in Dress Her in Indigo (1969).

The propulsive force in Dress Her in Indigo is provided by a father seeking the gestalt of the final months of his only child’s life. Unable to go himself, paraplegic widower T. Harlen Bowie engages Travis McGee and Meyer—all expenses paid—to go to Mexico to uncover the “flavor” of the life his wayward daughter Bix led before being incinerated in a fiery automobile accident. Pressed by Meyer, McGee has reluctantly agreed. He thinks it’s too little, too late. Although Harlen readily admits to many failings as a parent, McGee questions his sincerity. On the plane bound for Oaxaca (WUH-hock-ca), he prompts Meyer:

“Mighty guru, take your bulging brain off the psychology of air travel and put it on your old buddy, T. Harlan Bowie. He did not ring loud and clear. There is a crack in the bell somewhere.”

Meyer’s initial grunted response is a less than helpful affirmative, but Travis insists on more, getting Meyer to expound:

“He rings true enough, as what he is. What you sense is that his concern seems a little faked. It isn’t. It’s limited by his own limitations. He’s using us to buy a kind of emotional respectability. He’s using us to pat his image back into shape. Oh, he adored her when she was a toddler. Tiny girls are cute and huggable, like puppies and kittens. Lots of people adore kittens, and when they get to be cats they take them for a nice ride and dump them out in the country somewhere and imagine them living in a nice barn, catching mice. McGee, the world is full of reasonably nice guys like Harl. They go through all the motions of home and family, but there is no genuine love or emotion involved. There is an imitation kind. They are unconscious practicing hypocrites. They’re stunted in a way they don’t and can’t recognize…He believes he is really in the midst of life and always has been. He doesn’t know any better, because he’s never known anything else. What a limited man believes is emotional reality is indeed his emotional reality.”

Travis asks Meyer to opine on Bix’s likely response to growing up in such a climate:

“…Maybe she thought it is what people mean when they talk these days about the generation gap. I imagine it would have given her the feeling that no matter how hard she tried, she could never really please him. She would believe, maybe, that there was some well of warmth and understanding and love that she couldn’t ever reach, without realizing that she couldn’t reach it because it wasn’t there, not for her, not for anybody.”

While in Mexico, Meyer and Travis encounter another bereft parent, Wally McLeen, who is searching for his estranged only child, Minda, one of the five companions who set off for Mexico with Bix Bowie. Believing Minda to be somewhere in megalopolis Mexico City, Wally has concluded his best bet is to wait for her to return to Oaxaca. In the meantime, he’s immersing himself in the counterculture. He explains:

“It’s more than just looking for her, Mr. McGee. It’s trying to understand more about what the young people are looking for…The only thing I’ve got in this world is my daughter, Minda. And if I can’t communicate with her, then there’s no point in anything…”

Trav and Meyer don’t know it yet, but Wally’s grief and frustration have driven him stark raving mad. Wally and Harl: Lost fathers trying desperately to find a way to bridge the generation gap to connect with lost children. I suppose there was a lot of this going on. The generation gap has rarely been wider. JDM was wrestling with it himself and I believe Indigo was one result.

In 1968, JDM’s son, Johnny, became involved with what is called by some a cult, SUBUD (SU-bood). He and wife Anne changed their names to Maynard and Lilliana. Then they moved to New Zealand.

Nondenominational SUBUD originated in Indonesia in the 1930s. Members engage in a group meditative practice called latihan kejiwaan. According to believers, the latihan connects the individual with what a Jedi might call The Force. Maynard is still a practicing member. He appears several times in this short film that scratches the surface of what SUBUD is and what members believe.

It is difficult to imagine rationalist and non-joiner JDM being very enthusiastic about these developments, much less wife and mother, Dorothy. I’ve been unable to discover any firsthand evidence of how he and Dorothy reacted. However, I’m indebted to Steve Scott—author of the remarkable Trap of Solid Gold blog—for digging up this exchange from a panel discussion at the 1996 JDM Conference in Sarasota involving JDM’s collaborator on No Deadly Drug during 1967 and ’68, Pete Schmidt:

Question: In all your meetings, did he [JDM] ever talk about his son?

Schmidt: At the time, he never did call him Maynard, for one thing. I never heard Dorothy or John ever call him Maynard. They called him Johnny. When we were working on the Coppolino book [No Deadly Drug], I think there was some sort of estrangement at that particular time, and we never really discussed it, other than to say Johnny was in New Zealand.

John just said, “There comes a time in every kid’s life and every parent’s life when the child looks and says, ‘Look, I’m going to teach you a lesson. I’m going to eat worms.’”

And John and Dorothy said, “Well, Johnny went out and he’s eating worms in New Zealand.” And that’s all I know about the relationship at that time.

Prior to this, Johnny’s behavior would have caused less indulgent parents only run-of-the-mill parental palpitations. According to Hugh Merrill in The Red Hot Typewriter (2000), it took Johnny a while to find traction in college. He dropped out of Rollins College during his sophomore year in 1958; became an apprentice to a sculptor in NYC and enrolled in NYU; made an extended foray to Europe where he studied painting in Paris for a time before walking across France and Italy on his way to Greece. While in Greece, he notified his folks he’d be coming home to continue his education; which he did, via France, Spain, Portugal, the Madeira Islands, and Venezuela.

Johnny began attending Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan where he soon met wife-to-be Anne. Now committed to college success, he took summer classes at the University of Syracuse to make up for lost time and emerged from Cranbrook with an MFA. Johnny and Anne were married in June of 1962.

JDM would have found Johnny’s youthful tumult familiar and he was proud and supportive of his son’s interest in the visual arts. In the autobiographical The House Guests (1964), JDM describes—with unmistakable pride—how Johnny began to use his collection of the corpses of lizards dragged into the house as playthings by beloved cats, Geoff and Roger, and later found mummified in out of the way locations:

Totally dried and darkened, they looked far more prehistoric, savage little symbols of the frightful giants of the quaking earth an aeon ago. Johnny began saving the perfect ones, along with fishbones and bird skulls and the empty hulls of giant insects, shark teeth, oddly shaped stones. When, not too many years later, he began to draw with serious intent, began to show that almost ruthless unconcern toward other activities which is the plight and the strength of the artist, he turned to these things as models as he trained eye and hand.

In the final paragraphs of House Guests, JDM lets us know Johnny is coming home. Having finished school, he and Anne are opening a fine arts press business in Sarasota with another couple. They’ll be staying in the guesthouse until they can find a place of their own.  Proud, happy, loving papa was determined to be a different sort of father than his own. 

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & Reading for Survival

January 19, 2015

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By Kevin Comer

In 1928 at the age of 12, JDM—then known as Jack—contracted Scarlet Fever, a life-threatening disease common in children caused by the bacterium, Streptococcus pyogenes. Young Jack’s infection was made doubly serious by accompanying Mastoiditis, a painful and sometimes deadly inflammation of the air pockets in the skull behind the ears. Today, Scarlet Fever and Mastoiditis are treated with antibiotics, but in 1928, bedrest and the body’s own defenses were the only treatments available. JDM was in bed for a year.

During that year of solitary confinement, JDM developed two signature lifelong habits. He became a voracious reader, reportedly tearing through both classics and pulps. And he became comfortable with being alone. He later wrote: “I entertained myself with the exercise of imagination.” 

Not bad preparation for becoming a writer, but eventually JDM came to believe reading broadly was an essential habit of the educated citizen that was increasingly underdeveloped by the education system and generally unappreciated by society. In Free Fall in Crimson (1981), JDM has Meyer deliver his take on the state of literacy in America when Travis surprises him upon his smiling return from a stroll on the beach by asking: “Back a winner?”

“Oh, good afternoon! A winner? In a sense, yes. There was a gaggle of lanky young pubescent lassies on the beach, one of the early invasions of summer, all of them from Dayton, Ohio, all of them earnest, sunburnt, and inquisitive. They were huddled around a beached sea slug, decrying its exceptional ugliness, and I took a hand in the discussion, told them its life pattern, defensive equipment, normal habitat, natural enemies, and so on. And I discovered to my great pleasure that this batch was literate! They had read books. Actual books. They had all read Lives of a Cell and are willing to read for the rest of their lives. They’d all been exposed to the same teacher in the public school system there, and he must be a fellow of great conviction. In a nation floundering in functional illiteracy, sinking into the pre-chewed pulp of television, it heartens me to know that here and there are little groups of young-uns who know what an original idea tastes like, who know that the written word is the only possible vehicle for transmitting a complex concept from mind to mind, who constantly flex the muscles in their heads and make them stronger. They will run the world one day, Travis. And they won’t have to go about breaking plate glass and skulls and burning automobiles to express themselves, to air their frustrations. Nor will these children be victimized by the blurry nonsense of the so-called social sciences. The muscular mind is a cutting tool, and contemporary education seeks to take the edge off it.”

When I read passages like this, I’m certain JDM must be spinning in his grave.

We owe JDM’s belief in the value and power of the written word for our last glimpse of Meyer and Travis McGee, whom he enlisted as evangelists in proselytizing the essential necessity of literacy in understanding the world and our place in it. In 1985, he wrote “Reading for Survival” as a contribution to the Literary Heritage of the States program of the Library of Congress’ Center for the Book at the request of Jean Trebbi, then executive director of the Florida Center for the Book. It was Trebbi who asked why he didn’t couch his ideas in the form of a conversation between Meyer and McGee when he reported he was struggling with the essay. He responded: “Why indeed…I am very sorry for taking so damn long.”   

When JDM finally submitted the work, he provided this preface: “The theme will be the terrible isolation of the nonreader, his life without meaning or substance because he cannot comprehend the world in which he lives.” He added: “The best way to make my words fall usefully upon deaf ears is to use such colorful language that it will be quoted, sooner or later, to a great many of the nonreaders.”

In “Reading for Survival,” Travis and Meyer engage in a broadranging conversation over the course of a number of days which ultimately focuses on the role of reading in developing the understanding necessary to survive—and flourish—in our increasingly complex world. It is perhaps less a conversation than an informal lecture delivered in bits and pieces as Meyer expands upon the topic which begins with musings on the nature of ideas and the forces shaping human evolution.

We’re not used to Meyer going on at such length and some points of reference are a bit dated. Nonetheless, this is our last visit aboard the Busted Flush; the last time T. McGee and Meyer share Boodles on the rocks in a pair of big old-fashioned glasses; and the last time we share the Lauderdale beach with Travis keeping himself in shape and Meyer firmly rooted to his towelthe last sunny day together with McGee and Meyer, friends forever.

I take solace in the knowledge that the subscribers to Travis McGee & Me are all readers and do not need me to quote the colorful language required by nonreaders. Click here to enjoy the final appearance of Travis McGee and Meyer in  “Reading for Survival.”

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Demon Weed

December 23, 2014

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By Kevin Comer

She slept then. I went out into the night. The tropical earth was steamy-fresh, bugs chirring and tree toads yelping, and the bay a moony mirror. I sat on the end of her dock and blew smoke at the mosquitoes and wondered why I should be so cynical about her.

Reflecting on Lois Atkinson in The Deep Blue Good-By (1964)

Travis McGee doesn’t make nearly as big a deal about smoking as he does martinis. It is easy to overlook the fact that he smoked cigarettes at the beginning of the series. He had his last one in the epilogue of A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965).

Travis has been shot and, in and out of consciousness, he’s taken to a remote cabin in the Southern California high county by allies he’s picked up along the way. He comes to in an unfamiliar bed and discovers he’s received professional medical care and is being nursed by feisty Cuban heiress, Connie Melgar. Realizing he’s awake, Connie informs him it’s time for his pills:

She came back with two big capsules and a glass of chill water. Nothing had ever tasted better. I asked for more, in my little old voice, and she brought me another glass. She brought the lamp over and put it on a small table, and moved a straight chair near. I saw that I was in a deep wide bunk, with another above me, and a rough board wall at my left.

She lit two cigarettes and gave me one.

Good thing he wasn’t hit in a lung.

In the next book in the canon, Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), much-changed acquaintance Arthur Wilkerson collapses on the deck of the Busted Flush and, enlisting the aid of Chookie McCall, McGee sets about restoring Arthur to health while enjoying a leisurely cruise aboard the 52-foot, barge-type houseboat. McGee has been letting himself go and is not in top form either:

But I comforted myself with thinking that while we were getting him in shape, I was doing myself some promised good. I was on cheese, meat and salad. No booze. No cigarettes. Just one big old pot pipe packed with Black Watch for the sunset hour. Due any time now.

Until he gives up smoking altogether in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974), Travis remains a once-a-day pipe smoker—and how about that South Beach diet? By the way, I’m pretty sure he meant his pipe was pot-shaped.

Travis subsequently shares his love of a finely crafted pipe. In One Fearful Yellow Eye (1966), he visits the still extant Iwan Ries & Co in Chicago in the course of helping Glory Doyle find the money missing from her husband’s estate:

I walked all the way down to Monroe and then over to Wabash and into one of the great pipe stores of the Western world, Iwan Reis, across from the old Palmer House, and celebrated my luck at having seen so marvelous a girl at so marvelous a moment by gifting myself with a pale Ropp with a birds-eye grain, comfortable bite, and generous bowl.

Ropp pipes are still made in France by Chacom.

While investigating the background of murdered prostitute, Evangeline Bellemar, in Darker than Amber (1966), Travis goes into great detail about a treasured gift:

I had been saving my tobacco ration, my single evening pipe. I tugged the pouch out of the side pocket of my slacks, unzipped the pipe compartment, took out the Charatan sent me long ago by a lovely and grateful client with superb taste. The shape is Bell Dublin. It is a straight grain of Coronation quality. Before sending it to me from London she had some small silver numbers inlaid in the heavy part of the bit. 724. The twenty-fourth night of a memorable July , a little code which, if her husband Sir Thomas could interpret it, would bring him in search of McGee, complete with horse whip and incipient apoplexy. I packed it carefully with Erinmore Flake. Whenever, in the rotation of my small assortment, I work my way around to the Charatan, though it is an excellent pipe to smoke, I feel somewhat pretentious and effete. I can never completely overcome my middle-class reservations sufficiently to take a two-hundred-and-fifty-dollar pipe for granted.

Charatan pipes had been handmade in London since 1863; they were the first pipe to cost more than $100 in the U.S. Erinmore Flake tobacco was blended in Belfast, Northern Ireland by Murray & Sons until 2005.

When it comes to smoking, once again we seem to be encountering cross currents in the lives of McGee and JDM. Like nearly everyone of his generation, JDM smoked cigarettes. We don’t know what brand—my grandfather smoked Chesterfields—but we have evidence. The cover of Hugh Merrill’s JDM biography, The Red Hot Typewriter (2000), features a photograph of JDM with cigarette in hand. In the autobiographical The House Guests (1964), JDM describes how a thoughtful Sarasota landlord prepared the cottage they were moving into after a summer spent at Lake Piseco in New York:

We had written Randy when we would arrive, and it was raining hard that late afternoon when we got there, hardly in any mood to cope with the thousand irritating little problems involved in moving into a rented cottage. But Randy, bless him, had put a crew to work at the house. All the utilities were hooked up. The yard and house were spotless. Beds were made and turned down, opened packs of cigarettes on the end tables, Coke and beer in the refrigerator. Never have we been welcomed so imaginatively.

However at some point, JDM switched from cigarettes to a pipe. He appears in many photographs holding a pipe. The only clue I’ve discovered about why he made this switch is a comment in a letter to his good buddy, comedian Dan Rowan. At the end of a letter dated November 14, 1968, Rowan complained he’d given up cigarettes after an unpleasant encounter with the medical establishment and was jonesing bad. Near the end of his reply dated Nov 20, 1968, JDM includes a one sentence paragraph: “Cigarettes taste nasty.”

In the late ‘60s, JDM began to have health problems. In September 1970, he had a minor heart attack. His wife, Dorothy, was having heart problems as well; she had a pacemaker installed in December 1970. He wrote to Rowan in February 1971:

“Have been sort of marking time in some kind of professional personal sense, a fallow period of thought, appraisal, redefinition, a kind of delayed byproduct of the little coronary, and a definite product of my years, I suppose. A process of closing out all random noise and saying: What in the hell am I doing here, and what the hell do I want to be doing here? I am beginning to think that it is irrational sentimentality to try to impose on oneself this shit about walking slowly and pausing to smell the flowers. I am a worker and work is my pleasure and my nature and my way of life. So I think that what I shall do is wind myself up one notch below the spring tension of before, and get some of the exercise I despise, and stay off the weed…”

And on March 22nd, after a restorative vacation in Grenada, he wrote to Rowan:

“We did have a good unwinding time in Grenada. It even gave me a desire to improve my sorry physical condition, so as of this week I have given up smoking, drinking, and eating . . . indefinitely.”

It seems unlikely JDM maintained his resolve concerning eating. He may have given up smoking. Early on in Lemon, with doomed Carrie Milligan sleeping aboard the Busted Flush, Travis and Meyer are on the beach. Meyer is sitting on his towel. Travis is pushing himself through his fitness regimen. As he finishes his last mile run, T. McGee informs us:

It had taken such a great effort of will and so much pain to get back in good shape, I had vowed never to let myself get sloppy again. And that meant hot sun and sweat and exercise every day, no tobacco ever again, and easy on the booze, heavy on the protein.

Done with the demon weed altogether, but still committed to the South Beach diet.

 

New Audiobooks of JDM Classics

December 9, 2014

Audible, Amazon’s audio book imprint, has just released new audiobook editions of eight non-McGee classics by JDM. They are:

• Cape Fear (The Executioners)

• The Brass Cupcake

• A Key to the Suite

• Slam the Big Door

• A Flash of Green

• The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything

• Condominium

• Dead Low Tide

They’re read by two different voice artists—Richard Ferrone and Stephen Hoye. The cost per title ranges from $19.95 to $29.95. Each book has a spoken intro by Dean Koontz. You can get to them here.

Thanks to Kevin Comer for the heads up.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & All That Jazz

December 1, 2014

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By Kevin Comer (for Sue Martin)

I prowled the place. I looked at the books and the records. Aside from an unwholesome taste for string quartets, and a certain gullibility about pre-digested sociology, she passed the McGee test with about a B+. Hell, an A–.

— Assessing Nina Gibson in A Nightmare in Pink (1964)

Travis McGee is a man of refined tastes, despite his bohemian lifestyle. He is a sophisticated collector of fine arts. He can appreciate—and will pay for—superior gin and beer. Both his pipe and the weed he smokes are first rate. He has an eye for country club sports. So it isn’t surprising that he is particular about the music he listens to.

T. McGee is taking his new runabout, the Muñequita, on her maiden run after six weeks of futzing around, setting her up just the way he wants in Pale Gray for Guilt (1968). He’s on his way to see soon-to-be-murdered old friend, Tush Bannon. As Travis cruises a mile off shore, he adjusts rpm and fuel flowmeter searching for the optimum relationship between fuel consumption and distance:

I switched the FM-UHF marine radio to the commercial frequencies and tried to find something that didn’t sound like somebody trying to break up a dogfight in a sorority house by banging drums and cymbals. Not that I want to say it isn’t music. Of course it is music, styled to accompany teenage fertility rites, and thus is as far out of my range as “Rockabye Baby.” FM radio was a great product when it was servicing a fringe area of the great American market. But it has turned into a commercial success, so they have denigrated the sound, and they have mickey-moused the stereo, and you have to really search that dial to find something that isn’t either folk hoke, rickyticky rock, or the saccharine they pump into elevators, bus stations and Howard Johnsons.

As I was about to give up I found some pleasant eccentric, or somebody who’d grabbed the wrong record, playing Brubeck doing Cole Porter, and I caught it just as he opened up “Love for Sale” in a fine and gentle manner, and then handed it delicately over to Desmond, who set up a witty dialogue with Joe Morello.

Columbia released Anything Goes! The Dave Brubeck Quartet Plays Cole Porter in 1966. Dave Brubeck (Piano), Paul Desmond (Alto Sax), Joe Morello (Drums), and Gene Wright (Double Bass) are the essence of cool.

The lounge aboard Travis’ houseboat, the Busted Flush, is equipped with the best in high-fidelity equipment. When Harry Broll empties his blue-steel automatic at scrambling McGee in A Tan and Sandy Silence (1971), the only serious casualties are Travis’ self-esteem and his stereo. Six minutes after Harry’s departure, Meyer comes aboard flaunting his garishly festive party outfit and chastened Trav is quick to remonstrate:

“You are supposed to walk in here, and instead of giving me a fashion show, you are supposed to snuff the air, look about with darting glances. Then you are supposed to find those six cartridge cases in that ashtray and snuff at them. Then you prowl around and find where all six hit, including the one that’s hard to find. It hit right smack in the middle of my model 18 Marantz and killed it as dead as Harry tried to kill me.”

When it debuted in 1968, the American built Marantz model 18 receiver was cutting edge. The ads declared: “Flawless performance was the engineering objective – flawless performance is the final result.” The model 18 weighed over 40 lbs and had an MSRP of $1,000. A new Ford Mustang had an MSRP of $2,578 and a curb weight of 2,758 lbs.

In Tan, Jillian Brent-Archer is intent on making McGee a permanent fixture on her 70 foot custom trimaran motor sailer. Travis is sorely tempted, but knows he’ll never be able to accept the inevitable compromises of being arm candy. He declares his independence by refusing to attend a party with Jilly:

She went clicking down the outside ladderway and clacked her way aft and off the Flush and down the dock and away into the night. I went below, turned on a few lights, built a drink, ran a thumb down the stack of tapes, picked Eydie [Gormé], and chunked her into the tape player and fixed the volume.

Eydie has comforted me many times in periods of stress. She has the effortlessness of total professionalism. She is just so damned good that people have not been able to believe she is as good as she is. She’s been handed a lot of dull material, some of it so bad that even her best hasn’t been able to bring it to life. She’s been mishandled, booked into the right places at the wrong time, the wrong places at the right time. But she can do every style and do it a little better than the people who can’t do any other. Maybe a generation from now those old discs and tapes of Eydie will be the collectors’ joy, because she does it all true, does it all with pride, does it all with heart.

So I settled back and listened to her open her throat and let go, backed by the Trio Los Panchos, Mexican love songs in flawless Mexican Spanish. She eased the little itch of remembering just how good my Irish lady had smelled, tasted, and felt.

Travis’ beloved Marantz suffers more insult in The Dreadful Lemon Sky (1974) when McGee narrowly escapes being blown to bits in the lounge of the Flush. Returning from the hospital with five days permanently erased from memory, he’s shocked at the sad state of his houseboat:

I went below and checked out my stereo set. I put on the new record, Ruby Braff and George Barnes. It is nice to have one that is just out and know that it is destined to become one of the great jazz classics. I knew I had lost one speaker. I suspected I had lost more. Delicate micro-circuitry cannot take that kind of explosive compression. When the noise came out, sounding like someone gargling a throatful of crickets, I snapped it off in haste.

Back to the shop. No new components. Get the Marantz stuff fixed. I did not think I could placidly endure another gleaming salesman tell me that I had to have quadraphony sound, coming at me from all directions. I have never felt any urge to stand in the middle of a group of musicians. They belong over there, damn it, and I belong over here, listening to what they are doing over there. Music that enfolds you, coming from some undetectable set of sources, is gimmicky, unreal, and eminently forgettable.

The new record was The Ruby Braff George Barnes Quartet Plays Gershwin (1974).

In the final entry of the series, The Lonely Silver Rain (1985), McGee explains: “It had been an oddly aimless year for me.” He’s been getting things in order. The Flush is “running well”, Miss Agnes is “docile and obedient,” and he’s upgraded the hi-fi:

… I had a few thousand stashed in my bulkhead bank forward, and the only recent expense of any moment was when I pulled out all the old music equipment, the tuner, amplifier, tape deck, turntable and speakers, and replaced it all with mostly Pioneer and Sony. The state of the art had left me far behind, and last summer I kept myself busy putting the best parts of the record collection onto cassettes, and the best parts of the reel-to-reel tapes onto cassettes as well. I set up a filing system. I was like a combination accountant, librarian and music director. I kept the editing function going for sixteen hours a day, and when everything was all neatened up and labeled, I found myself so sick of the sound of music I didn’t want to hear any at all, even from a boat moored three slips away. I knew I would get back into it later, carefully. After I’d given the records and the reel-to-reel tapes away to the local jazz appreciation society, along with the equipment I’d discarded, I had twice the fidelity in half the space, very clean sound, crisp as bread sticks. And tired ears.

This reminds me of ripping my CDs into iTunes. What a drag physical media is. I’m glad to be done with it.

I suppose it goes without saying that Travis doesn’t know a thing about jazz or high-fidelity equipment that he didn’t learn from JDM.

 

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Civil Rights Movement Part 3

November 17, 2014

By Kevin Comer

Comedian Dan Rowan and JDM maintained a close friendship for eight years beginning in the late ‘60s. During this time, they exchanged many letters. Sadly, their friendship was eventually a casualty of Rowan’s nasty divorce from wife Adriana and his career anxiety following the cancellation of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In after a five year run on the NBC television network.

Rowan rekindled the friendship in 1981 by phoning JDM on Christmas Day. Both men welcomed the opportunity to renew their ties. JDM, who was a pack rat, had kept copies of all of their correspondence, and in 1986, A Friendship – The Letters of Dan Rowan and John D. MacDonald 1967 – 1974 was published just months after JDM passed away from heart bypass surgery complications. The letters are a touching chronicle of friendship and provide insight into the creative processes of both novelist and comedian.

Beyond the final bitter exchange in 1974, the letters document only one other serious disagreement between the two friends. On July 1st, 1969, JDM wrote in a short note to Dan: “When at that final dinner we got into that charged discussion of black/white and you termed me a bigot, I was more than a little upset… It is totally obvious that unless you and I and other men of good will give this area sound and good and constructive thought, the whole situation will merely worsen.” He concluded by saying, “As a writer I become skeptical of contemporary fashionable attitudes, and of my own too often automatic acceptance of those attitudes, and so I have to put them through the grinder and see what happens.”

Dan replied on the 8th: “I asked Adriana [Rowen’s wife at the time], ‘My god, when did I ever call John a bigot?’ and she told me what you remembered… You don’t need me to tell you that you aren’t… You are one of the brightest people I know so you couldn’t be if only because intelligence doesn’t admit of bigotry… In the heat of discussion I used a shocker to grab your attention.”

Dan went on to explain why: “…it would be difficult to imagine a better intentioned but nonetheless distorted view of fact. In the first place, the ‘law’ which you feel should never be subverted by black or white has been used to knock underprivileged citizen’s brains out since Moses showed his tablets. Our country has been so abusive, brutalizing, unfair, to man of color both red and black, that if I were they and someone asked me to ‘respect the law’ my own reaction would be violent… I feel guilty for my white American ancestors… I am also ashamed and remorseful and feel the colored races are entitled to reparations…”

JDM responded on the 15th: “I like your letter… We both have the public ear, and it is a fearsome responsibility. What we project will touch others.

“The law is two things. It is the Law—Bill of Rights, Constitution, men created equal etc. That is the one I meant… The other is the small ‘l’ law, the one you point out has been used to as a device by misguided men to knock the brains out of the underprivileged. Black and white must not permit the subversion of Law by lower-case law to flourish. Without the support of the Law, we are nothing. We are a mob…

“I feel no guilt, shame or remorse for the social and economic oppression of the black because I do not feel any personal responsibility for the past actions of the political animals in the historical fabric of our country. I feel no guilt, shame, or remorse for the gutted countryside in Kentucky and West Virginia, for the disappearance of the buffalo and passenger pigeon, for poisoning the soil and the water and the air. Man can always be counted on to do the worst possible job with his environment, and with his relations to people of other races and other nations…

“…I wish I knew why people shy away from an acceptance of a very real fundamental, ineradicable DIFFERENTNESS between the races. A thing, a person, can be different without being better or worse. The ‘differentness’ I mean is far more than a difference in skills, abilities—it is a difference in the very climate of the mind and heart and soul…

“Look. If we have gotten so screwed up by pretending that all men are ONE, that if everybody is really truly alike—if we have painted ourself into a corner with the illusion that skin color has no more significance than blonde or brunette, is it not worth the try to see what happens to race relations when we accept, boldly and without self-consciousness and without guilt, the idea that there is indeed a difference of consequence? For chrissake, where does the black find his sense of racial pride, racial identity, species identity, if we keep insisting he is a dusky white man?”

At the end of a long letter written on August 3rd, Rowan diplomatically called a truce: “I think we can leave the discussion of black folks, don’t you? We are probably on the same side approaching it for various reasons from different paths…”

I’ve previously established JDM shares many traits with his creation, Travis McGee. It is useful to step back and consider just how similar the two of them are at their core. Travis is an outsider. He has chosen to chart his own course. He lives by his wits. He is extremely independent. He is critical of conventional wisdom. He is confident of his own judgement. He is unconcerned with the judgements of others. Although amiable, he doesn’t go along to get along.

JDM was born into a prosperous upper middle class family. He grew up in relative affluence. His father, Eugene, wished for him to follow a path similar to his own. He majored in business at Eugene’s insistence. He got an MBA. He bombed out at a series of jobs. In 1940, he enlisted in the Army as a 1st lieutenant because he was desperate to provide for Dorothy and infant, Johnny. He was assigned administrative tasks. Even with the outbreak of war and an overseas billet in the India-China-Burma Theater, he was in a back room coordinating logistics. He was a bureaucrat. He didn’t like it.

When he returned home following the war, he rejected the whole kit and caboodle. He eschewed the conventional wisdom. He chose to live by his wits. He chose to work independently. He decided to rely on his own judgement. His family was aghast, but he did it anyway.

And he succeeded. He proved to himself and everybody else that he didn’t need to pursue the safe and assured path. He had the judgement and wit to live on his own terms. Like Travis.

And like Travis, JDM was a keen observer, who didn’t feel responsible for the shape of the world. People do what people do, and the results are all too often predictably awful by his reckoning. It’s not his fault.

So when JDM tells Dan Rowan, he is skeptical of contemporary fashionable attitudes and feels a need to “put them through the grinder and see what happens,” he’s telling the truth. He doesn’t trust the conventional answers. He needs to figure things out on his own.

We may be uncomfortable with JDM’s judgements as he put the Civil Rights Movement “through the grinder.” Some of us might conclude he was a bigot. Others might apply Lil and Kris Neville’s assessment of McGee in The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper as “a well-meaning man with an inability to see past the stereotypes he carries.” We’d certainly have to agree with Lil Neville that JDM could be defensive based on his letters to Dan Rowan.

This is a difficult topic. My wife says I should stick to writing about booze, books, and backhands and stay away from the tough stuff. I don’t know. I feel like I have to figure things out on my own. Like Travis. And JDM.

 

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Civil Rights Movement Part 2

November 2, 2014

By Kevin Comer

Following Noreen Walker in Darker than Amber (1966), JDM attempted to depict only one other non-ephemeral African American character in the McGee series. In The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968), JDM created a motel maid—also named Mrs. Walker—who has several interactions with Travis and proves instrumental in breaking the case. JDM second-guessed himself sufficiently concerning this character to seek feedback from Len and June Moffatt, who published The JDM Bibliophile from their home in Los Angeles.

The Moffatts read the book and Len replied: “We got the impression you wanted to bring the race problem into the novel, and that you were concerned about the way you (and McGee ) handled it … . Would the maid respond to McGee in this way or would she respond some other way? … June suggested we show the pages to some friends of ours who were certain to have some reactions on the subject.”

The friends were an interracial couple, Lil and Kris Neville. Lil was from Watts. Kris Neville wrote in a letter to the Moffatts: “Lil’s … reaction was the impossibility of communicating the situation to Mr. MacDonald in a way that would be meaningful to him, and that any suggestions she would offer would just get him uptight with defense mechanisms and would serve no constructive purposes. I think we all agreed that the portrayal of McGee was of a well-meaning man with an inability to see past the stereotypes he carries.”

In Brown, Travis flies to Fort Courtney, FL at the posthumous request of Helena Pearson Trescott, an older wealthy widow with whom he’d spent a magical healing summer five years before, following the violent death of her first husband, Mick Pearson. Travis received a letter—including a certified check for $25,000—just days after Helena succumbed to cancer, asking him to do what he can to help her eldest daughter, Maureen, who in the wake of a second miscarriage has developed severe psychological issues and attempted suicide several times. Maureen lives in suburban Ft. Courtney with her real estate developer husband, Tom Pike, and younger sister, Bridget, who is helping care for her.

Believing it to be something better left to medical professionals, Travis nonetheless concocts a not entirely implausible story and sets out to find out if there is anything he can do. True to form, he soon finds himself in a hornet’s nest of intrigue and murder.

A pair of amateur sleuths—nurse Penny Woertz and her married lover, attorney Rick Holton—attempt to drug McGee by doctoring his Plymouth in an elaborate ploy to find out if he is involved in the death of Penny’s employer, Dr. Stewart Sherman. The authorities have ruled the death a suicide, but Rick and Penny don’t believe it for a minute. McGee resembles a very tall man seen leaving the doctor’s offices. Is it coincidence that Maureen was Dr. Sherman’s patient?

Hilariously, Travis thwarts the couple, first, by playing opossum, and then inciting a lovers’ quarrel. Not only does McGee subdue pistol-packing Rick, who ends up leaving in a huff, but he beds Penny after opening a fresh bottle of Plymouth. Unfortunately, Penny is found on her kitchen floor with a pair of scissors buried in her throat the next day. The cops brace McGee but he has an iron-clad alibi. He was seen by a motel housekeeper taking a much needed nap at the time of Penny’s death.

Suddenly needing information about the local players, Travis reckons the African-American community that supplies the maids, gardeners, and other menials around town will know who’s who and who’s up to what in Ft. Courtney. And he’s got an idea about who can help him plug into this network.

McGee goes looking for Mrs. Lorette Walker, a maid at the spanking-new, pseudo-Hawaiian Wahini Lodge motel where he’s established his headquarters. He’s already enlisted Lorette’s aid in discreetly dealing with one of her co-workers he discovered unconscious in his room after she’d taken a couple of surreptitious pulls from the doctored bottle of Plymouth. Travis tracks down the initially reluctant and extremely suspicious Lorette in the motel Laundry Room:

It was all too familiar and all too frustrating. It is the black armor, a kind of listless vacuity, stubborn as an acre of mules. They go that route or they become all teeth and giggles and forelock. Okay, so they have had more than their share of grief from men of my outward stamp, big and white and muscular, sun-darkened and visibly battered in small personal wars. My outward type had knotted a lot of black skulls, tupped a plenitude of black ewes, burned crosses and people in season. They see just the outward look and they classify on that basis. Some of them you can’t ever reach in any way, just as you can’t teach most women to handle snakes and cherish spiders. But I knew I could reach her because for a little time with me she had been disarmed, had put her guard down, and I had seen behind it a shrewd and understanding mind, a quick and unschooled intelligence.

I had to find my way past that black armor. Funny how it used to be easier. Suspicion used to be on an individual basis. Now each one of us, black or white, is a symbol. The war is out in the open and the skin color is a uniform. All the deep and basic similarities of the human condition are forgotten so that we can exaggerate the few differences that exist.

Eventually, amiable, wily, convincing Travis breaks through Lorette’s armor. She provides insight into the local law enforcement community and agrees to keep an eye out for information that might help him solve the murder of sweet, klutzy Penny Woertz. A satisfied McGee reflects on their encounter:

Nobody looks far enough down the road we’re going. Someday one man at a big button board can do all the industrial production for the whole country by operating the machines that make the machines that design and make the rest of the machines. Then where is the myth about anybody who wants a job being able to find it?

And if the black man demands that Big Uncle take care of him in the style the hucksters render so desirable, then it’s a sideways return to slavery.

Whitey wants law and order, meaning a head-knocker like Alabama George [Wallace]. No black is going to grieve about some nice sweet dedicated unprejudiced liberal being yanked out of his Buick and beaten to death, because there have been a great many nice humble ingratiating hardworking blacks beaten to death too. In all such cases the unforgivable sin was to be born black or white, just as in some ancient cultures if you were foolish enough to be born female, they took you by your baby heels, whapped your fuzzy skull on a tree, and tossed the newborn to the crocs. And so, Mrs. Lorette Walker, no solutions for me or thee, not from your leaders be they passive or militant, nor from the politicians or the liberals or the head-knockers or the educators. No answer but time. And if the law and the courts can be induced to become color-blind, we’ll have a good answer, after both of us are dead. And a bloody answer otherwise.

JDM still isn’t pulling any punches. It would be out of character. I note his comment regarding employment.

Sometimes folks—even the best of friends—have to agree to disagree. JDM’s opinions on the race problem, as the Moffatts termed it, brought JDM and his good buddy, comedian Dan Rowan, to just such an impasse in 1969.

Stay tuned for Part 3.

Guest Post: Travis McGee & the Civil Rights Movement Part 1

October 26, 2014

By Kevin Comer

In these essays I strive to combine biography with details, episodes, and diatribes from the McGee canon to shine a light on the relationship between McGee and JDM. In choosing my topics, one factor I consider is relevance to our own times. I’m most inspired when we’re still wrestling with an issue JDM used McGee to take a punch at decades ago.

And, of course, I wish to entertain the readers of Travis McGee & Me with the perspicacity and sagacity of our hero and his maker.

Which makes this essay something of a risk because it casts JDM, and by extension McGee, in a possibly unsympathetic light. The topic reveals JDM as a man of his place and times trying to come to grips with change. But who isn’t?

When JDM moved to Florida, the state was part of the Jim Crow South. State and local laws—known as Jim Crow laws—established de jure racial segregation in the former Confederacy. In general, these laws mandated racial segregation of neighborhoods, public schools, public places, public transportation, restrooms, restaurants and even drinking fountains. They also banned interracial marriage.

There were federal Jim Crow policies as well. Ironically, these policies were initiated by our first progressive President, Woodrow Wilson. His administration practiced overt racial discrimination in hiring. Three years before JDM’s birth in 1916, Wilson ordered the racial segregation of the U.S. military and federal workplaces.

Jim Crow laws were slowly unraveled in the post war years. In 1948, President Harry Truman ended the policy of racial segregation in the military. The Supreme Court concluded in Brown vs Board of Education that state-mandated segregation in education was unconstitutional in 1954. The final blows were delivered by Congress under President Lyndon Johnson with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

The end of Jim Crow was accompanied by numerous race riots throughout the U.S., the worst of which was the Watts Riot in August 1965. Six days of rioting in the Los Angeles neighborhood resulted in 34 deaths, 1,032 injuries, 3,438 arrests, and over $40 million in property damage. The number of race riots peaked in what is known as the “Long Hot Summer of 1967.”

Public opinion polls revealed an approximately equal number of Americans believed the riots were linked to Communist groups as believed they were the result of social problems like unemployment and prejudice. Many felt, regardless of the root causes, the riots were a demonstration of outrageous lawlessness. In many cases, military force was used to restore order.

Meanwhile, debate raged among African Americans regarding the goals of the Civil Rights Movement. On one side, leaders such as Martin Luther King advocated integration into mainstream American life. On the other, leaders such as Malcolm X advocated establishing a separate African American society apart from that of white America.

JDM weighed in with his own views in one of the most out-of-left-field episodes in the entire McGee canon in Darker than Amber (1966). At the time, JDM was 50, successful, and enjoying an upper-middle class life in tony, segregated Sarasota.

Travis McGee is searching for clues to where murdered prostitute, Evangeline Bellemer, has hidden her cut of the money stolen from lonely middle-aged men whom she lured onto cruise ships, where they were drugged and thrown overboard by her male accomplice. Trav learns Vangie employed a African American maid, Noreen Walker, and decides to see what she might know. Noreen turns out to be a surprising character, to say the least. Although reluctant at first, Noreen agrees to a clandestine rendezvous:

As I followed her onto the porch and we sat in two comfortable chairs on either side of a small lamp table, she said, “[This is the home of] Friends of mine.” She took a cigarette from her purse, lighted it. “Very conspiratorial, I know. But we’re getting very used to that these days, Mr. McGee. Mr. Sam [Prominent African American attorney, Sam Dickey] said I could trust you. I’m one of the regional directors of CORE [Congress of Racial Equality]. I’m a University of Michigan graduate. I taught school before I got married. He died of cancer two years ago and I came back here. Working as a maid gives me more freedom of action, less chance of being under continual observation. Racially I’m what you might call a militant optimist. I believe that the people of good will of both races are going to get it all worked out…

Noreen provides vital insight into Evangeline Bellemer, including a clue to where the money may be hidden. In the course of their conversation, Travis observes of Noreen:

When she stepped out of her housemaid role she had that slightly forced elegance of the educated Negro woman, that continuing understated challenge to you to accept her on her terms or, by not doing so, betray the prejudice she expected you to have. I cannot blame them for a quality of humorlessness. They carry the dead weight of all their deprived people, and though they know intellectually that the field hand mentality is a product of environment, they have an aesthetic reserve, which they will not admit to themselves, about the demanding of racial equality for those with whom, except for the Struggle, they would not willingly associate. They say Now, knowing that only fifteen percent of Negro America is responsible enough to handle the realities of Now, and that, in the hard core South, perhaps seventy percent of the whites are willing to accept the obligations of Now. But they are on the move with nowhere to go but up, with the minority percentage of the ignorant South running into the majority percentage of ignorant Negro America, in blood, heartbreak, shame and confusion. I hoped that this penny-colored dedicated pussycat wouldn’t stick her head under the wrong billy club, or get taken too often to the back room for interrogation. If, even on the word of one of their shrewdest lawyers, Sam Dickey, she was willing to trust a white man, it meant she had a vulnerable streak of softness in her, which could guarantee martyrdom sooner or later.

My intolerance is strictly McGee-type. If there were people around colored green or bright blue, I would have a continual primitive awareness of the difference between us, way down on that watchful animal level which is a caveman heritage. But I would cherish the ones who came through as solid folk, and avoid the slobs and fools and bores as diligently as I avoid white slobs and fools and bores.

 As they say goodbye, Noreen explains some facts of life to McGee:

“We housemaids have to keep in character. This is the ghetto. The laws don’t work the way they work outside. We’re the happy smiling darkies with a great natural sense of rhythm. You can’t hurt us by hitting us on the head. We’d still be nice and quiet except the Communists started getting us all fussed up.” She looked at me and I saw bitterness on her face. “In this state, my friend, a nigger convicted of killing a nigger gets an average three years. A nigger who rapes a nigger is seldom even tried, unless the girl happens to be twelve years old or less. Santa Claus and Jesus are white men, Mr. McGee, and the little girls’ dolls and the little boys’ toy soldiers have white faces. My boys are two and a half and four. What am I doing to their lives if I let them grow up here? We want out. In the end, it’s that simple. We want out, where the law is, where you prosper or you fail according to your own merits as a person. Is that so damned much? I don’t want white friends. I don’t want to socialize. You know how white people look to me? The way albinos look to you. I hope never to find myself in a white man’s bed. I don’t want to integrate. I just don’t want to feel segregated. We’re after our share of the power structure of this civilization, Mr. McGee, because, when we get it, a crime will merit the same punishment whether the victim is black or white, and hoods will get the same share of municipal services, based on zoning, not color. And a good man will be thought a credit to the human race. Sorry. End of lecture. The housemaid has spoken.”

 Is Noreen declaring she prefers separate but equal as long as it is truly equal under the law? I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that JDM is eschewing a comfortable and politically correct opinion. He took another swing at the race question in The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper (1968).

Stay tuned for Part 2.

Guest Post: The Other JDM – The Damned

October 10, 2014

By Kevin Comer

Readers of a blog dedicated to Travis McGee might be surprised to discover JDM’s top selling novel was not one of the McGee canon.

The Damned, published by Gold Medal in 1952, sold 2.3 million copies in 19 printings and was unlike any of JDM’s previous novels up to that point. The two published just prior its release were science fiction, Wine for the Dreamers (1951) and Ballroom of the Skies (1952). These sci-fi novels followed The Brass Cupcake (1950), Murder for the Bride (1951), and Judge Me Not (1951), thrillers straight out of JDM’s hardboiled pulp repertoire. In fact, his first novel, The Brass Cupcake, was a pulp story he bulked up to novel length at the request of Gold Medal.

The Damned is a portmanteau style narrative. JDM weaves together the stories of nine characters over a single day spent waiting to cross the Rio Conchos by ferry on the main highway between Mexico City and Brownsville, Texas. It is a leap forward in terms of complexity. However, that is not why it became a best seller.

The Damned owes its success to the blurb splashed across the cover declaring: “I wish I had written this book! — Mickey Spillane.” Spillane’s endorsement sent sales through the roof. Mickey was at the height of his popularity. He didn’t do blurbs. In fact, he didn’t intend to endorse the novel.

JDM’s Gold Medal editor, Ralph Daigh, loaned Spillane a set of the galleys for The Damned. When he returned them, Spillane casually remarked, “That’s a good book. I wish I had written it.” The quick witted editor wrote the words on a card and Mickey politely agreed to sign it. When the blurb appeared on the cover, Spillane protested, but Daigh had irrefutable proof he’d said it.

Although readers may have been surprised not to discover a tale of misogynistic mayhem between the covers of The Damned, most were probably not disappointed.

The characters are well drawn and compelling—except perhaps for John Carter Gerrod, whose confusion about whether he’d rather be on Mars or Venus seems psychologically Victorian. Each is in the midst of their own drama. Some of their stories will find resolution as they wait to cross the Rio Conchos; for some, the wait is only an interlude and we’ll never know what happened next; and for others, new stories will be born as their paths cross.

Darby Garon is at the depressive end of a sudden mid-life crisis. In San Antonio on business three weeks ago, he met slatternly Betty Moony. He was armed with a credit card. Now he can’t wait to see the last of Betty, and he fears he’s fouled things up beyond repair with his wife and family. He’ll never get to find out. Ever adaptable Betty won’t miss a beat.

Young John Carter Gerrod is on his way home from a Mexican honeymoon. He isn’t sure what he thinks about the physical reality of marriage to his exquisitely lovely 19-year-old bride, Linda. He feels oddly put off and ashamed. His mother has come down to accompany them on their return to Rochester. They won’t be going back together.

Del Bennicke is on the run. Things had gone seriously bad in Cuernavaca. The authorities will never understand that it was an accident. His background as a small time operator on the fringes of crime isn’t going to help him beat a murder rap, especially of a popular matador. He’s got to keep his head down and get across the river. He can’t make it alone.

Bill Danton is waiting patiently to get back to his father’s spread in Mante with his crew of Mexican farm hands. Unless you knew he was from Texas, you’d think he was just another Mexican laborer. He and his father have made a good life for themselves here in Mexico. You had to be smart and know how things work, but this was a fine country. Sometimes, however, you can’t just stand by, you’ve got to act. And life can surprise you—and change you for good.

Phil Decker has struggled to find success in show business. But things have been looking up since he’d worked the twins, Riki and Niki, into the act. It’s just in time, too. He’s getting old. It’s now or never. Unfortunately for Phil, Riki and Niki have ideas of their own. It’s going to be hard to tell him.

Some of these characters are indeed damned. Poor Darby Garon is sitting, leaning against a tree beside the road, beating himself up with regret. He recalls his college courtship of wife, Moira; how good their life together has been; the joy of their children. He doesn’t know what happened. Betty is repulsive. Moira will never forgive him. Something is happening on the distant riverbank, some kind of struggle. A shot rings out:

His chin was on his chest. He lifted it with great effort. The scene wavered a bit and then came clear. Startlingly clear. He could see the muddy river, the far shore. Ferry was on the other side. The black cars going up the road. And a small figure over there … Hell, what had been the matter with his eyes! Even at that distance, you could tell the brown hair , and that sweater and skirt. Bought that outfit for her for her birthday. God, that was a long time ago. Thought she’d worn it out and thrown it away, long ago. One thing about Moira. She always used her head. One sharp girl. Traced him somehow. Came riding, riding, riding up to the old inn door. No, wrong line. Came riding to the rescue.

He grinned at the figure of his wife on the far shore. Now everything was fine. Sure, even at that distance he could read her eyes. He could read the sweet forgiveness, and the understanding. She knew the answers. She’d tell him why he’d done this thing to the two of them, and he would understand when she had told him. The sweet kid, she was standing over there with books held tightly in her arm, just like during campus days.

He got easily and quickly to his feet , bounded down through the ditch, and went swinging down the road, his head high.

She saw him, and she lifted her free arm and waved. And he broke into a run. Hadn’t run for years. Thought I’d forgotten how. But look at me go! Just like the coach said. Knees high and a lot of spring in the foot and stay up on your toes, Garon.

Running, running, with the wind in his face, running by all the surprised people who thought he was too old and too tired to run. And the river bank was speeding toward him, the way you’d see it from the windshield of a fast car. And Darby Garon went out in a flat dive, hitting the water, knifing down through the water, down through the blackness, feeling it against his face , like dark wings, knowing that he would rise to the surface and she would be close, and there would never again be any problems between them. With his arms straight out in front of him, and with a smile on his lips, he knifed through the blackness, waiting forever for the moment when he would begin to rise toward the surface.

The Damned is worth reading. It’s pretty damned good.


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