Guest Post: Travis McGee & Big Data

By Kevin Comer

Travis McGee can seem remarkably prescient. To illustrate this point we need look no further than The Deep Blue Good-by (1964).

Blue is the first and definitive McGee novel. We’re introduced to—and seduced by—Travis McGee, the wry, amiable iconoclast, cultural critic, and unassimilated rebel, as JDM pithily puts it in “How to Live with a Hero” (The Writer, September 1964). Blue is very nearly the best McGee novel. It has everything—except Meyer.

McGee rescues his first injured bird, Lois Atkinson. He faces one of his most implacable foes in smiling Junior Allen. He is smart, tender, and tough. He makes costly mistakes. And all the while he amiably kvetches about modern times under a Florida sun shining on blue water, beaches, babes, and boats.

Departing Bahia Mar for a flight to NYC inspires Travis to ruminate on one particular necessity of modern times. A rumination that goes further than you might have anticipated. McGee is trying to discover what Junior Allen found hidden by Cathy Kerr’s father, Sergeant David Berry, in the marker at the end of the family driveway. He is leaving convalescing Lois aboard the Flush:

At the gangplank I kissed [Lois] like any commutation ticket husband, told her to take care of herself, scuttled toward Miss Agnes, slapping my hip pocket where the money and the credit cards were. The unemployed merit no credit cards. But I had a guarantor, a man for whom I had done a sticky and dangerous favor, a man whose name makes bank presidents spring to attention and hold their shallow breaths. The cards are handy, but I hate to use them. I always feel like a Thoreau armored with a Leica and a bird book. They are the little fingers of reality, reaching for your throat. A man with a credit card is in hock to his own image of himself.

But these are the last remaining years of choice. In the stainless nurseries of the future, the feds will work their way through all the squalling pinkness tattooing a combination tax number and credit number on one wrist, followed closely by the I.T. and T. team putting the permanent phone number, visaphone doubtless, on the other wrist. Die and your number goes back in the in the bank. It will be the first provable immortality the world has ever known.

Wow. Imagine—a government database containing everybody’s phone number.

I think it’s a safe bet that we’re hearing directly from JDM in this dystopian vision. He felt the world was changing, and not for the better. He wrote in the autobiographical The House Guests (1964): “As life gets ever more inconvenient, trashified, and irritating, it is possible to convince [those who don’t know any better] through electronic repetition…that everything is, in fact, getting better and better and better.” Those feelings came to a head a few years later when he went to war with AmEx over his credit card.

In late 1967, JDM disputed some charges on his AmEx bill. His complaint went unacknowledged and he received a letter stating he was in arrears. He replied:

“Whether or not my account is past due, sir, is a matter of interpretation. At least, I have had no such notifications from your establishment. And you have heard from me. Ah, yes, you have heard from me time and again, a detail which mayhaps the Great Machine overlooked when it upchucked my card in your “in” basket. I would be bedazzled, humble and grateful indeed if you would inspect the attached copies of certain documents and not only write me a prompt, personal, and thorough and thoughtful answer, but also unravel and eliminate the ancient , unadjusted, semi-corrected charge of $ 7.20 dating back, so help us all, to December of 1967.”

Unsurprisingly, this did not garner the requested prompt reply. Things moved more slowly back the late ‘60s. JDM waited six whole days before escalating:

“It must be a new age of efficiency there at Big Ex. No more fussing about with first, second, third notices. Send the final notice first! I think we can both safely agree that it would be distressing for both of us were the brute electronic equipment to start assessing delinquency fees before I even have a chance to get that prompt, personal, thorough and thoughtful answer you promised me.

“Of the 35 million copies of my thirty-odd books which have sold all over the world, several million have involved the adventures of a character I named Travis McGee. It is often very difficult to dream up brand new torments and handicaps for a fictional charater … I now realize I have been overlooking an affliction which even Mr. McGee might not be able to overcome. I am now thinking of, in the next novel, gifting him with an American Express Credit Card! It would make Poe’s bit about the pit and the pendulum look no more distressing than diaper rash.”

AmEx cancelled his card. He responded by suing for $600,000 in damages. In a letter to his friend, comedian Dan Rowan, he vented: “I want to know if a huge corporation can damage me with utter cynical impunity merely because it is big and I am small, and I want the Court to clarify this little point of citizenship rights, damages etc. in a computer-cold world.”

The suit was settled in 1969. JDM declared it a “Victory Claimed for Humans.”

I can’t help thinking JDM was being a bit obstreperous in all this. His reaction to a simple billing error was asymmetric to the offense given. The amounts involved were trivial. He was impatient. His correspondence didn’t need to be sarcastic. He could have phoned. But he was primed for this fight.

In October 1967, just months before he went ballistic, JDM published an article, “Everybody Knows Something Is Wrong,” ostensibly about the unassimilated McGee, in Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald. He wrote:

“McGee resents being processed, programmed, fed through the machinery by experts trained in handling people rather than persons. He knows that the dentist, the post office, the County, the IRS, the airline hostess, the librarian, the highway engineer, the supermarket, the city government, the census bureau, the banker, the advertising agent, the automobile agency, the hospital, and the mortician are all intent in using him as a statistic, as one atom in a manageable mass, then studying him, weighing him, measuring him, predicting his actions on some huge probability table. They use manuals and trade journals and computers and statistical methods and psychological testing devices to predict mass reaction, and handle mass demand on a totally impersonal and totally efficient basis. It irritates him to have society take away his face and dump him into the great hopper labeled Standard Operating Procedure. But don’t try to tell him that in a densely populated urban culture it has to be that way, that people must be turned into a commodity or we would have chaos. Don’t try to tell him that if the processors tried to measure the uniqueness of each human personality, the wonderful specialness, the delicious inconsistency of every one of us, all the memory banks would start smoking, the sorters would spew out a snowstorm of punch cards, and all the complex technology of our culture would grind to a sickening halt… He reserves the right to resent being sorted and graded on the basis of “sameness” rather than on the basis of uniqueness. It makes him feel degraded, and he reserves the right to do his little bit here and there to startle the processors out of their compulsion to flatten and deaden all human contact…”

Sadly, JDM may have won his battle, but—as everybody knows—not the war.

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