January 27, 2003

The Deep Blue Good-By, by John D. MacDonald

Travis McGee is one of those characters you hear about from time to time, usually with superlatives attached; and the same can be said about his creator, John D. MacDonald. And so, when the Travis McGee books came back in print some years ago I acquired and read the first six or eight of them, and then stopped. Part of the reason was that they were grittier than I liked, and part was that I'd simply lost interest. I kept them, though, and after reading Ed McBain's Nocturne I decided to give him another try.

For those who aren't familiar, Travis McGee is a beach bum. He lives on a houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. And sometimes people who have had some object or other taken from them come to him and ask him to get it back. If he succeeds, he gets 50% of whatever he retrieves--and then he lives the good life on his houseboat until the money runs out and he needs to take a new client. McGee is frequently described as a knight errant--a fundamentally decent guy who can't help aiding the weak and oppressed.

In this particular book a young woman comes to him. Her father had been in the Air Transport Command as a freighthandler, and apparently had managed to make quite a bit of money on the side smuggling. On returning to the States he'd killed an officer and been sentenced to life in prison. A cellmate of his, on release, comes to see the young woman, and insinuates his way into every part of her life, until he finds out where the money was stashed, and then he disappears. The woman wants the money back.

I'm afraid I didn't like it much, this time through. I even found it, and Travis McGee himself, to be a bit tedious. I've spent a couple of days pondering that, on and off, and I think I've figured out way.

What people seem to like about Travis McGee, other than his knightly character, is that he philosophizes. As the book goes on he tosses off little gems of wisdom about this or that or the people he meets. And that, it turns out, is a big part of what I dislike, because a lot of it is pretty damned depressing. There's no joy and no humor to speak of in this book.

And then there's McGee's vaunted moral code. He's a real nice guy; one of his rules is that he won't engage in casual sex with people he really cares about. Instead, he only engages in casual sex with brainless idiots who aren't looking for anything else. And while you expect the hero in a book like this to treat the bad guys violently, he treats other folks badly as well if it gets him the information he wants.

And then, finally, there's a whole pornography of violence thing going on that I find repulsive. It's one thing to kill somebody in a novel; it's another thing to describe the process and the results in detail. I was repulsed by them in Nocturne as well, but I didn't have the sense that the book was about the violence; rather, it was about finding the perpetrators.

I might re-read one or more of the remaining Travis McGee's in my collection, just to see if my generalizations hold true...but if they do, I think that Good Ol' Travis is going to get purged.

Posted by Will Duquette at January 27, 2003 03:22 PM