Sunday, January 25, 2009

A Pleasant Return to John D. MacDonald

During my formative years, i.e. when I had no money of my own, I had to find a way to satiate my quickly-forming literary addiction. My Dad, an avid reader in his own right, had amassed a vast collection of fiction, most of it falling into the suspense, thriller, and/or crime genres. So naturally, all I had to do when I was ready for a new book or author was venture upstairs and dig one off the shelves.

It was thus that I introduced myself to John D. MacDonald, most famous for his 21-novel Travis McGee series. Between the ages of twelve and fourteen, I devoured whatever MacDonald novel I could find in the house, and when I exhausted the supply, I moved on to a different author.

Fast forward seventeen years. Thanks to Adrian McKinty and Peter Rozovsky's fantastic blog, Detectives Beyond Borders, my interest in literate crime fiction was very recently renewed, and ever since I've been looking for good books to read in the genre.

I don't know how I remembered MacDonald, but somehow, the appropriate reaction in the appropriate synapse sparked the appropriate memory recall, and so I went to Barnes & Noble with gift card in hand, excited to reintroduce myself to John D.

I picked out two of his novels, One Fearful Yellow Eye and The Deep Blue Good-By, and just finished the former. Both feature MacDonald's most well-known protagonist, Travis McGee.

OFYE was both a good read and a very interesting experience. About twenty pages in, I recognized a few passages and realized I had already read it but didn't remember how it all turned out. MacDonald's stories are lean and move quickly, mostly thanks to a lot of dialogue. Maybe I was still feeling his literary influence, albeit subconsciously, when I was writing The Unearthed, which my editor tells me is dialogue-heavy.

The book was filled with sexual innuendo, and everyone, of course, wanted to sleep with the hero; but even more startling was the fact that everyone aside from the protagonist had some kind of unhealthy sexual past affecting their current lives. This was all a bit too much in pushing the boundaries of verisimilitude, and looking back now, I can't believe Dad let me read this book when I was twelve years old. (Wink, wink: Thanks, Dad)

What impressed me most about MacDonald's writing was, however, the style itself. It was literary, yet virile. A man's man telling a man's story with flashes of brilliance throughout, that caught the eye but never pulled me out of the story:

"Maybe we all mete out to ourselves our little rewards and punishments according to our very private and unique systems of guilt and self-esteem...So when you skip the cream pie and pass up the chocolate shake and deny yourself the home fried, you begin to think that, by God, you have a right to the Cherries Jubilee."

It was with some trepidation that I had returned to MacDonald, I'll admit. The years have not been kind to many of the things I enjoyed as a youth, as I suppose is true for everybody. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I still enjoyed MacDonald, even though my artistic sensibilities have changed quite a lot since then.

Note: MacDonald wrote 78 novels, one of which was the basis for both versions of Cape Fear.


TheMattstard said...

if it's literate detective fiction you're after, might I suggest anything by George Pelecanos. I didn't see his name mentioned but he is the king of that sub-genre right now.

Brian O'Rourke said...

TheMattstard -

First, cool name.

Second, I've heard nothing but good things about George P. I'll have to put him on the always-expanding To Read list.