It owes a lot to the "juvenile delinquency" novels that were popular in the early fifties, specifically Irving Shulman's The Amboy Dukes, that wildly popular book from 1950 that lifted the lid on inner-city youth gangs, their manners and morality, sex and drug use, their criminal behavior and the overall hopelessness of their lives. The Neon Jungle ends bleakly, but there is hope and promise for some of the characters, unlike in the Shulman book where... well, I won't ruin it for anyone who hasn't read it yet. Depending on who you believe, the postwar era either gave birth to this subculture of wayward youth, or allowed it to be finally uncovered for all to see. A look back at the paperbacks published prior to 1953 include dozens that deal luridly with the problem, including Hal Ellison's Duke, R. C. Cooper's Teen-Age Vice, and the non-fiction "expose" Hooked (Narcotics: America's Peril) by Will Oursler and Laurence Dwight Smith. For an author who was to become noted for his sociological asides, and who had already begun using that unique device in earlier novels, The Neon Jungle was MacDonald's chance to join these ranks, but his effort is characteristically more studied and deeply researched. And even if the reader doesn't care about such things, it's still an action-packed, nuanced novel, one that really owes more to the author's ability at characterization than anything else.
This is where MacDonald really shines. The people he creates here are as real and as detailed as anyone you might know or meet on the street. He goes back to his device of multiple perspective, first developed in The Damned and, to a lesser extent in Cancel All Our Vows, whereby the reader gets to spend long periods of time inside the heads of different characters, learning their makeup, their personalities and, most illuminating, their back-stories. And like The Damned, where many disparate people are joined together briefly around a specific event, The Neon Jungle revolves around a single family and a brief but unforgettable period in their lives. Anthony Boucher described it well as a "detailed study of the disintegration of a closely knit family group, each member going to hell in his own tragic but understandable way..."
The setting is "The Neighborhood," the poor, industrial, mill-town section of a fictional Midwestern city called Johnston. The author sets the scene in a brief preface to the main story:
"Down the narrow streets marches the neon. A fizzing and sputter and crackle of BAR GRILL LOUNGE INN and ROOMS APTS HOTEL and POOL BILLIARDS BOWLING and TRIPLE FEATURE GIRLS BALLROOM CLUB FLOOR SHOW... But here the feathers hang tired on the rumps of the floor-show ponies, and there is no self-conscious reading of Proust in satined dressing rooms. These are the weary bitter-mouthed dollies, who take a percentage on the drinks you buy them... This is a separate country... There are gaunt, bleak-faced textile mills, rumbling, clattering in the hot summer days... There are empty mills with broken windows, like eyes that accuse... Children grow up quickly in the neighborhood... At night the lace-eared toms yell of love and passion in the narrow alleys, and the wagons picks up the broken-down bums from their newspaper nests... A brave and wheelless Pierce Arrow sits window-deep in weeds in a vacant lot, the rat-gnawed back seat is a place of juvenile assignation when dusk comes blue down the street... It is said that you can buy anything in the neighborhood. If you know where to look. Whom to see. When to see him..."
The Varaki Quality Market sits inside the neighborhood, a "boxlike cinder-block structure," attached to a "big, shabby frame house." The market is owned by Gus Varaki, an elderly immigrant, who runs the place with his extended family and who all live together in the attached house. There is the eldest son Walter, a "meek, submissive hag-ridden man... working dutifully at a job he did not care for in order to help his father." Walter is married to Doris, a miserable, shrewish Italian who is eight months pregnant and not very happy about it. Gus' second child is Henry, a big, simple and lovable fellow who, unfortunately, has died in the Korean War, but not before sending his new wife home to live in the house, an ex-prostitute from San Francisco named Bonny. Then there's Teena, his daughter, the youngest, pretty and promising, but unhinged by her brother's death and now hanging around with the wrong crowd.
Gus's wife died several years before, and Gus remarried. Not to just anyone, mind you, but to a sturdy blonde farm girl half his age named Jana, who had been sent to the city to work by her parents. Jana is a cipher, a quiet, submissive, yet sexually needy woman with probably not a lot of brainpower.
Gus is a good man and tries to help the less-fortunate when he can. Years ago he and his first wife took a teenager out of an orphanage and put him to work in the market. Rick Stussen, now a fat, sexless 40-year old, is the store's butcher and leads a life of quiet desperation. Gus has also tried to help the occasional wayward youth, and has given a job to a young parolee named Vern Lockter. Vern is a seemingly polite and agreeable young man who drives the store delivery truck and who also lives in the adjacent house. Finally, there is Anna, a matronly older woman who cooks, cleans house and says little.
Two outside forces of society are represented in Paul Darmond, a young idealistic parole officer who has placed Vern at the Varaki Market, and Detective Andrew Rowell, a brutal, hardened, clown-faced cop who polices the neighborhood. Paul, who is widowed, believes in hope and reform, that humanity can be improved given the right choices, whereas Rowell's world is black-and-white: you're a good guy or a bad guy, and once a bad guy, always a bad guy.
In each of these characters, with the exception of Anna and, for the most part, Gus, we are given the opportunity to get inside their heads, to get to know them and learn their background, sometimes in long, involving recollections. It is Bonny we meet first, a college-educated chippy, a girl who made a bad decision years ago and whose inability to forgive herself has locked her into a life of "A tramp. A semi-alcoholic. A girl who works the bars and works the men she finds in the bars. A girl who ... can't even remember all their faces." Bonny was rescued from an alley beating by Henry, who was on a 30-day leave from the Army before shipping overseas. He rescues the deathly-ill Bonny and, like a kid with a sick bird, spends his entire leave nursing her back to health. After she recovers he marries her and sends her to Johnston to live with his family. Bonny grudgingly agrees and heads east, while Henry goes to Korea, where he is soon killed. The first two chapters of the novel are the story of Bonny. They are deeply fascinating and presage the kind of rehabilitation Travis McGee would one day be famous for. But once in Johnston Bonny keeps to herself, working the register of the store then returning to her room to sit by herself playing records, feeling sorry for herself.
Henry's sister Teena is also a mess. An excellent and promising student in high school, her brother's death has hardened her and driven her into a self-destructive lifestyle. She has become friendly with classmates who use drugs, first introducing her to "tea," then to "horse," and she is now mildly addicted. She nearly prostitutes herself in order to get a fix, but then runs in fear back to her room and locks herself in, painfully in need. Her father Gus is blind to this, as he has sunk into his own lethargy over Henry's death, one that leaves him looking old and now ignoring his sexually-needy young wife.
The moving force of the novel, the plot device that carries the story, revolves around Vern Lockter, young parolee. He is one of MacDonald's quintessential soulless villains, a manipulator of other people, a self-aware and self-centered opportunist who has the ability to mask his intentions and make everyone else think he is what he is not. Vern came up with a plan to distribute drugs, worked it out and approached the local crime boss. Using his powers of manipulation, he has managed to trick the gullible butcher Rick into playing a high-stakes poker game, losing big and forcing him to agree to run a distribution center for heroin. Rick hides vials of the stuff inside cuts of meat, which are delivered innocently to the various pushers around town. Rick, a wuss if there ever was one, timidly goes along with the plan, since he really has no other choice. He is slowly getting rich by the payments the mob is making to him, as is Vern, who secretly hides his loot in jars buried in the cellar.
Vern spots Teena and recognizes her drug problem immediately. Fearing that the eventual uncovering of her habit will endanger his drug distribution set-up, he agrees to supply her with a fix. But this was a dumb idea, one of the few Vern has ever had, and his bosses don't like it. If Teena ever tells where she obtained the drugs, it would lead to Vern and to the possible collapse of the crime ring. Vern is given one choice: get rid of weak-link Rick, who would certainly spill the beans if the lid blew off. Vern agrees and plots the murder, using his skills to get someone else to do the deed. It all ends badly, for nearly everyone.
The other plot, the one MacDonald is obviously more interested in, is Bonny and her redemption. Parole Officer Darmond spots Bonny while bringing over a new parolee to work in the store. He is immediately smitten and begins to woo her, knowing full well her background. Bonny fights it every step of the way, her guilt controlling her desire for a better life, until Paul has a good talking to her, admonishing her to get out of her self-absorbed shell and to engage with those around her. It is when Bonny follows this advice that she begins to recognize all of the problems in the house, including suspicions that involve Vern's murder plot. But the struggle to accept and forgive herself is the development MacDonald focuses on, and his moralist tendencies are given a good workout. For someone who believed that sex-without-love was emotionally barren, the author's willingness to allow for redemption in his fallen characters is notable. He covered this ground earlier in Judge Me Not, with call-girl Barbara Heddon going through much the same kind of metamorphosis and struggle with guilt, and he would continue to visit the issue repeatedly throughout his writing career.
Likewise, he deals realistically with his male redemptor, one who has his own struggles to deal with. Paul genuinely loves Bonny, and is intellectually willing to forgive her past, yet he often suffers from "jealousy that was like a rusty iron being pulled through his body." He realizes that "the weight of the past" could destroy their future happiness unless there was a strong physical relationship, and in this respect he shows more maturity and sense than Teed Morrow does in Judge Me Not. And when we leave the characters for the last time there is genuine uncertainty as to whether or not the relationship will work. Still, the novel ends with one of MacDonald's most memorable and lyrical sentences.
The social aspects of the novel are realistic and well-depicted, yet are never allowed to become the blame for the actions of the characters. There are no outside forces strong enough to turn a person who wasn't already willing to be turned, either through their own self-pity or their willful behavior. MacDonald believes it is the choices one makes that determine destiny, not a random, uncaring destiny itself. In this respect, the setting for the novel is almost peripheral. Even in the case of the easily-duped Rick, or Teena and her decent into drugs, it is the choice these characters make that define them, not the ugliness or brutality of the neighborhood. The nearest the author comes to explaining away anyone's choices is when he has Rowell talk about the kids who got Teena hooked on heroin, taking particular aim at their parents and their parents' situation:
"The Delaney girl's old lady is a dipso. The Fitzgerald kid's people both work a night shift, sleep all day, live in a crummy apartment. Derrain's people got dough and no sense. The woman isn't his mother. There was a divorce in the picture. You know how it goes. All three families. The same yak. Not my baby. Not my sweet Ginny. Not my darling, my Bucky. There must be some mistake, Officer. My baby would never do such terrible things. I get it through their heads finally that there's no mistake. Then they want a break for their precious babies. Take it easy on them, Officer.They didn't realize what they were doing. It always follows the same pattern..."
Still, the setting does allow MacDonald the room for his customary rants, his sad, sometimes mournful raging against the machine of society. The best example is that of a high school principal midway through the story:
"It isn't enough that the classes are jammed, teachers are hard to get. Five thousand and more students now. Just enough funds to handle bare maintenance. That charming time of life, adolescence. We want to give them outside activities. Teachers willing to supervise are damn rare. They don't get paid for it. My God, it's a hideous time of life when they run loose. Stuff that would sicken you. We found them using the auditorium, a bunch of them, as a big bedroom when they cut classes. That knifing two weeks ago. Running off pornography on the school mimeograph machine. They come from decent homes and get thrown into this millrace, and they think they have to conform. If they don't, they're labeled chicken. My God... it would strain you to the last inch to keep this place in line even without the drugs... What's happened to kids? What's going wrong with the world?"
As Len Moffat wrote in 1993 (BIB # 51), "If John were alive today he could write the same suspenseful story with little or no updating. It's a shame we haven't progressed more in four decades..." Or, I could add, in nearly six.
But like most of MacDonald's best writing, I keep returning to The Neon Jungle for its characters, the beautifully realized histories, like little short stories that captivate and amaze. Each time we get to deeply know a different person here, we disappear into their world and are transported. Rick Stussen is little more than a peripheral character until Chapter Six, when we visit him in his room and learn his story: his lonely childhood, his sadness, regret and near despair. It's like reading a different book as we lurch from a familiar setting to the memory of the character's past. The same thing happens in the next chapter with Vern Lockter. Gus's wife Jana, who is barely noticed in the first half of the book, becomes a pivotal one as things race to a climax, and we are allowed then to witness her recollection of a heartbreaking past, told so movingly and so poignantly that the reader immediately understands her motivations.
The Neon Jungle received only three contemporaneous reviews, not surprising since it was published in paperback. Boucher in the New York Times praised MacDonald's "technically admirable handling of multiple viewpoints," and said "the novel culminates in one of the most explosive murder scenes in recent fiction. Quietly powerful realism makes a 'suspense novel' bordering on the 'serious fiction' category." James Sandoe in the New York Herald Tribune called The Neon Jungle "...a very lively show indeed... [it's] like reading Dostoevsky on a roller coaster, mixing virtue and fun rather hectically." And in a piece for Fairfield County Publications, Brett Halliday and his then-wife Helen McCloy wrote glowingly:
"[MacDonald] writes with true compassion and insight of little people caught inextricably in a mesh of sordid surroundings... His people are so real, their struggles for survival so sharply delineated that there is a growing queasiness in the pit of one's stomach as one reads on, finding it almost impossible to put the book down while one is at the same time appalled and frightened by the grip it has on one's emotions."
They ended with this quip:
"We predict that one of these days MacDonald will take a few months off from this hack-work and write a truly fine novel of our times."
More recent critical appraisals are few, limited primarily to the various JDM biographies and literary examinations. Ed Hirshberg gave it a paragraph in his 1985 Twayne biography, claiming that it was characterized by a "black-and-white treatment of moral issues." David Geherin mentions it a bit more in his 1982 bio, but only when discussing certain themes such as America's youth problem or limiting a novel to a single setting, and only in passing. Lewis D. Moore gives it a sentence or two in his Meditations on America: John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee Series and Other Fiction, but never directly discusses the novel. Hugh Merrill ignores it completely.
The publication history of The Neon Jungle is interesting. The first edition, a Fawcett Gold Medal Book (of course) had an unusual wraparound laminate cover featuring an illustration of the Varaki Quality Market, with a bar & grill next door that wasn't mentioned in the novel. Splashed across the top of the front is the bold assertion "JOHN D. MacDONALD'S GREATEST NOVEL," and on the back is another version of Mickey Spillane's remark about The Damned: "Said MICKEY SPILLANE: 'I WISH I HAD WRITTEN THIS BOOK' Mickey was talking about John D, MacDonald's THE DAMNED. Well... here is an even greater novel THE NEON JUNGLE by the same author." And Fawcett still wasn't done: Readers would be reminded of Spillane's remark on the cover of MacDonald's next paperback novel, All These Condemned. There was only a single printing with this cover.
Then, in 1958 there was a second edition, with a cover featuring two teenage toughs standing under a streetlamp, the male holding a switchblade, illustrated by James Meese. The lettering was altered slightly for the third printing, then replaced completely for its mid-Sixties reissue, an impressionistic illustration of a street scene. It's final edition in the mid Eighties featured a montage illustration of various bits of inner-city street life. There has never been a hardcover edition printed in the United States.
The term "neon jungle" is a part of the lexicon now. Movies have used it, songwriters have used it, even online stores are called "the neon jungle." It was long assumed -- at least by JDM fans -- that MacDonald coined the term, but that now appears not to be true. Thanks to modern search engines, the researcher can see that the term goes back as far as 1950, when it was used in an syndicated article published in newspaper magazine supplements throughout the country, titled "Sinister Blackout for the American Paris." Appearing in the June 4 edition of various newspapers, this brief article by James Aswell is a fascinating and well-written report of how New Orleans' French District's tourist trade ground to a halt as the result of a Mickey Fin given to a Tennessee football player, inadvertently causing his death. Its style reads much like the back-story of a JDM character, and I have to wonder -- this is pure conjecture on my part -- if MacDonald read this when he was researching his novel Murder For the Bride, published in May of 1951. Here's the sentence:
"Thousands like him walked past the shrilling barkers in front of the innumerable mean night clubs of 'the Quarter'; strolled through the Neon jungle of signs promising limitless gayety, heard the taxi-drivers' chant of 'Girls? Want to meet some nice girls?'"
A more likely source may be an article that appeared in The All Florida Weekly Magazine, a supplement to the St. Petersburg Independent (and other Florida newspapers). In an article titled "King Arthur and Sir Lancelot of Porgy Key," reporter H. B. Stowers writes about two bonefish and tarpon guides who live near Miami and who are ruing the proposed construction of a causeway connecting Miami Beach to Elliott Key, spanning Porgy Key. It's the kind of Florida-development-run-amok JDM would have reveled in and it contains this quote from the fisherman nicknamed King Arthur:
"Our life here is simple. There are no trains to catch. We don't own a clock. One of our boats can take us to the mainland in an hour if we ever want to go. Both of us hate to see the causeway built and this island turned into a neon jungle."
If MacDonald didn't invent the term himself and borrowed it from another source, my money is on the second article. And while JDM may not have coined the term, it's general usage in the language certainly took off after his novel was published, especially after the second edition came out in 1958.
Incidentally, The Neon Jungle has absolutely nothing to do with the 1988 made-for-TV movie titled Alone in the Neon Jungle. This notoriously awful film, starring Suzanne Pleshette as an inner-city cop, is virtually unwatchable and was panned unmercifully when it was first aired. Tom Shales in The Washington Post famously called it "a stupefyingly preposterous bungle, but only in its better moments."