Friday, January 28, 2011

"Terminal Cases"

Fans of the Travis McGee series are, no doubt, aware of the twenty-one books that make up that fine collection, from Blue to Silver. Some of them may even be aware of the "twenty-second McGee," the posthumously-published monograph titled Reading For Survival, which is basically a long treatise on the importance of of the written word in modern society, presented as a conversation -- Meyer does most of the talking -- between McGee and his pal. But how many of you are aware of the fact that there exists a Travis McGee short story? It was published in the October 3, 1977 issue of New York Magazine (between Lemon and Copper), was called "Terminal Cases" and runs a mere 2,000 words. But before you get too excited about a McGee you may never have read, know this: "Terminal Cases" is not a narrative in the strict sense of the word, but another opportunity for Meyer (read: MacDonald) to get up on his soapbox and rant knowingly about a particular ill of the modern world.
 
It was September 1985 when John D MacDonald, while being interviewed for a television show called Library Edition, agreed to write Reading for Survival. The show's host, Jean Trebbi, was the Executive Director of The Florida Center for the Book (which was the local chapter of the Library of Congress' national Center for the Book), and a post-interview conversation between her and MacDonald sparked the idea to have the author pen a monograph on the importance of reading. Five years earlier historian Barbara Tuchman had written a similar monograph for the Center titled The Book, and MacDonald was a huge fan of Tuchman's A Distant Mirror. His agreement to tackle this assignment may have been influenced by this and the promise of joining such august company.
 
But things did not go well. MacDonald had trouble with the work from the beginning, and couldn't find a proper approach for the subject matter. Finally, a year later in the summer of 1986, his manuscript arrived at the desk of John Y. Cole of the Library of Congress, with the following apology: "The mountain has labored and brought forth a small, mangy, bad-tempered mouse of 7,200 words." He went on to explain why the project gave him such trouble:
 
"I could not make the essay work and I could not imagine why. I must have done two hundred pages of junk. Then Jean Trebbi wrote asking me why I didn't use the device of a conversation between McGee and Meyer. Why indeed? I am very sorry for taking so damn long."
 
This quote from MacDonald's letter (which appears in an Afterword to Reading for Survival) doesn't reveal if Trebbi's idea came from the previous "dialogue" between the two fictional characters, but I'm guessing that it must have. Beginning as far back as The Deep Blue Good-By, MacDonald used the character of Travis McGee to pontificate on the ills of society, and this device only became more pronounced with the introduction of Meyer, an intellectual's intellectual if there ever was one. Reading for Survival reads like a section straight from one of the latter-day McGee books, and so does "Terminal Cases." The problem with this kind of writing is that, without any story or reference to ground it, the works come off sounding like the exact things they were: the author's opinions voiced through the character of an intellectual, which -- when you think about it -- is pretty brazen.
 
The (very) thin framework of "Terminal Cases" consists of Trav and Meyer in New York City, there to bury a friend (one Morrie Fox), who died when a van, stolen by two Puerto Rican kids, jumped a curb and "punted" Morrie through a plate glass window. The funeral takes place on a rainy autumn afternoon and afterword, while purchasing a bottle of wine, Meyer becomes philosophical.
 
"McGee, all the activities of man if continued long enough have a 100 percent mortality. Living in the Russian mountains and downing yogurt will kill you after 120 years or so. We are all terminal cases."
 
His thoughts turn to guns, in general, and in particular to a gun "slogan": "Guns don't kill people. People kill people." He cites an example of two business partners, one of whom becomes engaged at the other during an argument, pulls a revolver from a drawer and shoots him dead.
 
"Old partner takes it in the skull. It slams him back against the wall and he drops onto his face. Heavily. There is blood and brain tissue on the wall. Old partner breathes twice more and stops. All the sphincters relax. Hydrostatic pressures have bulged the skull hideously. There's a stench of urine and fecal matter. And a horrid stillness. And the man who did the shooting suddenly realizes he has ended his own life too."
 
To which Meyer then asks the question: "What if he yanked the desk drawer open and took out a club?" The point being that anything requiring more effort than simply " crook[ing] one finger against a curved piece of metal and giv[ing] a little pull" would likely not result in death.
 
The subject then turns to overpopulation, a possible cause of people "getting... angrier lately." Meyer opines that perhaps murder is mankind's instinctive response to "numbers which have grown too big."
 
Then it's on to junk food ("additives addling the wits"), lack of stimulus in the developmental stages of life ("not enough hugging"), then finally... television(!), which he posits has become the new "peer group" of modern youth, replacing the built-in safety features of a small-town society. It's all a lot to process in 2,000 short words. The "narrative" -- if you can call it that -- consists simply of McGee and Meyer wandering around New York City, on their way to Pearl's to dine on some bitter melon, window shopping and avoiding the "predatory hookers."
 
MacDonald was not a fan of New York City and dreaded his trips there to meet with his publishers. He and friend Dan Rowan referred to the place as "dog turd city." The New York of 1977, when this story was written, was a very different place than it is today, with an ever-increasing crime rate and having just endured the Son of Sam killing spree. The very month this story was published a fire broke out in an abandoned elementary school in the Bronx while the Yankees were playing the Dodgers in the World Series. As the television cameras were pointed at the raging inferno (visible from the stadium) Howard Cosell intoned dramatically, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning." The incident seemed to sum up everything that was wrong with the city and had an air of apocalypse to it. I remember watching the game from my home in Maryland thinking the end of the world was nigh.
 
Of course, MacDonald's views on the city were well known to his fans by 1977. As far back as 1964, in Nightmare in Pink, Travis McGee makes the trip to the city to meet with Nina Gibson and he makes this memorable observation:
 
"New York is where it is going to begin, I think. You can see it coming. The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts. Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers. When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world. We're nearing a critical point. One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York. But this time they won't snarl and go on. They will stop and stare and then leap at each other's throats in a dreadful silence. The infection will spread outward from that point. Old ladies will crack skulls with their deadly handbags. Cars will plunge down the crowded sidewalks. Drivers will be torn out of their cars and stomped. It will spread to all the huge cities of the world, and by dawn of the next day there will be a horrid silence of sprawled bodies and tumbled vehicles, gutted buildings, and a few wisps of smoke. And through that silence will prowl a few of the most powerful ones, ragged and bloody, slowly tracking each other down."
 
As far as I can tell, "Terminal Cases" has never been reprinted.



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