Monday, March 18, 2019

A Hero for Our Time

When John D MacDonald passed away on December 28, 1986, all but eleven of his 77 books -- novels, anthologies, non-fiction and a monograph -- were still in print in one form or another.* This included, of course, all 21 titles in the Travis McGee series. As far as I have been able to tell, these titles have never gone out of print and have enjoyed multiple editions over the years. While MacDonald was alive these various editions changed only insofar as their cover art and the accompanying blurbs. The Deep Blue Good-By, for example, went through 43 unique editions through 1987, including 38 in paperback (with five different cover illustrations), two Lippincott hardcovers, two large print editions, and one Detective Book Club edition. And I’m not even counting the two JDM trilogy anthologies that were produced. But if the McGee’s ever did go out of print, it would have happened sometime between 1987 and 1995, a period where my research is spotty and MacDonald’s popularity went into a steep decline.

Then, in the summer of 1995, Ballentine/Fawcett Crest began publishing brand new editions of the series, with new covers and, for the first time, additional material included. There was an introduction by fellow author and Floridian Carl Hiaasen and a brief piece by MacDonald’s son Maynard. That the covers stunk -- easily the worst ever produced for the titles, consisting of huge block lettering -- didn’t matter to JDM fans: the extras and the fact that they were available and taking up space in the Mystery sections of bookstore shelves was all that mattered.

To publicize this event, JDM biographer and editor of the JDM Bibliophile Ed Hirshberg wrote an article for the Tampa Bay Times titled “A Hero for Our Time,” which was published in the July 9, 1995 edition. I have transcribed it and present it below. Although it contains nothing that would have been new to readers of MacDonald’s works it does give a good sense of how far JDM had fallen off of the cultural radar, in that he even needed to be reintroduced to the reading public.

A Hero for Our Times
By Ed Hirshberg

Have you ever heard of Travis McGee, “that big brown loose-jointed beach bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl-seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly. scar-tissued reject from a structured society”?

No? Well now's your chance to get acquainted.

Starting this month with The Deep Blue Good-by, Ballantine/Fawcett Crest is republishing the entire Travis McGee mystery series written by Florida novelist John D. MacDonald. The classy new paperback edition of The Deep Blue Good-by includes such extra goodies as an enthusiastic introduction by Fort Lauderdale satirist Carl Hiaasen, a note from John D.'s son Maynard, and testimonials from Mary Higgins Clark, Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, Jonathan Kellerman and Donald Westlake.

The Deep Blue Good-by was originally published in 1964, closely followed that year by three more Travis McGee adventures: Nightmare In Pink, A Purple Place For Dying and The Quick Red Fox.

McGee calls himself a "salvage expert," who waits until he needs money, then "goes out and takes it from the taker, keeps half and gives the rest back to the innocent." That's his profession, at which he makes a very good living, enabling him to take his retirement "in chunks" as he goes along instead of waiting until he's too old to enjoy it. He lives on the Busted Flush, a 52-foot barge-type houseboat, luxuriously accoutred with a sunken bathtub and plush furnishings. He won the boat in a poker game with a rich South American who was afraid to call his bluff, hence the name.

A superb physical specimen, McGee is handsome in a rough sort of way. He is of that indeterminate age at which he remains attractive to most women of practically any age. He keeps his boat moored at the Bahia Mar Marina on the Inland Waterway in Fort Lauderdale, where a permanent plaque near Slip F-18 now marks the sacred spot.

What Travis McGee has, in short, is everything: enough money, a plethora of women and an interesting job doing good for people, all of which has made him a fascinating figure for millions of readers of both sexes. He is the kind of guy most women would like to be in love with and most men would like to be.

John D. MacDonald, who died in 1986, wrote 21 books about McGee, between 1964 and 1985. The books, each with a different color in its title, have continued to sell briskly (though not nearly as briskly as they did when the author was alive, despite the efforts of a passionate group of MacDonald aficionados.)

So why has Fawcett Crest chosen to republish the Travis McGee series? The publishing house obviously wants to win over a new generation of readers who has never heard of Travis McGee, but the timing is also right: These days we all need heroes like McGee.

MacDonald carefully crafted his character in a heroic mold. In the tradition of such mythical heroes as Hercules, Achilles and Theseus, McGee is of mysterious origins, has great physical strength, and is indefatigable in his amorous exploits. Despite his sybaritic and free-wheeling lifestyle, including his daily tot of Plymouth gin and tonic and the stream of women who pass through the door of the Busted Flush's snug cabin -- and occasionally detour into its king-size bed -- he is, however, fundamentally a decent man, a fit role model for a time starved for heroes.

Despite his weaknesses (and there are many), McGee is unquestionably one of the good guys. The people he chooses to help are usually the poor and the put-upon. Invariably Travis tries to help good people recover from injuries inflicted on them by bad people. He usually succeeds, though often at considerable and grievous cost to himself in the form of injuries, insults and other indignities.

Unlike the ordinary hero, who is usually a strong, silent type, Travis talks a lot. Actually, he is MacDonald's mouthpiece, expressing the author's opinions on a host of social issues. After his fourth McGee book, MacDonald brought in a sounding board for Travis because the author felt that his character was indulging in too many interior monologues. Meyer, a garrulous, hirsute economist, highly intelligent, with whom Travis can discuss the things that are bothering him, suddenly appears in A Deadly Shade of Gold and plays a vital part in the rest of the series. MacDonald once remarked that he felt he had every right to move his suspense novels in the direction of the so-called "legitimate" novels “of manners and morals, despair and failure, love and joy.... I shall continue with my sociological asides, with McGee's and Meyer's dissertations on the condition of medicine, retirement, face-lifting, earmites, road construction, white-collar theft, apartment architecture, magazine editing, acid rain, billyrock, low fidelity, and public service in America today."

Wide-ranging and all-embracing as Travis' interests are, his most persistent and passionate

opinions have to do with Florida's besieged environment. There are strong statements about what man's greed has done and is doing to despoil our state's natural resources - statements that are just as relevant today as they were when Travis or Meyer made them back in 1965. For example, in Bright Orange For The Shroud, the sixth book in the series, Travis speculates about the Everglades. Having failed to subdue it from frontal attack, "we are slowly killing it off by tapping the River of Grass. In the questionable name of progress, the state in its vast wisdom lets every two-bit developer divert the flow into the dragline canals that give him 'waterfront' lots to sell. As far north as Corkscrew Swamp, virgin stands of ancient bald cypress are dying...”

*The John D MacDonald titles that were no longer in print in 1986 when MacDonald died were:

Title Date of Last Edition
Ballroom of the Skies February 1982
The Deceivers January 1984
I Could Go On Singing March 1963
Judge Me Not June 1984
Nothing Can Go Wrong March 1983
Other Times, Other Worlds January 1980
Soft Touch September 1982
Weep for Me January 1959
Where is Janice Gantry? December 1980
Wine of the Dreamers February 1984
You Live Once September 1981

1 comment:

  1. Every time I see a graphical depiction of somebody's idea of McGee, I'm reminded that there'd be nobody better than Channing Tatum to play him in a movie, if they ever do make The Deep Blue Good-by. Rugged, athletic, and he can even dance, although I can't recall that McGee ever did. I know this has nothing to do with your excellent post.