Sunday, August 29, 2021

Travis McGee, Boatman


It might be surprising for a John D MacDonald fan to learn that Travis McGee’s 52-foot houseboat, The Busted Flush -- which plays such a prominent role in so many of the 21 novels starring the author’s series character -- has only been depicted by cover artists a handful of times. It was certainly surprising for me as I was researching this piece: I could have sworn I’d seen it more often. By my count I can find only four illustrations of the Flush on any of the various editions published in the United States prior to 1988, and I don’t think there have been any after that. All of the illustrations were inked by the great Robert McGuinness.

The houseboat’s first appearance took place with the first paperback edition of The Turquoise Lament in July 1974. It showed a well-groomed Travis McGee standing on a dock with the Flush taking up nearly every inch of the background. Now I’m no boat person but even I, at the time, could tell that this depiction of a 52’ boat was way too small to be the Flush. A few years later MacDonald’s bibliographer Walter Shine voiced the same sentiment in his JDM Bibliophile column:

"We nominate as the worst artistic depiction of any story the monstrosity of a houseboat which decorated the paperback editions of Turquoise and the second edition of Scarlet. That spindly little 28' no 'count boat no more resembles the 52' custom-built ‘decadently luxurious’ Busted Flush than Walter Shine resembles Travis D. McGee.

"Insult to injury, the Grand Rapids Special-looking furniture shown on the sundeck in Turquoise is indoor furniture, no more suitable to the Flush than a quart of Plymouth gin is to a nursing mother's breakfast.

"Worst still, there appears no place where there could be ‘topside controls.’"

As Walter states, this same version of the Flush was reused for a revised paperback edition of The Scarlet Ruse, hitting the stands in May of 1975. Again, an overly short houseboat with no topside controls.

The first paperback edition of The Dreadful Lemon Sky, published in September 1975, features an image of the Flush seen from the front, and there does appear to be -- a place for at least -- topside controls and an upper deck canopy. 

Finally, in June of 1976 Fawcett republished Bright Orange for the Shroud (its 19th printing) with what MIGHT be an image of the Flush, along with two other crafts alongside it. Being no expert on watercraft I can only say that none of them appear to be houseboats.

In 1975 an article appeared in the boating magazine Rudder written by esteemed journalist and editor of Sail Magazine, Martin A Luray, detailing John D MacDonald’s exacting expertise in all things boating, and including several passages from the McGee novels to prove it. MacDonald was interviewed for the piece and he revealed a few things I had not known about why he chose Bahia Mar as the port for the Busted Flush. Also included was an insert containing specifications for the houseboat (nowhere near as complete as Walter Shine’s multipage details in his 1987 monograph Special Confidential Report -- Subject: Travis McGee) along with an illustration of what the real Busted Flush probably looked like, “established through investigation to be the original design of the boat.” Given the author of the article and the magazine it appeared in, I’ll have to assume that this is the most accurate image of the Flush ever published -- or, at least, that I’ve ever seen.

I’ve transcribed the entire article below and included an image of the insert with the illustration afterward. To view a full screen version simply give it a mouse click.

Travis McGee, Boatman

By Martin Luray

Elsewhere in this issue is an article on liveaboards - a deeply researched intensive piece with extensive quotes from a number of boating folk who have given up life ashore for life afloat. Nowhere is mentioned, however, probably one of the most famous liveaboards of them all — a 6'4" ruggedly handsome private investigator cum "salvage expert" named Travis McGee whose home is The Busted Flush, a “barge-type houseboat' usually berthed in slip F-18 at Ft. Lauderdale's Bahia Mar.

McGee was hard to reach primarily because he doesn't exist and neither does The Busted Flush (or slip F-18 for that matter). He is the figment of author John D. MacDonald, who has written about McGee in 16 novels (the latest, The Dreadful Lemon Sky will be published in paperback by Fawcett next month) and has given his seagoing character an expertise about boats and boating that makes him totally appealing to marine buffs who also dig well-plotted detective stories that have some ring of truth. In the McGee books, all of the nomenclature is always correct. McGee describes himself as a “boat bum,” but he is [a] good seaman, expert boathandler, able at maintenance and repair of boats and engines. He has a fine eye for good lines - appreciative of beautiful vessels as well as the lovely soul-damaged women that recuperate from time to time aboard The Busted Flush as it voyages to the Keys or the Bahamas. What fantasy for you and I as we sail through the fog and murky depths of Long Island Sound.

The origins of The Busted Flush are not too obscure; it was won from a "Palm Beach sybarite" in a poker game, described briefly in the first Travis McGee epic, The Deep Blue Goodbye (1964) and later enlarged upon in The Quick Red Fox:

"I had won the craft in a long poker siege in Palm Beach. The man wanted another advance to stay in the game, this last time putting up his Brazilian mistress as collateral, under the plausible assumption that she went with the boat, but his friends saved me the delicate problem of refusal by leading him gently away from the game”

McGee is not always at slip F-18. Sometimes he is away from boating altogether in places like Chicago and Hollywood and even Speculator, N.Y. (The Quick Red Fox). Sometimes he is close to the sea with adventures in Hawaii, the South Pacific and the Caribbean. But his knowledge of boating shows up when he is aboard The Busted Flush and has her moving somewhere as in Bright Orange for the Shroud (1965), where much of the action takes place in Florida waters.

McGee on anchoring:

"In the night I was awakened by the creak of the lines as The Flush was trying to go around on the tide change, swinging further each time until pushed by the breeze. I always rig two bow hooks in such a way that she shifts her weight from hook to hook when she changes end for end."

McGee gets his lines checked and then reflects on the ways of the seagoing world. "There are a lot of dead sailors who took things for granted. On a boat things go bad in sets of threes. When you pull a hook and then go hustle to get the wheels turning something will short out on you so that you go drifting, dead in the water. And that is the time when, without lights you drift right out into the ship channel, see running lights a city block apart coming down at you, run to get your big flashlight, fumble it and drop it over the side. A boat is something that never had just one thing wrong with it?”

McGee, of course, often singlehands The Flush, but on this trip he has two others on board to help him put the boat to bed for the night - this after a long expository blast about the destruction of the Everglades by human folly.

"I studied the chart and picked a spot. I went beyond Marco Pass to a wide pass named Hurricane Pass. The channel was easy to read from the topside controls. The Flush draws four feet and is heavily skegged to protect the shafts and wheels. It was low tide... the pass is so wide Roy Cannon (Island) has a sand beach. I edged north a little to get the protection of the headland which forms the north edge of the pass. At dead slow I ran the bow into the beach sand... we put out all four anchors, the two bow ones well up on the beach, wedged into the skeletal whiteness of mangrove killed by the sand which had built up. I carried the stern hooks out into the water neckdeep, wedged them in, stomped them firm. She would rest well there, lifting free with the incoming tide, settling back at the low.”

One imagines even McGee, strong as he is, being totally bushed from carrying those two Danforths into water neck-deep. But never mind, McGee survives potential hernia and shows us later how good he is at docking The Flush:

"When I balanced forward motion and downstream current, Arthur jumped to the dock with a line and I waved him on to the piling I wanted. With it fast, I cut off the engines and the flow swung the stern in. I put on a stern line and spring line. Chook asked about fenders and I saw that the rub rail would rest well against the pilings and I told her not to bother.”

So much for Travis McGee the navigator and boathandler. There is also McGee the maintenance and repair expert who supervises the rebuilding of the upper deck of The Busted Flush when it is torn apart by a bomb in The Dreadful Lemon Sky. And he is a good hand at fixing an automatic bilge pump, as he does aboard his friend Meyer's "aging cruiser John Maynard Keynes.” (A Tan and Sandy Silence, 1971):

"I got it apart again. I spun the little impeller blade and suddenly realized that maybe it turned too freely. Found the set screw would take a full turn. Tightened it back down onto the shaft. Reassembled the crummy little monster, bolted it down underwater, heaved myself out (of the bilge), sat on the edge of the hatch and had Meyer flip the switch. It started to make a nice steady wheeeeeeng, gouting dirty bilge water into the Bahia Mar yacht basin.”

When the pump turns itself off, Meyer says "Thank you very much and hooray."

As it turns out, John D. MacDonald, who I visited in Florida last spring, is no landlubber as a major national magazine mistakenly noted recently. He is a bona fide boatman who has cruised much of Florida's inland and coastal waters, the Caribbean and the Pacific. True, he owns no boat at the present, but the speedy Muñequita which appears in one of his books is based on the T-Craft I/O that was his waterborne vehicle for a number of years.

MacDonald and his wife Dorothy live on an island near Sarasota. One imagines living on a key as the ideal life of solitude for a writer, the isolated house among the mangroves, a lonely beach on which to walk and ponder. It is not like that. The island on which the MacDonalds live has slowly been taken over by developers, which accounts for McGee's wrath against real estate types and MacDonald's involvement with the local Save Our Bays movement. If there is any peace on the island, it is in the quiet cul de sac off the main highway where the MacDonald home, a large contemporary structure stands on 12 foot pilings. Oriented toward the Gulf on the west and toward another string of keys to the north, it is a house to be envious of, a proper place for a writer concerned with seagoing matters, comfortable, substantial, open to its environment. Every part of the house, in fact, is open-living room, kitchen, bedrooms on a balcony, library with a collection of current eclectic titles. Everything, that is, except MacDonald's work room which is partitioned off at one end of the house and contains his work tables, files and a research library.

At 58, with some 66 titles behind him (50 besides the Travis McGee series), MacDonald seems a person with deep feelings about the way we live which, as he says, he finds difficult to relate verbally. Like all good writers, his communicativeness is expressed in his books. A tall man with a gentle, meandering way of talking, yet known to be very firm about his principles, he is not a tough guy, or out to prove some sort of machismo like certain other detective story writers. He impresses simply as a creator of fiction in which his beliefs and whatever fantasies he may have about how we can slow down our destruction are channeled through Travis McGee.

We did a lot of chatting and when the talk got around to McGee, he said that the character came out of the marine environment in which he had lived between 1949 and 1964 when the first McGee book, The Deep Blue Goodbye appeared. Over the years he has done so much cruising to the Bahamas and Key West and Florida and Biscayne Bays that McGee's travels aboard The Busted Flush were reconstructed from memory with occasional help from charts. Instead of buying them, he'd leaf through them at one of the local chandleries.

About the choice of Bahia Mar as McGee's home port, MacDonald said, "We knew Bahia Mar from having stayed at Pier 66. We used to stay there when the weather was too bad to go across to the Bahamas. But Pier 66 was too glossy for McGee, he was better suited to be across the way among the liveaboards at Bahia Mar. His boat was based on one of those seagoing barges I used to see along the East Coast. I was trying to think in terms of having a place he could live on and move at the same time. Nothing static like Nero Wolfe and his orchids”

MacDonald is not a peevish man, but he has his not-too-carefully-hidden angers. The filling-in of Florida's natural estuaries. Poorly-built plastic boats. Lowering the state's water table through excessive building. Stripping the soil for potash which uses up enormous amounts of water (86 million gallons a day by one firm) not all of which is returned to the earth. REIT's -- Real Estate Investment Trusts, a condominium development system peculiar to Florida. A large national company's plant in Bradenton which puts "untold quantities of virulent, poisonous crud into the atmosphere.” Instinctively, one has to be on his side.

As I was about to leave, MacDonald pointed out a family of porpoises playing in the pass between his island and the next key. They tumbled over and over and suddenly a small one, a baby shot straight up, at least six feet above the surface. It was a rare moment. I reflected that if I waited long enough I would see them again-probably off the starboard bow of The Busted Flush as, with Trav at the helm, she heads for another rendezvous with the corrupt world of the non-boatman.

Sunday, July 11, 2021

What IS Talent?

In addition to the voluminous amounts of fiction written over his forty year career, John D MacDonald was a frequent contributor to the various writers’ magazines of his time. As early as 1950 he began submitting articles to prozines such as Writer’s Digest, The Writer, Publishers’ Weekly, Author’s Guild Bulletin, and even to fanzines such as Masque and Bronze Shadows. And, of course, to the fanzine dedicated to his own writing, the JDM Bibliophile. He consistently harped on a few recurring themes that he found had formed the bedrock of his own late-in-life decision to be a writer, revealed here in two quotes reprinted by Walter Shine in his Bibliography:

“If you’re not an omnivorous reader, forget about being a writer.” -- 11 March 1959

“I will tell you what I tell everybody who wants to write -- I tell them -- forget it. There are a thousand easier ways to make a living. You have to have the nerves of a gambler, and an ego the size of Mt. Washington, and enough energy to take you through about 500 seventy and eighty hour weeks in a row without a break, without getting sick or beat down. Forget it, you won’t make it.

“And this is my paradox. The ones who take that advice wouldn’t make it anyway.” -- Letter, 11 December 1965

Not included in the above are what he felt were the skills necessary for a writer to write well, to be able to communicate something more than just the words on the page. Above all he cited the need for an innate sense of awareness on the part of the person writing the words. This sentiment was the subject of this early article for Writer’s Digest, published in the magazine’s October 1953 issue under the title “What IS Talent?” It is written in the form of a letter to an imaginary would-be writer from a seasoned author who, after a mere eight years in the trade, had already spent over 20,000 hours in the trenches.

What IS Talent? 

Dear Ben,

In your letter you asked me if I think you can write, if you should keep on writing. I must answer this basic question as honestly as I can, and not choose the far easier course of commenting on technical imperfections.

Your work does, of course, show many imperfections. As the author, you stride across your own sets, pointing to the characters and telling the reader what your characters are and what they are thinking. You intrude in your own stories. You show a tendency to use badly shopworn phrases: "hopelessly drunk," "dingy hotel room," "studied casualness." Those are a few I selected at random. They are usually the result of pairing words in a relationship so familiar that it has lost meaning, no matter how bright and new it was when first coined. You show a tendency to state your theme in your stories--to state the theme early in the story, and unmistakably, as though explaining to the reader what you are writing about. Theme should be implicit in the story, Ben. Not nailed down like a plank in a porch.

But these are technical flaws. When you ask, “Should I keep on writing?" I cannot answer on the basis of these technical flaws because continued writing is the one thing that will eliminate them. And you have not been writing long.

Ben, I am filling the air with all this talk because it has helped me delay saying what I must say to you. Give it up, Ben. You can painfully and eventually acquire a certain competence. But you will never be a fiction writer. Never.

I say no to you, Ben, because you have not written much or long. The loss is not great. There are many I could not tell this to because they have gone too far. They have contributed too much to a barren cause. So much that it is emotionally more therapeutic for them to continue than to stop.

Now, having said you should stop, I must tell you why.

What do I know about you? You are highly competitive, reasonably well educated, articulate, socially adjusted, happily married.

Why can't you write?

Because you do not have the one basic tool of the writer, the painter, the creative musician, the sculptor. I call that tool interrogative awareness. As a novice writer without that, you are as handicapped as a color-blind artist.

Perhaps I can best explain it to you by telling you about the work of a young painter I met in Sarasota over a year ago. When I first looked at his work it was almost completely meaningless to me. Yet I knew he was sincere, that each painting he did expressed an interaction between him and his environment and was, in effect, a portion of his continuing comment on his known world.

I borrowed one painting. One day I began to find a few reference points between his known world and my own, and those reference points served as clues, much in the way archeologists untangle an unknown language starting with a few known symbols. Then it began to come clear to me what he was attempting, and what he saw, and I had that familiar and exciting sensation of having my mind twisted, and stretched, and wrenched into an outlook I had not previously had. It was an emotional experience for me. Sharing his eyes for a time, I was able to see my own known world in a slightly different light. He had, through his vision, added a new dimension to my vision.

To oversimplify a bit, what he had done, in the iconoclasm of all good creative art, was disregard everything he had been told to believe. And he had started from the bedrock of his own senses and builded a world that, for a time, was beyond my interpretive ability. But once I could see what he was doing, then something was done to and for me.

Now let us take something different in degree, not in kind. Take a single phrase from Raymond Chandler. “Old men with faces like lost battles.” Do you see how, for a space of a few seconds, that phrase seems to stretch your mind? It is pleasure-giving.

We say it is apt. We say it is original. Yes, but beyond that it is something that can be produced only through a continual questioning awareness of environment.

You, Ben, by a completely cold and artificial process, can manufacture a striking phrase merely by juxtaposing two words in a grotesque relationship. But it would be a process. It would not be the result of your own awareness, because you are not truly aware.

When I read your stories, I am given a view of a very trite and ordinary and pedestrian world. That is the world you accept. You do not question it. Your mind does not put things into relationships that are unique to you. You automatically select the very relationships between things and persons and ideas that would be selected by fifty million other Americans. And when I read, I get no pleasure out of averages. I want a new view of the world.

Your words do not make me feel good. They make me feel tired. Because they are invariably predictable. And that, perhaps, is why we talk of the element of surprise in art. There is no individual stamp on your work because of this basic lack of interrogative awareness. There is no sentence there which could not have come out of any freshman English course. You are grammatical. You spell correctly. But there are no images to please me.

You are not aware.

I will tell you what my own awareness means to me throughout every day. It is something continually going on in my head. And I am certain it is not going on in yours. I am not "better” than you are. This is not "better" or "worse" or "smarter” or "dumber.” I'm just different. Because I function this way, I can write. And because you don't, I don't think you can. I wish what goes on in my head were more wild and wonderful. I would be a better writer for it, a better artist. The limitation in the art is generally a limitation in awareness.

It is getting cool these evenings. I chop down a birch stub. The base is solid. The top is so far gone I can crumble it in my hands. Woodpeckers have made many holes. It stood high. I hold the piece they were on. Their country, now down on my level. And then there is a kind of undefined excitement in my mind. I call it awareness. An excitement this time with an undertone of regret. As if in bringing the stub down I also brought them down, the sharp-billed ones with ice-tong feet and clown topknots. I am sorting out sensual relationships in an illogical way, as though I brought down all the afternoon hours when the bills hammered deep after moist grubs in the rotten wood. A shifting of relationships and then that excitement is gone, and, somehow, somewhere, I have hoarded that moment and those excitements, and one day when I am unsuspecting, some portion of them will come out of my mind, go onto paper, and fit what I am saying in a way that is satisfying to me.

I finish chopping fireplace lengths. I put the ax in the pump house. A small regret. It is more satisfying to leave it in the block, canted, the blade deep. There is a look about used tools. They have the look of hands. And then new relationships begin. The way the rotten stub had the feel of birds. Tools the look of hands. And something in all of this is ominous. I cannot isolate it. It has a smell of death. I look at the dark pines for a moment. There is no wind. Everything for a few seconds has a death-stink. Then it is gone. Stored away. Usable, though never consciously.

These relationships, these games that are often childish, often frightening, frequently painful, frequently gay and ludicrous, are not things that I cause to happen. That I will should happen. They have always been going on with me. The sense of excitement that comes with them seems to pin them on the back wall of memory, ready for total recall when some creative sense says they are needed here and now, at this precise point.

I am in a room with people and at some time in the evening I become, in turn, each one of them, trying to look out of their eyes. Sometimes it is muddy. Sometimes it comes wonderfully clear, and suddenly I know more about them.

This may sound to you as though I am a bit mad.

What I want to impress on you is that it goes on all the time. There is no rest from it. I cannot halt this continual drench of impressions. I would not want to. It makes me feel alive, but I wish I could slow it down because it seems to be making life go by too fast.

Now what does all this do for my writing? I have just stopped and made a computation. I have spent at least twenty thousand hours at my trade. I have achieved freedom from conscious thought about "how" I am achieving an effect in my writing and am able to concentrate instead upon the effect achieved. And, as I think of effect, out of this hidden warehouse of awareness come all the unexpected phrasings that seem right to me, that feel right in the moment of putting them down, that read right when I read them later.

And because they have come from this private warehouse, they are definitely and indisputably mine and reflect my own relationship to my environment - not an average relationship. When everything is going right, the words will dance.

Believe me, it can go very wrong. There are days when I am dulled. When nothing comes but tritenesses. A full week and at the end of it I must tear up everything because it is dull and awful. But I know that through awareness I am constantly replenishing myself, and soon things will flow again, the arrangements will be felicitous, the well will be full.

Ben, this is the thing you do not have. And without it, I am afraid that you will hurl yourself too often and too desperately against an unyielding wall. You are sober and logical and intelligent. But there are no fantasies and excitements in your mind. You accept the somber relationships you see. You look out of your eyes at a grey and blurred world. I cannot tell you how to create awareness of all the flooding torrent of life around you. There is no logic or pattern to awareness. It is the logic of the self-mutilation of a Van Gogh.

Can you truthfully say there is in you a compulsion to express yourself in a creative field, Ben? I think, rather, you have sold yourself on the image of Ben as a successful and famous author. And, in your competitiveness, you think you can attain this end through application and determination. I tell you regretfully, and with all humility, that you cannot.


John D. MacDonald.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

McGee and MacDonald... a Colorful Team

The following newspaper article appeared in the July 15, 1973 issue of the Minneapolis Tribune as John D MacDonald was passing through town during his press junket following the publication of The Scarlet Ruse, the last Travis McGee novel to debut in paperback. Much here is old hat, but there are a few things I've never read elsewhere, concerning Ross McDonald, used books, and what has to be a bit of malarkey about building a motorcycle.

McGee and MacDonald... a Colorful Team 

By Susan R. Welch

Travis McGee is a fictional detective. He is a mildmannered Florida houseboater who does his "salvage" work only when he needs the money, is a social commentator, is clever rather than violent, is kind to friends and animals, and respects women. He isn't the Wolf Man in sheep's clothing and he isn't a sexual basket case.

Lacking as he does the charm of untrammeled sadomasochism, John D. MacDonald's hero could hardly be expected to capture the public imagination, but the 14 mysteries in the Travis McGee series have sold five million copies in paperback originals and are more popular than ever.

Including the McGee series, which he started in 1964, MacDonald has written 64 books, 46 million copies of which have been sold by Fawcett alone. He was in Minneapolis last week to promote The Scarlet Ruse, the latest McGee thriller, and his fans are so rabid that it was difficult to quickly obtain a copy of the book.

Getting a Travis McGee past the security guard at the Tribune front desk was a major strategical problem. He wanted to steal it.

Minneapolis booksellers, delighted to hear of MacDonald's arrival, were even more delighted by the recent "arrival" of McGee and The Scarlet Ruse.

"What does the name John D. MacDonald mean to me?' exclaimed Dave Moore of Shinders. "Money! The man's a phenomenon. Our entire stock of The Scarlet Ruse sold out in three weeks. It'll be the best seller of the year."

"Bookstores wouldn't exist If it weren't for authors like him," said Kay Sexton of B. Dalton, Bookseller.

The 56-year-old MacDonald is tall, well-built and well tailored. His face is flushed pink from the Sarasota sun -- like McGee, he lives in Florida -- and he generates congeniality, courtesy, charm, and a desire to be charmed himself.

MacDonald, a Harvard Business School graduate, says there's no parallel in lifestyle between himself and Travis McGee: "He's more gregarious than I am. I work from 9 to 6, and feed my duck and my goose. I'm also building a motorcycle. I need to be near my dish. Rattle my dish and I'll be there."

"The philosophies in my books are like trial balloons. Travis is more positive than I am -- I'm more anxiety-prone, more apt to doubt my own judgments. But one belief Travis and I do share is that the original sin is being a predator -- using and abusing other people, hurting them gratuitously."

Although he believes that fiction gets closer than anything else to the truth about existence, his aim in his writings is to provide entertainment

"As Sam Goldwyn used to say, if you want to send a message, call Western Union. If some people are able to use my books as band aids for their own personal loneliness or private grief, that's great. I just don't want to start taking myself too seriously. If I did that, I might end up eating the poison apple."

Ross MacDonald, another noted mystery writer, who was hailed as an unrecognized genius by Eudora Welty in The New York Times last year, was given a poison apple, in John D. MacDonald's opinion.

"It's really one of those faddy things. He was given a great shining gift of critical acclaim by the literary establishment. This is okay if you're relatively indifferent to such things, but he swallowed the bait completely. He's got someone following him around now, writing down everything he does this is the great writer at work, and so on.

"No author should ever publicly review books. There's too much of an opportunity for petty jealousies, extravagant praise. Criticism should be left to professional critics."

Every Travis McGee title features a different color, a device MacDonald uses to prevent faithful readers from buying the same book twice. He has fun making up the titles and will sometimes go back after finishing a book and insert a sequence that will make the title plausible.

Will he ever kill off Travis McGee?

"Every time I get angry with Fawcett (his publisher) I threaten to write Black Border for McGee in which McGee dies." MacDonald chuckled.

"But, seriously, doing a series is like being in a potato-sack race. You're stuck with one character's viewpoint and the scope of characterization is narrowed. Eventually I'll get to the point where I have no place to take Travis where he hasn't already been.

"Or else I'll run out of colors -- be down to puce or daffodil."

As paperback king, MacDonald can be mischievous when "cheap" readers buy his books in used editions:

"I've been known to wander into bookstores where they sell used paperbacks and carefully, very carefully, tear out the last two pages of a MacDonald novel and slip them into my pocket. Then I'll put the book back on the shelf.

"I also have a friend who writes 'Oh, my God, where did I get this terrible disease' on page 100 of one of my books. Then he sells it as a used paperback. Can you imagine the expression on the face of a reader when he comes to that page?"

What does it feel like to be one of the country's bestselling novelists?

"My life is satisfying," MacDonald said. "But you know, lots of times I feel unreal. It's a schizophrenic thing. There's a California couple that puts out a magazine just about me. Sometimes I pick it up myself and it's almost as if I'm trying to find out what John D. MacDonald is really like.

"Then I say to myself, you're okay. You're doing what you want to do. But how can I really be certain in a world where nobody can prove that anything is worth doing?"

Susan R. Welch is a member of the Research Department staff at the Minneapolis Tribune.

Friday, May 7, 2021


 I want to let readers of this blog know about a couple of upcoming changes to The Trap of Solid Gold. These are the result of changes being made by Google, which runs Blogspot, the platform I use here.

For those of you who follow the blog by email using the widget installed in the right hand column, please be aware that this service is being ended by Google in July. As far as I can tell they are offering no replacement for this, although I have been made aware of third-party apps that can be used. I have no idea how many readers use this service so I can’t really see the extent of the effect. If I do decide to use another service I’ll let you know. Meanwhile, you can always use an RSS reader such as Blogger, which is what I use to follow the various blogs I subscribe to.

Then, beginning in September Google is ending their classic sites free web page service, used to display my various lists of JDM books and stories linked in the right hand column. They have offered a tool to migrate the info onto their new service and I have attempted to do this with my pages (Books by John D MacDonald, Short Stories by John D MacDonald, Fiction in Magazines and Newspapers by John D MacDonald and Science Fiction and Fantasy by John D MacDonald). I think the process worked on all but Short Stories by John D MacDonald, and I am too technically challenged to figure out what happened. The links still take you to the classic pages, and I assume they will still work to link to the new pages, but it may be a while before I figure out what happened with that one page.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

‘Condominium’: MacDonald’s Dreadful Lemon Skyline


Book critic Jonathan Yardley enjoyed a long, fruitful and influential career, working at a variety of different newspapers from 1964 to 2014. These included the Miami Herald, the Washington Star, and the Washington Post, where I read his work every Sunday in the paper’s Book World supplement. In 2003 he began a once-a-month column in the Post titled “Second Reading,” where he reconsidered books from the past and wrote about obscure novels that should have been treated better in their day. That column introduced me to more great writing than all of the English classes I ever took in high school or college.

Yardley was also a great champion of the writing of John D MacDonald, beginning when he was the book editor of the Miami Herald and on into his time at the Star and the Post. His articles on JDM were relatively long, well thought out, and displayed more than a passing knowledge of the writer’s work. Back when I started this blog in 2009 the first link I ever included in my “JDM on the Internet” section over in the right hand column was his JDM piece from the Second Reading series titled “John D MacDonald’s Lush Landscape of Crime”.  I also included a quote from it at the top of the column, a near-perfect summation of MacDonald’s qualities as a writer.

That piece contains several quotes from the article transcribed below, Yardley’s first about JDM, written right before Condominium was published in 1977. “‘Condominium’: MacDonald’s Dreadful Lemon Skyline” was published in the Miami Herald’s Sunday supplement Tropic on March 6, 1977. It contains one glaring error (The Dreadful Lemon Sky was not the first McGee to have its debut in hardcover) but otherwise displays a better-than-usual job of journalistic research for someone who had never read MacDonald before.

Condominium: MacDonald’s Dreadful Lemon Skyline

By Jonathan Yardley

After three decades of using Florida as a backdrop of his detective novels, John D MacDonald is taking a hard look at the state's "geriatric ghettos" and environmental destruction in his book Condominium.

Back in 1953, in an otherwise forgettable little novel called Dead Low Tide, John D. MacDonald devoted a few paragraphs to the willy-nilly growth along Florida's West Coast - in particular, growth by riparian rights. With characteristic understatement he described that as "turning water into land and putting houses on it.” He also described the nightmare that haunted some residents' dreams:

"And you pray, every night, that the big one doesn't come this year. A big one stomped and churned around Cedar Key a couple of years back, and took a mild pass at Clearwater and huffed itself out. One year it is going to show up, walking out of the Gulf and up the coast, like a big red top walking across the schoolyard. And the wind isn't going to mess things up too much, because people have learned what to do about the wind. But that water is going to have real fun with the made land, with the sea walls and packed shells and the thin topsoil. It's going to be like taking a good kick at an anthill, and then the local segment of that peculiar aberration called the human race is going to pick itself up, whistle for the dredges, and start it all over again."

That "big one" crashed around in MacDonald's mind for nearly a quarter-century. This year it hits land, in a genuine blockbuster of a novel called Condominium. It's a huge book, and it seems a lead-pipe cinch to be a huge popular success. Its publisher, Lippincott, has printed a first edition of 50,000 copies and has committed itself to a publicity and advertising budget of $75,000. More importantly, it is a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club - which means that it will be offered, on a hard-to-refuse basis, to the club's more than one million members.

MacDonald has written millions of words and sold millions of books during his three decades as a professional writer, but Condominium is going to be a "breakthrough" novel for him anyway. It is going to get him out of the mystery and suspense territory he has occupied so profitably -- notably with his 16 Travis McGee novels -- and into the far broader field of popular fiction. It seems a better-than-even-money bet to get to the top of the bestseller lists, and it will be a socko-boffo disaster movie if MacDonald's agent sells it to Hollywood on the stiff terms he is asking.

Of somewhat more parochial interest, Condominium also is going to establish MacDonald as the pre-eminent “Florida novelist.” Some, casting a jaundiced eye over the competition, would say that's not much of an honor, but that's not the point. Condominium is the culmination of an astonishingly productive writing career in which Florida -- its land and water, its residents and drifters, its businesses legitimate and illegitimate -- has been a central concern. Since he moved to the state in 1949, MacDonald has been observing and writing about the state's affairs more penetratingly than any other writer of fiction; in Condominium he simply brings it all together.

The novel is about just what its title promises; it's called Condominium rather than the snappier Condo because, as MacDonald puts it, the abbreviation "doesn't travel well outside Florida.” The highrise in question is Golden Sands, on a Gulf Coast strip of sand called Fiddler Key - it could be Sanibel, or Longboat Key, or Siesta Key, where MacDonald lives, or almost anywhere in Florida:

“Golden Sands was an eight-story building. The parking garage, the entrance foyer and the manager's office and apartment were on the ground floor. The floor above that was called the first floor. There were seven apartments on each floor, and, because of penthouse patios, only five apartments on the top floor. Forty-seven, plus the manager's efficiency. It was a pale concrete building, one apartment thick, shaped like an angular boomerang. It stood on four cramped acres of land, its rear convexity backing up on an impenetrable jungle of water, oak, palmetto, mangrove and miscellaneous vines and bushes. Its concave front faced the constant noisy traffic on two-lane Beach Drive, and, at a greater distance, the space between two taller beachfront condominiums, and beyond them, the wide blue Gulf of Mexico."

The novel is long, complex and densely populated; its cast of characters is by far the largest MacDonald has dealt with. From its ominous opening chapter to its climax when the "big one," Hurricane Ella, walks in off the Gulf, the novel introduces us to a wide variety of people and problems. Chief among the former are the residents of Golden Sands, most of them retired, and the fast-money types who have built the highrise on a shaky foundation in order to skim off the highest possible profit.

MacDonald is reluctant to concede that Condominium is an angry novel, even though corruption of several kinds is chief among its many concerns; he says only that it was inspired in part by "a certain amount of irritation with the social structure - a tax structure which discourages the debasement of the environment rather than protects it.” He prefers to describe it as "a story about the retired people” in which they are treated “as persons rather than symbols," and when he is asked to summarize the novel's themes he says:

“The book is basically about the problems of the geriatric ghetto and also about how the disasters of nature tend either to enhance or solve the problems of mortals.”

In all likelihood Condominium is going to be seized on by certain readers not merely as an attack on shoddy, environmentally exploitative business practices but as a condemnation of Florida itself. It is true that MacDonald is among the state's tougher and more perceptive critics-in-residence, but his tough words are tempered by affection. “I've always recognized that Florida is a slightly tacky state," he says, and then adds: “ love it in spite of itself.”

It was love at first sight, in fact, that got him here to begin with. By 1949, MacDonald had established himself firmly enough as a writer of suspense fiction so that he and his wife, Dorothy, could live off his income from it, and they began looking for a congenial place to settle down. “We thought maybe Taos would be a nice place," he says, “so when we went to drive out there we decided we'd drive around the edge of the country. We drove down as far as Vero Beach and came over across to Clearwater, and it was so clean and sparkling and bright, we said, 'Why not?' We stopped and found a place and rented it and put the kid in school.”

When their son was ready for junior high school the MacDonalds moved to Sarasota to take advantage of its school system, and seven years ago they built a magnificent waterfront house on Siesta Key that MacDonald describes as "an old-timey type house up on pilings with veranda around it and a tin roof.” They have been around long enough to remember the state as it was before the big population explosion began in the '50s. MacDonald recalls the natural pleasures of those days fondly - "It was nice to be able to go out to Midnight Pass and catch bluefish until your tackle was all torn up and your arm was falling off” – but he bristles at suggestions that the Tampa-Sarasota area was a sleepy cultural backwater. What he remembers is "a very, very sophisticated environment,” inhabited by people of intellect and urbanity.

One thing that is important to understand about MacDonald as a critic of Florida and its culture is that he is a delighted observer of the human comedy, no matter where it takes place. As a result, much of what in his work at first seems sarcasm is actually humor, written with obvious pleasure in the odd quirks and nuances of an odd world. Take, for example, this passage from a 1959 novel called The Beach Girls:

"The breeze died. The high white sun leaned its tropic weight on the gaudy vacation strip of Florida's East Coast, so that it lay sunstruck, lazy and humid and garish, like a long brown sweaty woman stretched out in sequins and costume jewelry. The sun baked the sand too hot for tourist feet. Slow swells slumped onto the listless Atlantic beach. The sun turned road tar to goo, overheated the filtered water in the big swimming pools of the rich and the algaed pools of the do-it-yourself clan, blazed on white roofs, strained air conditioners, turned parked cars into tin ovens, and blistered the unwary. A million empty roadside beer cans twinkled in the bright glare. The burning heat dropped a predictable number of people onto stone sidewalks, of which a predictable number died, drove the unstable into the jungly wastes of their madness, exposed the pink tongues of all the dogs in the area, redoubled the insect songs in every vacant lot, set the weather-bureau boys to checking the statistics of past performance, and sent a billion billion salty trickles to flowing on sin-darkened skins."

As that suggests, MacDonald has a tendency to exaggerate -- sometimes for comic effect, as there, and at other times for dramatic effect, as in Condominium. His view of Florida's future borders on the apocalyptic, the novel makes clear, and he admits as much. “I've been questioning people lately," he says, “and it's very strange. You say, 'Do you have a feeling that something really horrible, something we can't even imagine, is going to happen?' and they say, 'Yes - and soon!' I think there's such a thing as visceral wisdom, animal wisdom, and I keep rechecking my own gut feelings, because I don't want to become a victim of the same paranoia."

MacDonald finds it ominous, for example, that from the veranda of his house “I think we've seen two really clear sunsets in the past year," and he talks despairingly about the air pollution drifting south from Polk County. He is pleased about the state's expanding environmental programs, but his pleasure is tinged with a rueful realism: “The population pressure increases geometrically whereas the state's effort to save things is a linear progression. You can never elicit wholehearted popular support for these programs because most of the population is too new to see the problems."

So why does he stay here? Because he has roots, a house, and many good friends "who were friends before I became notorious, those 'who knew you when."  And obviously he stays because, no matter how short his patience with it may become at times, Florida offers marvelous material for fiction — and MacDonald, more than any other novelist, is making use of it.

That is especially true of the Travis McGee novels, most of which are set in the state. As millions of readers know by now, each novel has a different color in its title (to help readers distinguish among them), and many of the colors have a distinctly “Florida” tinge: lemon, blue, orange, yellow, tan, turquoise. McGee, the anti-heroic hero, is one of the more beguiling creations in suspense fiction, a good-humored skeptic with, like MacDonald himself, an inbred dislike for the apparatus and entanglements of mass society. This is how he characterizes himself in The Deep Blue Good-By, the first novel in the series:

"...I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny."

This determinedly free spirit operates out of a houseboat named the Busted Flush, which is moored at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale. He keeps a box filled with spare clothes and cosmetics for the pretty young things who often drop in, and if there's a combination of a pretty young thing and a hint of injustice, he's into action as a self-appointed avenging angel - usually at a price of 50 per cent of the recovered goods. His scrapes are fun, and often scary, but the real pleasure to be found in the McGee novels lies in MacDonald's comments on the Florida scene, as expressed through McGee. Here's one from The Deep Blue Good-By:

"It was one of those Florida houses I find unsympathetic, all block, tile, glass, terrazzo, aluminum. They have a surgical coldness. Each one seems to be merely some complex corridor arrangement, a going through place, an entrance built to some place of a better warmth and privacy that was never constructed. When you pause in these rooms, you have the feeling you are waiting. You feel that a door will open and you will be summoned, and horrid things will happen to you before they let go. You cannot mark these houses with any homely flavor of living. When they are emptied after occupancy, they have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away."

Here is one from Darker Than Amber:

"South of the City of Broward Beach, along A1A, is where the action is. The junk motels, bristling with neon, squat on the littered sand, spaced along the beach areas, interspersed with package stores, cocktail lounges, juice stands, auction parlors, laundromats, hair stylists, pizza drive-ins, discount houses, shell factories, real estate offices, tackle stores, sundries stores, little twenty-four-hour supermarkets, bowling alleys and faith healers."

And here is one from The Dreadful Lemon Sky:

"...It was easy to read the shape and history of Bayside, Florida. There had been a little town on the bay shore, a few hundred people, a sleepy downtown with live oaks and Spanish moss. Then International Amalgamated Development had moved in, bought a couple of thousand acres, and put in shopping centers, townhouses, condominiums, and rental apartments, just south of town. Next had arrived Consolidated Construction Enterprises and done the same thing north of town. When downtown decayed, the town fathers widened the streets and cut down the shade trees in an attempt to look just like a shopping center. It didn't work. It never does. This was instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores.”

The Dreadful Lemon Sky, published in 1974, is the 16th of the McGee novels and in at least one respect the most important - it was the first to make its original appearance in hard covers rather than paperback. That didn't mean it was a better novel than the ones that went before (though certainly it's one of the best of the McGees), and it didn't mean that MacDonald had finally "arrived," but it did give a certain legitimacy to his work that, in the eyes of some readers, it had theretofore lacked. It meant that a book of his could be displayed in the bookstores right next to the ostensibly more "serious” works of fiction, and it meant that he would be given more widespread and thoughtful review attention.

That novel and Condominium are, one could say, the triumphant attainments of a writing career that had curious and far from propitious beginnings. MacDonald, who was born in 1926, was steered to Harvard Business School by his father. After graduation he held a series of jobs and was fired from one after another for having “unpalatable opinions" about his employers; he was, as he recalls it, "a brash fellow, you might say.”

His break came, improbably enough, during World War II, when he was serving in India as a major in the Office of Strategic Services: 

“I was in the OSS and the mail was in one hundred per cent censorship. Our people suggested that we just avoid any nonsense -- don't say where you are, the climate, the food, anybody else around you by name, just don't tell about your present environment at all, if you are ailing just don't mention any diseases -- it makes a pretty tough letter. I wrote several of those, and then I wrote my wife a story in a letter. She was doing some typing for a guy who was trying to be a writer. She sent it off to Whit Burnett, who accepted it for Story magazine and paid me $25 for it.”

When MacDonald got the news he thought: “Wow! I can do one of those a day. That's $125 or $150 a week right there." It didn't work out quite that simply. MacDonald returned to civilian life in September 1945, and it was not until the end of 1946 that he had become self-sufficient. He estimates that he wrote some 800,000 words in that period, the overwhelming majority of which never saw print.

Perhaps that was just as well, for MacDonald acquired an objectivity about the words he writes that stands him in good stead. The final manuscript of Condominium contains approximately 168,000 words, but MacDonald says he actually wrote closer to 500,000. In his files he has fat sections of the book that were thrown out because they didn't fit or he simply didn't like them -- and if he has any regrets about what gives every appearance of wasted labor, he gives no signs of them.

The sum of MacDonald's life's work has long since passed the point most writers can comprehend: more than 60 novels and 500 short stories in just over 30 years. Admittedly, most of the novels are short, but two a year is an awesome rate - all the more so when you add 17 short stories a year to that. He is able to produce so much because he is an intensely disciplined writer - a professional in the truest and most admirable sense of the word. He puts in a 40-hour week at his rented IBM Selectric typewriter in his spare and semi-isolated upstairs office, and he rarely runs into writer's block -- although, interestingly enough, he had a problem with that this winter. "My new McGee book is halfway done,” he says, “and I'm just stalled on it. Condominium seems to be going to do so well that I want this McGee book to be better than any of the others."

As that remark makes plain, MacDonald takes great pride in his writing, in the books that he wants readers to think were "easy to write." But pride is one thing and hubris is another. MacDonald knows what he does is good but he has no illusions that it is great, and he is impatient with readers and critics who try to find more than is there in his work or any other suspense writer's:

"It's kind of a mistake on the part of critics to give our work things like the front page of The New York Times Book Review. We're doing folk dances, and it's just as incorrect to make this type of work into something it isn't as it is to make too much of the Gravity's Rainbow kind of thing. One is overvalued because the critic finds some elements of literacy in it, the other because he can't understand it.”

MacDonald pays attention to what his competitors in the genre are doing; inasmuch as readers constantly confuse John D. MacDonald and Ross MacDonald, “I'm glad he writes so well.” He is more interested, however, in writers of ostensibly broader preoccupations - he mentions John Updike, Vance Bourjaily, Vladimir Nabokov, Thomas Williams - whose prose has “felicity, an element of aptness.” He reads widely, and he has sharp opinions: “I just cannot read people like Leon Uris and James Michener. When you've covered one line, you can guess the next one. I like people who know the nuances of words, who know how to stick the right one in the right place. Sometimes you can laugh out loud at an exceptionally good phrase. I find it harder and harder to find fiction to read, because I either read it with dismay at how good it is or disgust at how bad it is. I do like the guys like John Cheever that have a sense of story, because, goddam it, you want to know what happens to somebody. You don't want a lot of self-conscious little logjams thrown in your way.”

MacDonald tosses these and other opinions around right and left, but his manner is neither dogmatic nor arrogant. He is a self-confident person, comfortable with himself, and with his life. He talks easily, in a resonant voice, pausing often to think or to laugh. He is low-keyed and self-deprecating, and he is still sufficiently unaccustomed to his new eminence to take an infectious delight in it.

Back in January, as I was getting ready to end our interview, I noticed what gave every appearance of being a copy of Condominium on an endtable in his living room. I expressed puzzlement, because the bound copies were not then ready. With a touch of embarrassment, MacDonald admitted that he had received a copy of the dust jacket, and had wrapped it around another book “just to see what it looks like.” With a laugh, he removed the jacket and showed me what was inside. It was a copy of Rich Man, Poor Man.