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: “...you 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.