As profiles of this period go, it’s passable. Moore actually seems to have read a few McGee novels, although he seems fixated on the violence therein at the expense of the deeper charms of the series. There’s little new ground covered, but it’s always nice to read one of these things, especially to be reminded of just how big a deal JDM was back in the day, and to be amazed anew at just how fast his literary stature fell off the map after he died.
The John D MacDonald Caper: How a mild-mannered man makes millions from mayhem
by Gary Moore
It was time to face facts.
I was burned out from too much booze, and the carburetor of "The Geisha Curse" (the junker Toyota I had picked up cheap after its late owner, a pilot, had dumped three marijuana bales from low altitude too near a high-tension line) was wheezing like a Kamikaze in a tail spin.
The Geisha Curse had probably known the comforts of shock absorbers, once upon a time, but those days were long gone. Just as well. The bouncing kept me awake as I barreled down Route 41, south from Sarasota through beach-bound traffic.
Facing facts, I was all for turning back. No more fool's errands. No more of this Knight In Shining Armor schlock. Hadn't I been burned enough by chasing after Truth?
Why not just pull off onto life's beer-can-littered road shoulder and sleep – under the stupefying sun, in a dreamy pit of unkept appointments? But I didn't. Somewhere up ahead of me waited a dubious appointment with Truth. And fool that I was, I was going to keep that date.
I was going to meet John D. MacDonald.
Ever heard of him? The Prince of the Paperbacks. Fitzgerald of Florida. The Writer's Writer. Maestro of the Mystery. The Whodunit King. Superauthor. Paperback Tiger …
From The New York Times to the Shreveport Journal, that's what they've called him. Over the years, no less than 171 glowing biographies of him have hit pages from People magazine to Esquire to the Siesta Key Outlook.
Now it was my turn.
Just in case you're one of the few souls who've never seen any of the 70-million copies of John D. MacDonald's 70 books, translated into 18 different languages, I will give you a little hint about what he writes. He writes hard-boiled. He writes about Tough Knights in Slightly Tarnished Armor. Knights half hungover, and half choked by the injustices of life. Knights who throw Karate punches or con county sheriffs. Modern day, detective-style Knights for whom women are pushovers but life in general is a long-odds game of craps.
Something about the way he writes, it kind of grabs you by the sleeve and yanks you into the book, like getting jerked kicking and screaming into a hay baler. His books have lots of blood. Lots.
It's like the words are swollen little plastic baglets full of blood and John D. MacDonald is massacring them with a meat cleaver all across the page. Not that it's at all clumsy, this verbal carnage. He squeezes adrenaline from a reader's pituitary gland like Picasso squeezing passion from a tube of scarlet paint.
Maybe you guessed that how I've introduced this whole thing is a stab at John D. MacDonald's style. Forget it. It's not. Let him keep his style. No hard-boiled self-respecting hero needs it. Let's just say instead that what I've shot for here is a kind of rough and tarnished approximation of his spectacularly successful tone. It translates terse: one man against the world. Very much himself. And very much alone. Hard-boiled.
It has made John D. MacDonald a very rich man.
These thoughts and many others went crawling through my hungover brain as The Geisha Curse bounced and yawed up a sandy lane hedged closely with thickets of palmettos and oaks. Where the lane ended, I looked up at a house as posh as it was strange - a stilt house - hiked high up on big pilings like some gray-weathered pier. Oak shade played on it like a treehouse, within easy spitting distance of the sighing Gulf. No beach. Just a zigzag concrete retaining wall at the edge of a short yard, holding back the surf. Lots of mourning doves and squirrels. Somewhere up in that house was John D. MacDonald.
When the Florida-staged expose-disaster novel Condominium hit the stands in 1977,
John D. MacDonald got ensconced in hardcover bestseller lists. But that's not what made him famous. That's not what earned him a worldwide fan club where even the groupies in Turkey and Japan call him "JDM." It's not why the Goteborg Post in Sweden ran a piece on "The Romantic Figure in John D. MacDonald."
No, the reason for all that is not Condominium. It is instead MacDonald's long-term prior success in a genre politely called "suspense novels." Or call them by their other name: Hard-boiled Detective Paperbacks.
"Roman Figur Travis McGee" was the way the Goteborg Post named the central jewel in John D. MacDonald's fiction crown: “The Romantic Figure of Travis McGee."
MacDonald wrote a lot of detective books before he invented the Florida beach bum-detective Travis McGee in 1963. But McGee is by far the favorite of avid MacDonald buffs. Huge of stature, brutal and honorable at the same time, Travis McGee gets people reading. He cuts a wide swath through Nazi torturers, biker maniacs, homicidal gigolos, tawny talk-show queens, voluptuous call girls, fiendish brain surgeons …
Violence in the 19 Travis McGee books races through a reader's blood like a strong shot of coffee. McGee is an unlicensed, unofficial detective. He seems to keep getting invited by people to help them recover money, or to find out who killed whom. The trails of corpses left behind him on these quests would fill a publisher's office. Often killed are the beautiful women who fall for McGee. They drop out of plots, in ways horrible and various, like flies before a can of literary Raid.
"Walk into the back of anybody's skull, be they born again, big mullah, or resident of the death house," growls Travis McGee to a Broad, "and you'll come to the edge of a swamp that stretches as far as the eye can see. It's part of the human condition."
“How cynical,” the sheltered damsel replies. But she'll learn.
Meanwhile, Travis McGee does not numb the reader with carte blanche viciousness. You couldn't relate to a man who is all vicious. The violence is relieved by McGee's world-weary concern for his fellow creatures. He does not double-cross. Sometimes, he even turns women down when they want mere superficial sexual flings. "The emotional life of McGee," he muses morosely. "A repressed libertine. A puritanical wastrel."
As if by rule, magazine articles about Travis McGee almost all mention this fictional hero's fictional abode. It is more than an abode, actually. It is the steed Rocinante to McGee-Quixote. This steed-abode where Travis McGee lives and headquarters his fever-pitched adventures is a houseboat named the Busted Flush. Moored in Fort Lauderdale, the Busted Flush came into the possession of beachbum McGee via a poker game.
Such is life.
The McGee books are ornate with the minute details of violence - calibers, concussions, fights soaked in the sounds of popping shoulder joints and the "coppery taste" of blood. Prison slang, mob hierarchies, the precise feel of hacked limbs and smashed noses. Somebody behind those words, I thought as I looked up at that gray-weathered beauty of a super-author's seaside treehouse, is filled right up to the gills with grim.
Blood-spiller to millions. They had told me he just got back from Mexico, that he would be a tough nut to crack. Travis McGee made flesh. And I had to go up there and wrest from this fire-breather some scrap of Truth. I gave a little sigh. Just like all the other times, all the other interviews. They faded together.
The Geisha Curse stood beside me with her battered door open, calling me to give it up. I sent the door smashing shut with my foot. Okay, Truth, I said to myself as I walked to the house, hearing the breakers gurgle out beyond the seawall, let's see who's toughest now.
* * *
The stairs - cypress, probably -- echoed beneath my feet. They led up to a wide veranda that ringed the stilt-house like a parapet.
Buried in my brain were images of other Florida extollers of The Rough Life.
Jimmy Buffett, that Key West pop-music troubadour of living wild and wanton sings of his "first scar," delivered by a crazed wino in a New Orleans bar brawl.
And if Buffett has bled what he sings, another Florida psalmist of the wild life has lived so much violence that his presence fairly shudders with it. The one time I met Harry Crews - author of such Deep South pastorals as Blood And Grits - he was just finishing a lecture in Gainesville, on a summer night at the University of Florida.
Possessed of a massive body, a helmet-like swath of forehead sheltering a warrior's beady little eyes, Harry Crews the ex-marine stretched himself with a wince and explained why he could not talk further. “See, there was several of them, and they wouldn't let me get out the door." He referred to a recent incident at an unnamed roadhouse. To light up his narrative, he unbuttoned his shirt. A monstrous black and green bruise bloomed all the way up his ribs and along the underside of one arm.
A tire iron? He wouldn't say. Word had gone around of another time when some angry men had followed him down from a high-stakes pitbull fight in south Georgia and had busted his knees. The understanding around Gainesville was that in some mystical way, Harry Crews knew life was raw, and he meant to live it. And when you read what he wrote about it, you knew he'd been there. Even if he didn't get back.
It was with this kind of stuff that I was primed, without even stopping to think about it, as I walked up the stairs into the stilt-house lair of John D. MacDonald.
"Hey, you want to hear a little Reaganesque joke?” he was laughing to some associate who had called up just as he was showing me to the living room. "You know what they call the killer up in Atlanta? Son of Sambo."
Not exactly your least racist kind of comment, but violent, anyway. Coarse. It could have lept just as easily from the lips of Travis McGee. So far so good.
But as my pocket tape recorder whirred on a glass coffee table, and he sat down opposite, surrounded by sliding glass doors full of majestic ocean view, I was marveling at him. Not as much at what I saw, as what I didn't see. What I didn't see as I looked at John D. MacDonald was Travis McGee.
Readers naturally expect them to be the same. MacDonald is forever getting letters from readers addressing him as if he were McGee. They assume MacDonald's books are an exaggerated account of his own life. How else could he have put it all down in words so convincingly?
But instead of glowering with McGee's surliness, the man who sat across from me was fairly bubbling with good humor. Rather than the craggy features one imagines on McGee, this man's face had a certain roundness, softened further by a halo of white hair. Like McGee he was tall, and his voice was deep. But violent? Wanton? Primeval?
All over the house were sculptures and carvings of animals. Especially cats. A fluffy black cat came to a glass door and looked in. Beneath the veranda, a squirrel and a mourning dove sat together happily in a bird feeder, watched by a little plaster replica of St. Francis. A washing machine was humming softly somewhere out of sight. MacDonald's wife walked out to feed a squirrel.
Travis McGee - fictional lone-wolf avenger adored by millions — never married. His whole being, when it appears via the printed word, seems to proclaim the bittersweet joys of bachelorhood - the man on horseback. Alone against the world.
Yet John D. MacDonald - loving creator of McGee's grandly defiant persona - has been happily married since 1946. His wife Dorothy encouraged him in writing. Now their grown son and his family come and visit them at their house in Mexico for months at a time. Lone wolf avenger?
MacDonald wore a neat gray velour pullover. I had interrupted not some post-orgiastic hangover recovery, but MacDonald's methodical testing of his new computer-terminal word processor. The phone would ring and he would laugh genially with some associate or another about consent-releases or contract clauses.
Geniality. It emanated from the man. If Travis McGee, lone backstreet hero would stand back cynically and make each new face prove it was not as corrupt as the rest of the world, then John D. MacDonald, stilt house creator, seemed to greet the world with the sunny, quizzical curiosity of a fascinated child.
It was like night and day. You couldn't even say that MacDonald was some bitter and frustrated Walter Mitty who was using Travis McGee for vicarious thrills. Never. Not genial John D. MacDonald.
"I got 20 years on him at least,” he said with a laugh, when asked if he saw himself as Travis McGee. "And also, my views are a little more ambivalent than his. I see things in shades of gray, where he would see them in black and white."
Out in the idyllic yard, beside the stilt house, bordered by the turquoise sea, three well-loved family cats lay buried. One lived to be 21 years old. The deep stability and security here seemed almost palpable. When had I ever sat in a house as magnificently peaceful as the one that roofs the king of printed blood and pain?
No interviewer has ever figured out exactly how much money John D. MacDonald
makes. One source quotes his latest contract at as high as $10-million, but MacDonald says that is just a maximum figure, possible only if his books see a tidal wave of sales. He doesn't like talking about money. There are a lot of crazies in the world.
He's got a house in Mexico and one in the Adirondacks. John D. MacDonald Inc. is the face he shows to the IRS. For a while he wrote only on a rented IBM typewriter - just to be able to write it off his taxes. Eleven TV shows and three movies have been made from his books. ABC has a two-hour made-for-TV Travis McGee movie in the works. Reprints even of the first novel MacDonald ever published - The Brass Cupcake, in 1950-are still selling briskly. And the pay? Don't ask. A lot of crazies in the world. That money goes into trusts for his grandchildren. Nothing left lying around the house to draw the crazies like bees to honey.
The last thing John D. MacDonald wants is to become the object of violence like you find in his books.
"What's the most violent thing that ever happened to you?" I asked the violence king.
"Hearing shots fired in anger," he replies, after musing, "and knowing that they were in the abstract or concrete or whatever being fired at me."
Abstract or concrete or whatever? What kind of violence is that?
He explains that it was in North Burma in World War II. He was in the OSS, working on a road. They heard shots fired and took cover. “I wouldn't consider it a combat experience." And that's it? No barroom brawls? No men with tire irons coming after you from South Georgia pitbull fights?
Could it be true, then, that violence has in no way been central to John D. MacDonald's actual experience? So how did his books get so full of it?
John Dann MacDonald was born in Sharon, Pa., in 1916, son of a corporation executive. There was a summer cottage on the Pymatuning River, plans laid for John's future in business school and beyond.
The raw world that fictional Travis McGee would someday muscle and smash his way through was as far away from the Pymatuning River as Mars. But into the staid MacDonald lifestyle there intruded an x-factor.
It was hard to put your finger on it exactly. Young John seemed to have an unusually strong urge to learn. Not learn how to do things, exactly. Just learn. He would go down the library shelves reading every book - an inexorable mental steam roller. Was it escapism or voracious intelligence? He didn't care.
His sensitivity was such then when he watched a neighborhood bully drown a black cat one day, the incident robbed him of sleep, and stayed with him throughout his life.
He was moderately athletic, but at the age of 12, scarlet fever put him in bed for a year. He would later tell Medical News magazine (everybody interviews John D. MacDonald) that during his childhood illness he performed "exercises of the imagination."
At 16, he wrote for a private school publication an odd and eloquent little poem. It began:
His is a bookshelf musty with age,
And the deeds of men gone by ...
... his small life is centered on
Some books, which all repay
His quiet road upon this sphere;
For from these tattered volumes here
He gathers all he's missed ...
The poem nowhere hinted who "he" was. The idea that "he" might be the someday potentate of paperback massacres would have seemed absurd. That was in 1932, when "Jack MacDonald” was voted Most Eligible Bachelor: "That popular fellow named Jack, who finds no task too hard to attack."
The Wharton School of Business, even a master's degree in business from Harvard, all passed behind him. There were jobs procured both with and without his father's contacts, usually ending soon and tempestuously. When forced to knuckle under to a hierarchy, his geniality tended to fade beneath the rebelliousness of his intelligence. He left the World War II Pacific a lieutenant colonel, but he was sick of orders from "manifest incompetents."
Then, quietly, he retired at age 30 to a $23-a-month rent-controlled apartment that his new wife Dorothy had in upstate New York, and he decided to try his hand at writing. One story he had sent back from the war had been published. His parents had once copied and passed around to friends an essay he had written.
But in none of those fleeting triumphs was there any sane grounds for him to spend four months in that small apartment, turning out 800,000 words - the equivalent of 10 average-sized novels, as later biographers would put it. And all 800,000 of those words went unsold.
He papered a whole wall with rejection slips. There was an awesomely methodical quality to him. After a while, the rejection-slipped wall grew so depressing that he and Dorothy painted it over. Everyone but Dorothy, he would later say, seemed to assume he had a postwar "readjustment problem.”
Within two years he was making comfortable money. He wrote "what I like to read," and would always insist that he had no "average reader" in mind when he turned out his tales of brutality and blood. It's just that brutality gets a reader reading. And that's what John D. MacDonald wanted. The boundaries of his art were drawn by the appetites (quite definite once you get them focused) of most-of-the-people-most-of-the-time. The hidden traceries of his plots got built along his ever increasing familiarity with the human subconscious: Tell 'em what they want to hear. And what they most want to hear (as any editor of such ax-murder tabloids as the National Enquirer can tell you) is what they most fear.
John and Dorothy MacDonald, living life as quietly and with the same confident serenity as always, moved to Texas, then to Florida. Writers can follow the sun. With the same inexorable resolve that had sent him reading his way across the bookshelves as a child, John D. MacDonald now sat down for eight-hour stints at the typewriter, day after day. Some 600 short stories followed. He could turn out a novel in four months. They included science fiction, non-fiction, and even personal memoirs. But the solid foundation of John D. MacDonald's meteoric career was still hard-boiled "suspense."
By 1963 he was such a darling of publishers that he was comfortable with the rarefied intrigues of the paperback game. When Fawcett Books lost a million-dollar detective-thriller series because the writer went off the deep end of right-wing politics, John D. MacDonald was approached to fill the void.
The Red Devil Restaurant in New York witnessed a luncheon of MacDonald, his agent, his editor, and a couple of friends. They wondered what to call the new series MacDonald had agreed to write. It would keep rolling for years, this series, maybe for decades. All planned out, in the peaceful mental crannies where John D. MacDonald mapped screaming mayhem. But this new series faced a problem:
When a guy grabs a book as he runs through an airport bookshop, and he hops aboard his flight and leans back to enjoy the latest gore in his favorite hard-boiled detective series, what if he finds ... that he grabbed a book he's already read?
Well, he gets mad, that's what. And he may even get mad at John D. MacDonald. And he may not buy any more books. All the wise presences at the Red Devil Restaurant luncheon agreed on that. Bad for profits. They knew the trade. But what can you do so these numbskulls who are grabbing books off the rack don't get fouled up? You give 'em a code, that's what. You give each book in the series a title with a different number, or with a different month of the year, or musical note, or …
A different color! The Deep Blue Good-By. Nightmare In Pink. A Purple Place For Dying ... "Have you read the green one yet?" "No, but I got that one about indigo, you know."
And the Hero. MacDonald wrote two test novels that never saw print before he got his new hero honed out just right - just the blend of philosophy and flippance that made the man easiest to want to have as your friend - easiest to read about and wish you were him. He was to have been named Dallas. Just the right heft of cowboy physical violence. Or maybe too prophetically much, as it turned out, for that year President Kennedy was shot to death by an assassin in Dallas, and nobody in his right mind - least of all a paperback potentate with his finger on the pulse of the psyches of millions - was going to name any hero after that town that year.
Undaunted, John D. MacDonald flipped through a list of U. S. Air Force bases. Just the right flavor of muscle and good American stock - eureka!
Travis. Travis McGee.
This month Free Fall In Crimson, the 19th of the Travis McGee novels comes out. They are literate, vivid, and tightly controlled. And so full of sex and violence that the blood screams through your veins like an overdose of Dexedrine as you read them.
“I like to insert violence into the books because it's about the only primitive thing we
have left, you know?" Uttered as MacDonald sits with his back to clouds of sea gulls above a turquoise cove, that statement is intriguing enough in itself. But it has a deeper message.
It says something about how a lot of fiction gets put together -- not as a reflection of what the author has verified by his own experience, but as a shrewd calculation that even the wildly improbable sounds like coldest fact if it gives the reader the right thrill. It's adrenaline, not truth, that keeps those pages turning.
This is a delicate thing to tell a reader straight out. MacDonald, the practiced wordsmith, is decorous about it: "What people want, I think, is something where you're curious to find out what happens next. And at the same time if there's some added values that keep it from being 100 percent escapist, I think it pleases the readers, because then they feel they're not wasting their time.”
Or he may wax suddenly more candid: “My problem is to present highly improbable things in such a manner as to create the suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader.”
Or philosophical: "Maybe ... there is an atavistic sense of needing some kind of violence, that these books can trigger a release of that ... a release of the tension of anticipation of violence that doesn't occur.
“There’s a thing that the heart guys tell us -- that in olden times when adrenaline ran through our systems we were immediately in action. We were running away from the tiger or after the girl. But nowadays, people sit at a desk and they get this great rush of adrenaline, because they're afraid, say, of being fired. And they have no way to release it.”
So these "pictures of violence," as MacDonald calls them, may indeed be a kind of drug -- a print elixir to ease your poor, antiquated caveman's brain through the suffocated terrors of your paralyzed post-industrial day. Nothing to do with Truth at all.
Yet John D. MacDonald's books seem so ... real.
The details, indisputably authentic little details, stud the action like bright jewels. Details that seem to prove he must have experienced this, he must have been there.
Even way back in his first published novel, The Brass Cupcake, which moves rapidly but with nowhere near the subtlety of his latest work, there is such a detail. The very word "Cupcake."
"Once, as a kid on the bum," says the hero of the book, “I was stuck in a county can in the coal-mine area of southern Illinois. They had their own language in that jail. Anything you got by guile - extra cigarettes, more food, a pint bottle - was called a cupcake."
Beautiful. It sets the mood just right. But what was it in the sheltered upper middle class mind of John D. MacDonald that had given him the penchant for picking up such sociological gems? Where, in the name of all the blue-collar pool halls and drunk tanks, had he learned about Cupcakes?
He replied cheerfully, "I made it up."
But isn't that somehow cheating the reader of a glimpse at real life?
"I just want to take them on a little trip out of their own existence, and into somebody else's existence, for a period of time, and return them relatively intact."
Thus says the "Florida Fitzgerald,” whose villains and heroines live in such legendary locales as Citrus City or Tampa, whose heroes may rail against air pollution in Bradenton, or inhale the bracing air of the Keys. The backdrop is as real as the smell of suntan cream. But once John D. MacDonald starts populating that landscape with nonstop lust and carnage, does he really think he's telling us about the real world?
"Of course there you get into a philosophical kind of thing. Once you start to imitate reality, then you should perforce go the whole way and present the world where truth and justice do not prevail, in which the innocent are punished and the guilty go free. But if you follow reality philosophically to that point, you've created a dissatisfied reader.
"... That trip is too close to what they're experiencing anyway."