Me and Johnny MacD

For many years, I didn’t consider a summer to be complete unless I had (a) ridden the Cyclone at Coney Island at least once, and (b) read a few of John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee crime novels. Something about a hot, mosquito-humming summer, cold beer and Travis McGee just seemed to go together. Maybe it was the fact that most of the novels are set in Florida. Whatever.

I’d always heard that the audio book editions read by Darren McGavin were in a class by themselves. I just heard a cassette set of McGavin’s reading of Bright Orange for the Shroud and it was good enough to send me scurrying to track down his recordings of the other novels. Looks like this season will mark the return of the McGee summers, adapted for the late-model version of me that needs something to listen to during a lousy commute.

McGavin’s low, borderline growly delivery, with its occasional theatrical flourishes, turns out to be perfect for MacDonald’s style. He’s not a wizard of voices like Jim Dale — whenever another character speaks, McGavin alters his timbre just enough to let you know it. Since the books are written in the first person, this makes sense. It also spares us the sound of McGavin trying to do a Southern accent, which judging from his few attempts at down-home speech appears to have been well outside his skill set. I look forward to getting McGavin’s version of The Long Lavender Look, which stands with  Bright Orange for the Shroud as the best of the McGees. (Yes, the color-coded titles can sound pretty cheesy; no, that doesn’t entitle you to write the books off.) 

My only beef is that these are abridged recordings, and when the action skips forward we get an anonymous sounding narrator instead of McGavin. Not only does this break the mood, it seems unnecessary — the McGee novels typically ran to 200-plus pages, which ought to fit comfortably on two or three cassettes.

One of Tom Wolfe’s favorite complaints, aired whenever he’s doing his I Am The Reincarnation of Balzac routine to hype a new novel, is that American writers have lost the zest for research and realistic detail — that they’re writing academic, isolated literary works in cork-lined rooms instead of taking to the streets and wrestling with the billion-footed beast, or something like that. It’s not a terribly astute observation, and it’s complete nonsense when it comes to the best crime fiction, which thrives on realism. Most of MacDonald’s novels, and the McGee books in particular, add up to a composite portrait of mid-20th century Florida before the feverish postwar development boom really started to kick in. It’s no wonder that Carl Hiaasen is a MacDonald devotee: the plundering of Florida, with its attendant environmental and social ills, was central to MacDonald’s work at a time when many people were just getting around to to reading Silent Spring. That he did this while delivering solid, engaging crime stories makes the accomplishment all the more impressive.

MacDonald also had a knack for scarily convincing bad guys and semi-bad guys who might just tip over all the way under the right conditions. Boone Waxwell in Bright Orange for the Shroud and Lilo Perris in The Long Lavender Look are rustic psychopaths who would make short work of Hannibal Lecter, and unlike the ghoulish gourmandizer they’re entirely believable. Bright Orange turns on the kind of land-development scam that’s probably being played out in a hundred different ways right now, and the effort to turn the tables on the con-men proves a lot more difficult, and a lot bloodier, than anything those jolly scammers in The Sting could have handled.

The few times MacDonald stumbled were when he stepped away from nitty-gritty realism and wandered into action-movie fantasies like The Green Ripper. I don’t want Travis McGee going up single-handed against a terrorist cult. I want Travis McGee tanlging with shady lawyers, sleazy developers and mangrove-swamp drug dealers who can’t afford to have any skeletons shaken loose from their closets.

And if, along the way, MacDonald pauses to deliver one of his trademarked bits of potted philosophy, or angry lectures on the state of life in America, circa 1960s, then so much the better. I also like the potted philosophy in Moby-Dick. I also think Tom Waits should record the little disquisition on the nature of poodles that enlivens Nightmare in Pink.

If Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet can get Library of America editions, then I hereby nominate John D. MacDonald for the same honor. Put in The Long Lavender Look, Bright Orange for the Shroud, and The Empty Copper Sea to represent the McGees, then round out the picture with A Flash of Green (corrupt journalist hired to dig up dirt on environmentalist troublemakers), The Executioners (filmed twice as Cape Fear) and maybe The Last One Left. If the Library of America needs somebody to pull it together, I am available.               

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