Thursday, January 8, 2009

Book Review: The Deep Blue Good-by: by John D. MacDonald

The Deep Blue Good-byThe Deep Blue Good-by was the first of 21 Travis McGee novels by the late, great John D. MacDonald.

McGee is a nihilistic, misanthropic loner who lives on his boat, The Busted Flush, which is docked in a marina in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He has largely dropped out of mainstream life and only works when he runs low on cash.

In the opening chapter of The Deep Blue Good-by, a female character queries McGee about what he does for a living, rephrasing a "job description" McGee had apparently offered up earlier:

"You said if X has something valuable and Y comes along and takes it away from him, and there is absolutely no way in the world X can ever get it back, then you come along and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you on that until it starts to run out. Is that the way it is, really?"

McGee accepts this version and thus the reader has an idea of what kind of character they are being presented. He is a sort of private eye, but not exactly. However, like most of the well known hard-boiled private eye novels, this McGee story is a morality play. And like most of the hard cases who came before him in the pulp fiction world, behind the tough talking, fearless forays into dangerous situations, McGee is also someone who genuinely cares about the people he tries to help.

It’s almost as if MacDonald fashioned McGee as a combination of the hardened crime novel detective and the sensitive new age man who was gaining prominence at the time (The Deep Blue Good-by was published in 1964). The typical sleuth/lothario, McGee comes across his share of attractive and troubled tarts. He rebuffs some, sleeps with a few, and feels regret at leading others on.

Through it all, McGee riffs on various things he loathes about the modern world. In The Deep Blue Good-by, a recurring theme is the women he deals with and the limited opportunities they have in life. In one classic rant, McGee muses:

"The scene is reputed to be acrawl with adorably amoral bunnies to whom sex is a pleasant social favor. The new culture. And they are indeed present and available, in exhaustive quantity, but there is a curious tastelessness about them. A woman who does not guard and treasure herself cannot be of much value to anyone else. They become a pretty little convenience, like a guest towel.”

These philosophical asides (and later in the series, conversations with a character named Meyer) became one of the trademarks of the McGee novels. They are one of the aspects that fans of the novels like the most but probably one reason the books were never successfully adapted to the big screen.

The book is written in the first person using simple, lean sentences that move the action forward. The plot is almost secondary here. McGee’s observations, monologues, and dialogue with other characters are the driving force behind the story. Not that there isn’t any plot or action.

McGee tracks down the nasty piece of work who has abused and cheated the two main female characters. While McGee is a nuanced individual who doubts himself and doesn't always play by the rules, the villain is pure evil. The action builds to a brutal showdown in which all does not end in a pat, satisfying way.

A taut, sparsely written novel that is the first in the classic Travis McGee series.

1 comment:

  1. Here’s a situation that arises continually in the Lew Archer novels: someone Archer is investigating is surprised to learn how much he knows about them. In Black Money Kitty Hendricks voices this surprise in virtually those very words –“How do you know so much about me?” Usually, though, the knowledge Archer has obtained when this question comes up turns out to be peripheral – that is, it doesn’t bear directly on the solution to the case but is just a part of the hopelessly tangled morass of action and information Archer is working his way through.