I read The Deep Blue Good-by by John D. MacDonald. It was first published in 1964 – by the request of the publishing house Fawcett. In other words, it was a commissioned work. I am not entirely sure how that worked – but this story is not one of those where the author went from house to house to try and find anyone that would publish it in return for pennies.
This is a novel for mature readers – and not because of the language or scenes alone, but also because there is a deeper sentiment to be found in this one, hiding under the ribald and loose 1960s Florida attitude. That is to say, it’s a lot more noir than it is expected to be. It is very important for readers to know going into this that these are not good characters. There is not the good guy chasing the bad guy. To a greater or lesser extent, of course, the characters range out from the stupid and unlucky to the violent and cruel. Readers, particularly recent readers, seem to really dislike this book for what would be termed sexism and misogyny. No doubt there is some of that spewed nearly on every page and for a good-minded individual in 2021, it seems rotten and crude.
I leaned against the center island and drank it, feeling unreal. I walked on a fabric of reality but it had an uncomforatble give to it. You could sink in a little way. If you walked too much and came to a weak spot, you could fall through. I think it would be pretty bleak down there. – pg. 136, Chapter Ocho
However, and I am not making any excuse or ratio for such mentality, I would not expect people of poor morality to have glistening views of humanity. The main character is a misanthrope; I did not think he would say pretty things. I neither like nor dislike the main character, Travis McGee. Yet, he is quite unique from what I have read… not too many sulky, principled, off-the-grid chaps that are so good at reading people and keeping their sour bitterness under a Miami tan. Travis McGee is not a nice guy. He is very bitter and he survives in his lifestyle by the very fact that his misanthropy is validated by the crime and grift and corruption in society. He takes advantage of miserable situations brought on by immoral and miserable people. There is a lot here for a reader to dislike.
However, there is a adeptness with which this novel is written that shows MacDonald knew how to write and knew how to write people. The form of the story, the muscular, organic speech-patterns, the sudden switches from “pseudo-psychology” to bar-room slang – all make up a very strong read. This is one of the many things missing from contemporary fiction. This book has a tone and voice, whether or not the reader agrees with it or likes it, it is potent and vibrant. This writing is not dull or bland.
I began checking the marinas. All this great ever-increasing flood of bronze, brass, chrome, Fiberglas, lapstreak, teak, auto pilots, burgees, Power Squadron hats, nylon line, all this chugging winking blundering glitter of props, bilge pumps and self-importance needs dockside space. The optimum image is the teak cockpit loaded soft with brown dazed girls while the eagle-eyed skipper on his fly bridge chugs Baby Dear under a lift bridge to keep a hundred cars stalled waiting in the sun, their drivers staring malignantly at the slow passage of the lazy-day sex float and the jaunty brown muscles of the man at the helm. But the more frequent reality is a bust gasket, Baby Dear drifting in a horrid chop, girls sunpoisoned and whoopsing, hero skipper clenching the wrong size wrench in barked hands and raising a greasy scream to the salty demons who are flattening his purse and canceling his marine insurance. – pg. 163, chapter Diez
Yes, indeed, McGee is very much a cynical misanthrope. But reading that description – its very clear MacDonald has some open eyes as well. No one can write a misantrhrope without a dose of misanthropy themselves, I believe. Taking that passage, and ones similar, MacDonald is nearly telling the reader: you want a cozy read where the good guy rights the wrongs and the bad guy gets what is coming to him. You want a novel that does not offend that does not push too many limits and does not make you cringe in disgust at times. But that’s the image of a summery novel, not the reality of a good noir yarn. Because let’s face it, MacDonald wrote a bleak, dark story with all sorts of unsavory elements – and placed it in the touristy, ever-sunny South Florida. I am a bit impressed.
McGee is a tough character because though he is incredibly bitter, he still has some odd way of keeping to principles of his own making. Its too early in the series to tell if he is consistent with this. Another facet of McGee is his self-loathing, it shows up here and there – particularly in little snarls that the character lets slip. I think this self-loathing really adds another layer to the noir elements of the character and sets the character apart from all the other glib, easy-going, private investigator/amateur detective/part-time crooks that show up in novels.
So here is book one in the Travis McGee series. Its full of miserable people that run, more or less, in the same circles as the main character – no hero, but at least aware of his rôle. It is a rough read for content, the sex and the 60s zeitgeist is layed on quite heavily. Recommended for mature readers. Recommended for all noir/crime readers.
Fast read, good trim on the words. I own book two and when ready, I’ll read it.