Some of my work on Updike was discussed on The Dish with Andrew Sullivan.
Some of my work on Ross Macdonald was discussed on Pretty Sinister Books.
Here is my interview with superstar music impresario Wendy Starland.
Here is my interview with Pulitzer Prize nominee Olympia Vernon.
Here is my interview with the editor of Best American Short Stories, Heidi Pitlor.
Here is my interview with acclaimed artist Emil Kazaz.
My musing on John D. Macdonald, Travis McGee, and the chicks was picked up on The Rap Sheet.

John D. MacDonald: Travis McGee & Women in the First 4 Novels

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Here’s a quote about John D. Macdonald that I often see bouncing around the web (I hesitate to quote from Wikipeida, which we all know is generally stuff we can wipe our asses with, but this seems legit). “Macdonald is by any standards a better writer than Saul Bellow, only Macdonald writes thrillers and Bellow is a human heart chap, so guess who wears the top grade laurels?”  That’s from Kingsley Amis.
In this link longtime Washington Post critic Jonathan Yardley gives equally high kudos and is equally concerned about the distinction between authors of thrillers and human heart chaps:
Included in the blurbs for the 1995 Fawcett Crest editions for the Travis McGee novels is this from Dean Koontz: “He captured the mood and spirit of his times more accurately, more hauntingly, than any ‘literature’ writer…”
The common theme of defensiveness – why is it there?  Well, we most assuredly know that the literati and the cognoscenti dismissed Macdonald as a hack.  Prolific beyond words, he churned out novels and stories at a mind blowing pace his entire life.  In the old school reference work World Authors 1950-1970 (published by H.H. Wilson) he says that when starting out as a young writer he kept thirty to forty stories in the mail at all times.  What a fine example of self confidence and determination!
Let’s briefly compare Macdonald with another writer, Don DeLillo, writing a similar type of passage – characters step back from the present situation they’re involved in and reflect on the greater world beyond.  This is from DeLillo’s Mao II:
“Around them in the world, people ride escalators up and sneak secret glances at the faces coming down.  People dangle teabags over hot water in white cups.  Cars run silently on the autobahns, streaks of painted light.  People sit at desks and stare at office walls.  They smell their shirts and drop them in the hamper.  People bind themselves into numbered seats and and fly across time zones and high cirrus and deep night, knowing there is something they’ve forgotten to do.”
This is from Macdonald’s A Deadly Shade of Gold:
“The stars, McGee, look down on a world where thousands of 4-H kids are raising prize cattle and sheep.  The Green Bay packers, of their own volition, join in the Lord’s Prayer before a game.  Many good and gentle people have fallen in love this night.  At this moment, thousands of women are in labor from the fruit of good marriage.  Thousands of kids sleep the deep sleep which comes from the long practice hours for competitive swimming and tennis.  Good men have died today, leaving hearts sick with loss.  In quiet rooms young girls are writing poems.  People are laughing together, in quiet places.”
I think it’s worth pointing out that Macdonald actually won what is usually considered a highbrow, literary, cognoscenti/literati type award, the National Book Award, for one of the Travis McGee efforts, The Green Ripper.

As we might expect, the Travis McGee novels indulge in a fair amount of superhero, bubblegum, cartoon or comic strip stuff, and that’s fine.  Certainly one of their primary purposes is to entertain.  But Macdonald also has other aspirations that go far beyond divertissement.  McGee is a kind of philosopher of his time – that is, he makes philosophical statements about the society he finds himself in and, periodically, about the cosmos in general.  One of his favorite subjects, if not the favorite, is Woman, the human female, both in the abstract and in the very general and particular.  His entire consciousness is so saturated with the relationship between the sexes, and his own relationships with individual ladies, that the image that leaps to mind is a sponge dunked in a glass of water – he is wholly absorbed by it.  His wanton philosophical ruminations about this subject are very complex.  This is one of Macdonald’s strongest areas. (As opposed to, say, one of his weakest areas, which is his presentation of the motives of criminals, of which there seems to be only one – greed.)  What I propose to do here is go over the first four Travis McGee novels with some care and see what Macdonald has to say about women, for now leaving out some of his other principal themes like Individualism and Society’s Failures.  As it happens the fifth McGee yarn, A Deadly Shade of Gold, is vastly superior to its predecessors and deserves an essay devoted to it alone. 

Thinking about the women who populate The Deep Blue Good-By, I’ll restrict remarks to Chookie McCall, Cathy Kerr, and Lois Atkinson, ignoring the three younger women who slice into the novel very late as part of Junior Allen’s harem – Patty, Deeleen, and Corry.  They figure into the story importantly, but in a kind of stock way for MacDonald – as part of a group orgiastic party – and so I leave them out here because they seem to function as part of a formula. I'm also not including much about Christine Kerr, Gerry Brell, or others because of temporal and spatial considerations.
Introduced on page two, Chookie McCall is “choreographing some fool thing”.  As a leader of dancers she has McGee’s admiration and respect, which is important because she shows up again in later novels.  The dynamic between she and McGee is a bit complex –he made a pass at her some months ago, she declined, she now makes one at him, he in turn rejects her.  What’s the deal?
She’s come to McGee’s houseboat to work on her new dance routing because “I had the privacy and enough room”.  But we soon see this is only partly true – she’s also come to introduce McGee to Cathy Kerr, a dancer in her troupe whom she wants McGee to accept as a client.  In fact, we soon learn she’s already arranged a meeting, without McGee’s consent or knowledge.  This is an indication of her confidence in her ability to manipulate McGee, and also a kind of roundabout way, on the author’s part, via the “show, don’t tell” strategy, of exposing one of McGee’s largest personality flaws. 
Because this is the very first novel in the series MacDonald has to get in a lot of exposition about McGee and how he works, and elect to do that here with a conversation between McGee and Chookie that really rings inauthentically; when Cathy Kerr shows up Chookie, sweating and dirty from her choreography, goes off to talk a bath so the other two can talk.  When Cathy leaves she’s still in the tub and here, in just a couple of pages, MacDonald writes forcefully and fascinatingly about their friendship/relationship.  First, a description of her:
“I guess Chook is about twenty-three or –four.  Her face is a little older than that.  It has that stern look you see in old pictures of the Plains Indians.  At her best, it is a forceful and striking face, redolent of strength and dignity.  At worst it sometimes would seem to be the face of a Dartmouth boy dressed for the farcical chorus line.  But that body, seen more intimately than ever before, was incomparably, mercilessly female, deep and glossy, rounded – under the tidy little fatty layer of girl pneumatics – with useful muscle.” 
At the bathtub she tries to seduce him, and fails – he humiliates her in the rejection, then tells her that if what she’s offering is recreational sex he’s game.  They hash it out and remain good Platonic friends.  She leaves and essentially disappears from the novel except for a few phone calls later on.
We might make the brief notation, too, that immediately after she leaves McGee picks up a babe for totally meaningless sex at the Alabama Tiger’s boat.  Did Chookie install this need in him?

Cathy Kerr, McGee’s client in this novel, referred by Chookie McCall, is “a sandy blonde with one of those English schoolboy haircuts” who overdresses for her initial consultation with McGee.  Twenty seven, with “those unmistakable dancer’s legs,” she settles in to tell McGee a disturbing tale which, incidentally, she drunkenly told to Chookie a few nights earlier (which is how Chookie came to suggest that Cathy seek McGee’s services).  Her story is sordid and complicated.
She begins when she was nine years old and her father, Berry, returned home from World War Two.  She believes, but isn’t sure, that her dad made big money illegally in the war.  In a drunken brawl, in San Francisco, he kills an officer and in prison meets a man named Junior Allen to whom he apparently blabbed quite a lot, for this Junior Allen one day appears at the Berry home “smiling”.  He moves in with the family; Cathy becomes his lover.  He keeps asking a lot of questions about the father and “Using one excuse and another, he managed to dig up just about every part of the yard.”  Evidently he finds whatever it is that’s buried there, whatever it is that Cathy’s father brought back from the war that has high value.
Later, after McGee ponders the situation and decides to take the job, Cathy tries to explain the strange hold Junior Allen has over her, the same destructive power he will later wield against Lois Atkinson.  I’ll quote from the source, apologizing for the necessary length:
I didn’t want him to have me like that, right there at the home place with my mother still alive then, and Davie there, and Christine and her two.  It was shameful, but I couldn’t seem to help myself.  Looking back I can’t understand how it could be.  Trav, I had a husband, and there was one other man beside my husband and Junior Allen, but my husband and the other man weren’t like Junior Allen.  I don’t know how to say it to a stranger without shaming myself more.  But maybe it could help somehow to know this about him.  The first time or so, he forced me.  He would be tender and loving, but afterward.  Saying he was sorry.  But he was at me like some kind of animal, and he was too rough and too often.  He said it had always been like that with him, like he couldn’t help himself.  And after a while he changed me, so that it didn’t seem too rough any more, and I didn’t care how many times he came at me or when.  It was all turned into a dream I couldn’t quite wake up from, and I went around feeling all safe and dreamy and stupid, and not caring a damn about what anybody thought, only caring that he wanted me and I wanted him.  He’s a powerful man, and all the time we were together he never did slack off.  Do a woman that way and I think she goes off into a kind of daze, because really it’s too much, but there was no way of stopping him, and finally I didn’t want to, because you get used to living in that dazy way.

I think we can all imagine what feminists would say about this passage; as far as I can tell MacDonald’s work was not ever analyzed in the academy.  The point I’d like to make is that Junior Allen seems to be a variation on Max Cady from MacDonald’s The Executioners (more popularly known as Cape Fear).  When I first read some of these Travis McGee novels in the 1980s I can remember thinking, do psychopathic lunatics like this really exist out there in the world?  It seemed dubious to me that there were any such people.  What convinced me otherwise, and really ratcheted my respect for MacDonald up quite a few notches, were cable TV programs like Forensic Files that documented all manner of real life hideous dream happenings like this. 
But back to Cathy Kerr.  Later in the novel she runs into Junior Allen and confronts him; he smashes her face into a pulp with his fists.  Of course she recovers fully – the plot requires that she must, since McGee has to settle the issue of the recovered money with her.  As he explains it all to her “She looked at it (the money) and looked up at me, eyes as attentive and obedient as a learning child.”  McGee reneges on the agreement massively in her favor.  He, destroyed over the death of Lois, almost takes sex from her as some kind of payment, but backs off.  She takes the money and leaves. 
So thus far we have the somewhat complex Chookie McCall and the comparatively simple Cathy Kerr, two good women of vastly different composition.  Lois Atkinson, another victim of Junior Allen’s, is the third major female McGee interacts with in the course of the story.  Her house, according to McGee, is one of those that “have the look of places where the blood has recently been washed away.”  Wow!  Who is this lady, and why has McGee come looking for her?  Earlier, Cathy had identified Lois as the woman to whom Junior Allen gravitated when he returned to Candle Key with money and his own boat.  They’d met when Lois brought her T-bird to the gas station where Allen worked. 
          Please allow me a brief digression to comment on something I haven’t said much about – the way MacDonald describes, writes about, his female characters.  The prose should be experienced first hand in order to really be appreciated.  Commentary can’t do it justice.  The introductory characterizations of Lois Atkinson are magnificent.  Perceptively observant, they serve to show us, the readers, how, in daily life, to look at people in new and different ways ourselves.  What better test of a writer’s relevance and importance could there possibly be?  And incidentally it’s here that McGee give us some interesting insights into himself, as he tries to make himself look “disarming”. 
McGee barely speaks the name of Junior Allen before Lois breaks down completely, both mentally and physically.  He locks her in her house, goes to send Cathy Kerr home on a bus, and summons a doctor:
“ “Several things.  Malnutrition.  That plus a degree of saturation with alcohol so she’s been having auditory hallucinations.  But severe emotional shock is the background for both the other manifestations.”
He gave me a shrewd glance.  “Fair.  A little bit of nerve, a tiny bit of pride, that’s all she has left.  Keep her tranquilized.  Build her up with foods as rich as she can take.  Lots of sleep.  And keep her away from whomever got her into such a condition.” ”
Making a long story short, Lois shacked up with Junior Allen much as Cathy had done, and his abuse wore her down to this broken state.  McGee nurses her back to health, they fall in love, and he makes a disastrous mistake in using her as bait to nail Allen, whom he now hates with an all consuming rage.  He does kill Allen, but Lois also dies as a result of the proceedings.  The take from the recovery isn’t quite as big as he’d been expecting, and he gives the lion’s share to Cathy, disregarding their 50/50 agreement. 

But the point is: he has to endure unspeakable grief over Lois’ death.  This will be a recurring theme in the Travis McGees – he can never finally win the woman he really loves.  It happens again and again. 
Recapping McGee’s adventures with the female sex in The Deep Blue Good-By: we start with Chookie McCall, a Platonic friend to McGee (although they have both, at different times, wanted to become involved) who refers him Cathy Kerr, who has been mentally and physically tortured, and materially robbed, by Junior Allen.  Cathy is made of much stronger stuff than Lois Atkinson, another of Junior Allen’s victims, with whom McGee falls in love and eventually loses to death in the adventure designed to kill Junior Allen (which it does). 
The next novel in the series, Nightmare in Pink, ups the ante a little bit. 

The next novel in the series, Nightmare in Pink, ups the ante a little bit.  Here McGee becomes involved with four principal females; MacDonald also throws in two golden portrayals of a couple of more minor ones, the secretary Angela Morse and the call girl Rossa, whom I cannot get to because of spatio-temporal restrictions.  The off the chart plot concerns the head of a successful firm who is slowly lobotomized by nine of his subordinates and pacified with drugs so that he signs any document they put in front of him; using this methodology, they siphon off millions of dollars of profit for themselves.  At times the whole thing really pushes the envelope of credibility – for example, five of them move into an apartment with him so he can be watched around the clock; MacDonald also presents a very harsh, cruel vision here – many innocents are killed in the course of the story while the ringleader, at the end, gets three years for tax evasion and that’s all.  Story wise the whole thing is a long way from Junior Allen!
Nina Gibson is McGee’s client here; he has to travel to New York City, where she lives and where her fiancĂ© Howard has recently been killed in what has been made to appear to be a street mugging.  The younger sister of McGee’s horribly wounded and blinded best friend (they were in the service, in the war, together), Nina is “a bouffante little girl”.  She “worked on the twentieth floor, for one of those self important little companies that designed packages for things.”  Trav informs us that he “didn’t want to be within fifteen hundred miles of this darling girl”.  With a passage that would make the hair on the back of every academic feminist’s neck stand up and do somersaults, he lets us know the kinds of girls he would rather be with, on his houseboat in Lauderdale.  And so, after some antagonistic conversation back and forth and some howling despair about New York, we have this: McGee is in a place he doesn’t like with a girl he doesn’t like.  Gee, can we guess what eventually happens?
I have to say that the seemingly endless analysis and philosophizing McGee does over why he falls for Nina almost numbs this novel.  And they keep asking each other “Can you understand that?” “Do you understand that?”  But for those of us wishing to be connoisseurs of Travis McGee something important is triggered in us by this novel, a recognition: it looks like he always gets the girl and then loses her: Lois Atkinson in the first novel, Nina Gibson here, Isobel Webb in A Purple Place for Dying, most especially Dana Holtzer in The Quick Red Fox
Back to Nightmare in Pink, in order to help himself navigate the case Travis calls on a former client, seventy two year old Constance Trimble Thatcher, the “victim in a Palm Beach episode a few years ago”.  She flirts with him, makes unflattering remarks about the guests she is expecting at her ritzy Central Park apartment any moment, and puts McGee on to Terry Drummond, jet setting sexy sister in law of the lobotomized executive Armister.  McGee fondly reminisces about a girl Constance had sent to him for help: “ If there’s no pain and no loss, it’s only recreational, and we can leave it to the minks.  People have to be valued.”  That’s an important slice of the McGee philosophy of women!

Every author who’s ever tried their hand at writing fiction probably wishes they could write scenes between characters of opposite sexes like the one MacDonald writes in having McGee meet Terry Drummond. She is a real killer, a real maneater, “But the years had chopped her face.”  They have sharp, crackling, sexually tense dialogue back and forth almost immediately.  She tells him “I’m too old for you, sweetie.  But not too old to think of taking you to bed.”  But McGee won’t ne distracted - he hits hard at his reason for the meeting – he wants to work her for information about Armister.  (Let me say that I realize I am giving the plot very short shrift here, maybe shortchanging the action a bit, but right now I’m only concerned with Travis’ relationships with the ladies.  Perhaps in the future I can go over these novels more fully, with more care and attention on the overall arc and design.  But I will say this much – amazingly, as the conversation demonstrates, McGee has already figured out the broad outlines of what is being done to Armister.  Now he needs the proof, and he is enlisting Terry Drummond’s help in trying to get close to Bonita Hersch, one of the team of embezzlers who lives with Armister.  And Terry comes through in the clutch, setting up a lunch meeting for McGee and Bonita.) 
I’ve mentioned that Bonita is part of the gang involved in the horrifying, unspeakable ripoff scheme, and I thrust that’s sufficient indication of what she is made of and what type of soul she has, so I’ll just end this section with a few quotes.  MacDonald is superlative here, again.
“Her grooming was almost too perfect.  Every little golden hair was in place.  Her eyes were a pale cold gray-blue.”
“She turned those appraising eyes on me.  A sharp pink tongue-tip was momentarily visible at the corner of her mouth.”
“There was a little silken whip in that voice, and it made a nice little pop when she got her wrist into it.”
“I smiled at her, thinking that this was as nasty a bit as I had come across in a long time.  I could sense the ruthless pursuit of the career.  And her equivalently ruthless pursuit of sexual gratification.  This was the product of a dozen highly competitive offices, of skilled infighting, merciless intrigue.”
“This was a guileful, perfumed monster.  God only knows where they come from.  They clump up in the big cities.  Somehow they all manage to look quite a lot like each other.  They consider themselves sophisticates.  They buy growth stocks.  They worry a lot about their breasts and about secretarial spread.  The idea of ever having a baby is some kind of grotesque joke.  It would hurt.  And then you’d have to keep it.”

With A Purple Place for Dying I think the Travis McGee series really starts to come into its own as important writing.  (Unfortunately, in the followup, The Quick Red Fox, MacDonald goes backwards, back to the groping, tentative work of The Deep Blue Good-By and Nightmare in Pink, but not to worry – as noted earlier, A Deadly Shade of Gold is simply superlative.)
Here McGee is visiting in the great American West, and the potential client who’s summoned him out is one Mona Yeoman; they are traveling over barren, rocky terrain to a secluded house she has out in the epicenter of nowhere.  Her story is a twisting, winding one.  Her father Cube Fox was a big shot in local circles.  His partner, one Jass Yeoman, looked after his estate after he passed away.  Mona went wild in Paris with a married man, had a breakdown, was rescued by her father’s much older friend Jass - whom she ends up marrying.  Jass traveled to Paris to nurse her back to health (a curious mirroring of what McGee will do with Isobel Webb later in this novel, and of what he did with Lois in The Deep Blue Good-By.)

Mona and Jass marry in spite of the great difference in age.  However, after nine years, she’s fallen in love with a man closer to her age – John Webb, a philosophy professor – and wants out of her marriage to Jass, thinking an endless supply of money from her father’s will is due her.  Little does she know!  Her husband informs her that the estate money ran out long ago, and he has been paying her an allowance out of her own pocket.  She doesn’t believe him, which is why she wants McGee to come in.
But as she and McGee stand there talking, she is shot dead right before his eyes.  As I have been avoiding getting into the plots as much as possible here, concentrating on Travis and the ladyfolk, we’ll continue in that vein. 
MacDonald makes it very clear he wants Mona to be seen as a free spirit, free spending and sexually aggressive.  She gets a stipend of fifteen hundred a month from Jass (this is in 1964, remember) and blows it all by the middle of the month, every month, year in, year out.  It is constantly remarked about her that she has a case of “hot pants” and such:

“She’s just got a little passing case of the hot pants, McGee.”
“If we thought her dead, it might give her another week to get hid good and take the edge off that case of hot pants.”
“So she was a big creamy bitch standing beside me in her tailored tight pants…”
“Son, Mona has just into her restless time, and the thing to do is just wait it out.  She’s gone romantic as a young girl.”
“She was a cheap, vulgar, vicious sexpot.”

And so on.  As it turns out, she’s wrong about the money, but her death opens up other avenues of the case that McGee must pursue, and this leads him to yet another complex relationship, this time with the aforementioned Isobel Webb, brother of the murdered philosophy professor John Webb, Mona’s lover, whom we will discuss in a moment.  First I’d just like to point out that, as usual, there are excellent portrayals of females who appear briefly – the flight attendant Marilyn Houser; the former employee of Mona, Dolores Estobar, who figures into the plot in a big way despite her one short appearance in the text; Betty, whom the killers use as a decoy and a deflection, and who provides McGee with critical facts and news; and the linchpin of the story, Amparo Sosegado, mother to a couple of Jass’ children.  These all help serve to make this a great story.

Isobel Webb represents a recurring type for the McGee novels, so some close investigation is appropriate.

Which doesn’t mean a long investigation.  We can even overlook the outrageous, and almost insulting, plot contrivance MacDonald cooks up – McGee happens to be familiar with the exact secluded little patch of the Bahamas where the Webbs, as children, spent their winters. 
The reader will find, as I mentioned above, a curious reflection of Jass and Mona’s relationship in Travis and Isobel’s.  At one point, speaking of Mona, Jass tells McGee  “She needs a man half husband and half daddy to keep her settled down.”  What is this if not a description of the role McGee plays for Isobel when he nurses her back to life after her attempted suicide? 
As for the recurring type I mentioned above, I invite readers to compare these two passages.  This one occurs at the end of Nightmare in Pink, and concerns McGee and Nina Gibson: “One day there was the unspoken awareness that we had to get back to the world.”  And here, between McGee and Isobel, we have “Tonight the lovemaking has that first tart sweetness of impending goodbye.”

The Quick Red Fox is, compared to the other McGees I’ve studied so far, rather weak on the whole, but at the end of it Travis reflects that Dana was “one I wanted to keep” so we will try to understand why.

CORRECTION/REVISION – Due to time pressure I’m just going to post some quotes from or about the four women in the novel.  As a brief aside please allow me this comment: the fact that the big hoopla in the story is over a few nude, orgy like photographs shows how badly dated some of the McGee series can be.  Today neither the celebrities involved nor the adoring public would do much more than yawn.
Skeeter – “Why should you want to hold me?  My God, Travis, we ripped each other up pretty good and got over it a long time ago.”
Lysa Dean – Suddenly I knew what she reminded me of.  A vixen.  A quick red fox. 
Dana Holtzer – This was one I wanted to keep.
Ulka Atlund M’Gruder – Over all that stalwart Viking loveliness there was such a haze of sensuality it was perceptible, like a strange matte finish.

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