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John D. MacDonald's Lush Landscape of Crime
By Jonathan Yardley
Tuesday, November 11, 2003; Page C01
An occasional series in which The Post's book critic reconsiders notable and/or neglected books from the past.
For my money, John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee is one of the great characters in contemporary American fiction -- not crime fiction; fiction, period -- and millions of readers surely agree. There are, as is announced across the top of each Fawcett Crest paperback volume in the series, "32 Million Travis McGee Books in Print!" Most of the other crime novels that MacDonald wrote over his long and astonishingly prolific career have been consigned to out-of-print oblivion -- in many cases most undeservedly so -- but Travis rolls along, keeping MacDonald's memory alive and reminding us that he was a far more accomplished and important novelist than is generally recognized.
McGee was born in the early 1960s. MacDonald, then in his mid-forties, had built a substantial following for the crime novels he published in paperback originals and the short stories he published in pulp magazines, but that following was limited largely to readers of genre fiction. Then, in 1962, he somewhat reluctantly agreed to start work on a series built around a single character. The first, "The Deep Blue Goodbye," appeared in 1964. It was followed by 20 others, the last of which, "The Lonely Silver Rain," was published in 1985, a year before MacDonald's death.
McGee is owner of the "Busted Flush, 52-foot barge-type houseboat, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Lauderdale." He's a World War II veteran, 6 feet 4 inches tall, solidly built. He isn't "exactly a clerical type," in the words of one of the many woman for whom he does important favors: "You are huge and it is obvious you have been whacked upon, and you look as though you damn well enjoyed returning the favor." He's catnip for the ladies, but he is by his own admission "an incurable romantic who thinks the man-woman thing shouldn't be a contest," who believes "the biggest and most important reason in the world [for lovemaking] is to be together with someone in a way that makes life a little less bleak and solitary and lonesome."
The subject of this Second Reading could be any of the McGee novels, but I've chosen "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" because it was the first that I read. In 1976 I was the book editor of the Miami Herald, across Florida from MacDonald's home on Siesta Key. He was about to publish "Condominium," his first hardcover, non-genre novel, which had been chosen as a main selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, and I had been commissioned by the club to write a brief piece about him for its newsletter.
This entailed a hurry-up course in MacDonald's fiction, which I'd never read. I mainlined a couple dozen of his novels, from early mysteries to McGees to "Condominium" itself. I was bowled over. This man whom I'd snobbishly dismissed as a paperback writer turned out to be a novelist of the highest professionalism and a social critic armed with vigorous opinions stingingly expressed. His prose had energy, wit and bite, his plots were humdingers, his characters talked like real people, and his knowledge of the contemporary world was -- no other word will do -- breathtaking.
MacDonald himself turned out, when I interviewed him in his comfortable, unpretentious house, to be a large, calm, genial, quiet yet talkative man: a gentleman. By then he had established himself, as I wrote in a profile of him for the Herald's Sunday magazine, as "the pre-eminent 'Florida novelist,' " a distinction earned by remarkably close observation of the state: its grifters and operators and big-bucks crooks, its decent ordinary people, its overdeveloped land and polluted water. He had harsh things to say about Florida in "Condominium" and many of his other books. When I asked him about this he said: "I've always recognized that Florida is a slightly tacky state," and added, "You love it in spite of itself."
Close questioning revealed not merely that he had a complex love-hate relationship with his adopted state (he was born, in 1916, in Pennsylvania) but that he was a constant reader with high standards. He thought some genre novelists were taken too seriously, just as Thomas Pynchon was ("One is overvalued because the critic finds some elements of literacy in it, the other because he can't understand it"), and he was a tough critic who expected others' prose to have "felicity, an element of aptness." One passage from my tapes deserves full quotation:
"I just cannot read people like Leon Uris and James Michener. When you've covered one line, you can guess the next one. I like people who know the nuances of words, who know how to stick the right one in the right place. Sometimes you can laugh out loud at an exceptionally good phrase. I find it harder and harder to find fiction to read, because I either read it with dismay at how good it is or disgust at how bad it is. I do like the guys like John Cheever that have a sense of story, because, goddammit, you want to know what happens to somebody. You don't want a lot of self-conscious little logjams thrown in your way."
So, you quite properly ask, how well did MacDonald meet the standards he set for others? Very well indeed. "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" proves the point. McGee has been taking his ease in the Busted Flush when a woman steps aboard the boat at 4 in the morning. He had a one-night stand with her a few years ago, now sees that the "years had aged her more than she could reasonably expect and had tested and toughened her." She presses a package upon him and asks him to safeguard it; inside is nearly $95,000. Two weeks later she is killed by a truck outside a town up the Atlantic coast. "Knight-errant" that he is, McGee goes there to have a look:
"It was easy to see the shape and history of Bayside, Florida. There had been a little town on the bay shore, a few hundred people, a sleepy downtown with live oaks and Spanish moss. Then International Amalgamated Development had moved in, bought a couple of thousand acres, and put in shopping centers, town houses, condominiums, and rental apartments, just south of town. Next had arrived Consolidated Construction Enterprises and done the same thing north of town. Smaller operators had done the same things on a smaller scale west of town. When downtown decayed, the town fathers widened the streets and cut down the shade trees in an attempt to look just like a shopping center. It didn't work. It never does. This was instant Florida, tacky and stifling and full of ugly and spurious energies. They had every chain food-service outfit known to man, interspersed with used-car lots and furniture stores."
There you have it: sharp, seamless prose, bull's-eye aim, romanticism and cynicism playing subtly off each other. The writer is MacDonald but the speaker is McGee, who is the narrator of all the novels in the series. The relationship between McGee and his creator is intimate, fascinating and a bit difficult to unravel. MacDonald doesn't seem to be projecting when he makes McGee a tender, accomplished Casanova, or when he gets McGee out of big trouble with astonishing feats of physical strength and resourcefulness; MacDonald himself seems to have been a one-woman man, happily married for nearly a half-century, and much of the violence in his novels is depicted with tongue in cheek, stylized and exaggerated.
There can be no doubt, though, that McGee speaks for MacDonald. That was made plain right off the bat in "The Deep Blue Goodbye," when McGee introduced himself by ticking off his aversions: "credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress and manifest destiny." As enemies lists go, that one is fine. But just to make things interesting, MacDonald has another voice in the McGee novels: McGee's friend and occasional sidekick Meyer, "a semiretired economist . . . the listening ear of a total understanding and forgiveness, a humble wisdom." Humble, yes, but tart as well. Here -- yes, one more long, juicy quote -- he reports to McGee after reconnoitering a singles' apartment complex in Bayside:
"There's a kind of . . . watchful anxiety about those people. It's as if they're all in spring training, trying out for the team, all trying to hit the long ball, trying to be a star. . . . Pools and saunas and a gym. Four-channel sound systems. Health fads. Copper bracelets. 'The Joy of Sex' on each and every coffee table, I would guess. Water beds, biofeedback machines. There doesn't seem to be any kind of murky kinky flavor about them. No group perversion scenes. Just a terrible urgency about finding and maintaining an orgasm batting average acceptable to the peer group."
Bingo. As one who quite inadvertently spent a good deal of time in a couple of those places in Miami in the mid-'70s, I can testify that Meyer/MacDonald has hit the game-winner. Every detail and every nuance in that passage is exactly right. But MacDonald always got it right. He was endlessly curious, and it didn't hurt that he'd been to Harvard Business School. Unlike most American novelists, he knew about the real world and viewed it with interest, with dismay perhaps, but only rarely with contempt. He had an eye that saw everything and a memory that soaked it all up. To flesh out "The Dreadful Lemon Sky" he had to familiarize himself with marina management, planetary movement, the marijuana trade, the specs of a Beechcraft Baron airplane, biofeedback and strategy for lane changes in traffic -- to mention only a few.
The abundance of keenly observed detail gives the McGee series its texture, but McGee himself is the rock at its center. He does what he calls "salvage work," described in "The Deep Blue Goodbye" by one of his lady friends: ". . . 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 in and make a deal with X to get it back, and keep half. Then you just . . . live on that until it starts to run out." As McGee says in "The Dreadful Lemon Sky," he believes that "retirement comes when you are too old to enjoy it, so I take some of mine whenever I can," living at ease on the take from one piece of "salvage" until his funds run low and it's time to go back to work.
MacDonald concluded, after collecting a baker's dozen of his early stories ("The Good Old Stuff," 1982) that "a precursor of Travis McGee" is to be found in Park Falkner, the protagonist of a couple he published in 1950. Perhaps so. But MacDonald refined and deepened the character; indeed about the only resemblance between the two is that each fancies himself a force for justice in a world where there's far too little of it. There's a whiff of meanness in Falkner that is nowhere to be found in McGee, who is out to do good, in his own quixotic fashion, and he does a bunch of it.
The second time around for "The Dreadful Lemon Sky"? Pure joy. Justice is done, blunt opinions are expressed, a lady or two is made happy, and the Busted Flush still floats. If you're new to McGee and wonder where to begin, any place will do, but there's a lot to be said for starting with "The Deep Blue Goodbye" and reading the books in order of publication. That way you can watch as they get better and better. You might like to know, too, that the titles are color-coded to help you tell them apart: turquoise, lavender, orange, tan, crimson, pink, purple, gold, etc. Florida colors, for the best "Florida novels" you'll ever read.
War on terrorism has its own dehumanizing name
New epithet being used by some soldiers to describe anyone from the Middle East or South Asia. The word has become evidence of the divide between cultures.
By JAY PRICE
Raleigh News & Observer
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- World War II had its "krauts," Vietnam had its "gooks," and now, the war on terrorism has its own dehumanizing name: "hajji."
That's what many U.S. troops across Iraq and in coalition bases in Kuwait now call anyone from the Middle East or South Asia. Soldiers who served in Afghanistan say it also is used there.
Among Muslims, the word is used mainly as a title of respect. It means "one who has made the hajj," the pilgrimage to Mecca.
But that's not how soldiers use it.
Some talk about "killing some hajjis" or "mowing down some hajjis." One soldier in Iraq inked "Hodgie Killer" onto his footlocker.
Iraqis, friend or foe, are called hajjis. Kuwaitis are called hajjis. Even people brought in by civilian contractors to work in mess halls or drive buses are hajjis - despite the fact that they might be from India, the Philippines or Pakistan, and might be Hindu or Christian.
The souvenir stands found on even the smallest U.S. bases in the Middle East and run by locals are called hajji shops. A cluster of small businesses inside a larger base is "Hajji Town."
The word has become the most obvious evidence of the deep gulf between the traditional cultures of the Middle East and Afghanistan and the young men and women of the U.S. military. Soldiers often have little knowledge of local culture beyond a 90-minute briefing they get before deployment.
"This is another reason that soldiers aren't good at winning the peace," said Samer Shehata of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. "This doesn't bode well for the reconstruction."
A spokesman for U.S. Central Command in Baghdad said that the term was troubling but that there had been no official order to stop its use.
"This is more of a commonsense thing," he said. "It's like using any other derogatory word for a racial or ethnic group. Some may use it in a joking way, but it's derogatory, and I'm sure people have tried to stop it."
(Centcom has a new policy, the soldier said, of not allowing press spokesmen to identify themselves in the media.)
In Iraq, there is little interaction between U.S. soldiers and the people they arrived to liberate.
Soldiers in the most dangerous parts of Iraq, such as the Sunni Triangle west and north of Baghdad, seldom have contact with Iraqis except to train guns on them from passing Humvees as they scan for weapons.
Their officers say the situation makes it easy to view all Iraqis as a faceless, dangerous mass, even though many civilians are friendly, so they try hard to humanize Iraqis to reduce the likelihood of wrongful shootings.
Every war spawns epithets.
In World War II, the Americans became "Amis " to the Germans. To Americans, Germans were "krauts."
"Hajji," Shehata said, sounds like racist terms that U.S. soldiers used in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, such as "towel-head."
The term brings back heavy memories for those who spent time in Vietnam during that war.
"That sounds familiar," said John Balaban, a North Carolina State University English professor and poet-in-residence who has written about Vietnam and the war. As a conscientious objector, Balaban did alternative service in Vietnam.
"There were several words - 'gook,' 'slope,' 'dink,' " he said. "Some of these were meaningless, but they were all working toward the same goal, of trivializing and depersonalizing the enemy.
"It makes it easier to kill these people and not feel bad about it."
Story distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
Story produced by
THEY GET KNOCKED DOWN, THEY GET UP AGAIN. BUT NOT FOR LONG. LET THE TELETUBBIES BASHING BEGIN.
- - - - - - - - - - - -
BY JOYCE MILLMAN | You may not have heard of "Teletubbies" yet. Savor this blessed ignorance. On April 6, the mega-hit British children's TV show premieres on PBS stations in the United States and, soon, you will not be able to hide from the loathsome rat-baby visages of the four Tubbies: Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po.
Am I being cruel? Watch the show. "Teletubbies," which has been airing on the BBC for a year, is simultaneously vacuous and surreal. It's the first show specifically aimed at children as young as 1 year old, and it does so with an inane mix of goo-goo talk and hallucinatory imagery. The British media hates the show. Parents hate the show. Child development experts hate the show (Dorothy Singer of the Yale University Family TV Research and Consultation Center has come out against "Teletubbies" because the target audience is too young). PBS president Ervin Duggan hates the show, telling a national educational television conference last year, "I used to think 'Barney' would make me throw something at the television set. Wait till you see 'Teletubbies.'"
So why is PBS airing "Teletubbies"? Because it draws a regular viewership of 2 million in England. Because an estimated $80 million worth of Tubbies merchandise was sold worldwide last year (the show is also seen in, among other countries, Australia, South Africa, Israel, the Netherlands and Singapore). It's a creepy show, educationally suspect, yet here it is, helping PBS reach that last untapped kids' market. What's next -- programming for fetuses?
Actually, the Teletubbies do look an awful lot like fetuses, with their huge eyes, oversized upper lips and hairless, smooshy faces. They also look sort of like an infantilized version of the gray space alien. From an American perspective, the Teletubbies are a disturbing collision of two of the most pervasive cultural obsessions of our time, abortion and UFO's.
The Tubbies, played by four actors encased Barneylike in color-coded, big-bottomed felt suits, cavort in a green rolling meadow strewn with flowers and live bunnies -- it's like a trippy cross between a Sid and Marty Krofft puppetland and an Oasis video. The Tubbies live inside a breast-shaped grass mound, supervised only by a vacuum cleaner named Noo-Noo. Disembodied adult voices are heard through "voice trumpets," periscope-type thingies that pop up out of the ground to signal when it's time for exercise, naps or meals. In a sunny-side-up version of heinous parental neglect, the Tubbies eat machinery-dispensed food (Tubby Custard and Tubby Toast) and exhibit the stunted verbal development ("eh-oh" instead of "hello") you've read about in cases where a child is, say, locked in a closet for 10 years. The Tubbies' main activities are playing peek-a-boo, hugging, falling down and watching TV through the video screens embedded in their stomachs. Yes. They have TV's for tummies.
The Tubbies apparently receive incoming broadcasts from a mysterious spinning windmill; the transmission makes the antennae on top of their heads glow and then one of the Tubbies' tummy-screens will start playing a video clip of a very young human child doing something like riding a tricycle or taking care of a pet pony. After it's over the Tubbies cry, "Again, again!" and the tedious little film is replayed in its entirety, because babies like repetition, and if you parents have a problem with that, scold the ads PBS has taken out in magazines and newspapers to introduce the show, you need to slow down and "connect with your child on a whole different level. Theirs."
Of course, parents filled the need for repetition quite adequately in the prehistoric era before "Teletubbies." We read "Goodnight Moon," twice a night, 365 nights a year, and played pat-a-cake until our brains nearly imploded from boredom, and we liked it, by gum! Oh sure, Anne Wood, the British creator of "Teletubbies," may babble earnestly to the press about her great social mission of creating programming for babies who "are growing up in a technological world," but the pragmatic comments of Kenn Viselman, whose itsy bitsy Entertainment Company holds the lucrative U.S. merchandising rights to "Teletubbies," are a lot more believable. If parents are using TV as a baby sitter, he told the public broadcasting magazine Current, "they might as well have a good product." And speaking to Advertising Age, Viselman (whose bio touts him as the "genius behind the sales and marketing of 'Thomas the Tank Engine'") said that having "Teletubbies" running on PBS "is like the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval."
Exactly. And that's why it's depressing to see PBS messing with the parental trust earned through years of conscientious programming like "Mister Rogers" and "Sesame Street." PBS's advertising for the show seems designed to assuage parental guilt over using "Teletubbies" as a baby sitter; the PBS Web site promises that the show will "nourish children's thinking skills, teach them to listen, help build their curiosity, expand their imagination and increase their confidence." But absent from that list is the lesson most important to Wood (whose company, Ragdoll Productions, has created scores of kids' shows), and to Viselman, and to the BBC and PBS: "Teletubbies" teaches toddlers how to be good little TV-watching soldiers.
"Teletubbies" is indoctrination so naked and pure it's almost farcical. On the show, a human baby's face inside a sunburst in the sky functions as a visual cue, telling little viewers how they should respond to what they're seeing. And the tummy-TVs blatantly internalize TV watching, making it a part of the Tubbies' selves, a part of their doughy couch potato bodies. "Teletubbies" links TV to all the good things baby loves -- custard and breasts and full tummies. How unfortunate (snicker, snicker) for PBS that it's launching "Teletubbies" only a couple of weeks after a widely publicized Harvard School of Public Health study documenting a correlation between childhood obesity and excessive TV watching.
But while "Teletubbies" may be bad for babies, the show's not-quite-hidden agenda and dazed and confused weirdness has inspired some mischievous Tubby deconstruction among grown-up viewers. A show like Comedy Central's scatological cartoon phenomenon "South Park," for instance, is its own graffiti (you can't possibly trash it better than the show trashes itself), but the bland, jolly fascism of "Teletubbies" practically invites you to take your best subtextual pot shot. So, to the BBC's dismay, gay groups in Britain hailed Tinky Winky (the purple one with the coat hanger coming out of his head) as the first queer hero of children's TV because he often carries around a big red purse. And on the Web, there are dozens of Tubby parodies, all of them more clever than the show.
The amusing Teletubbies Conspiracy Site places the Tubbies in an Orwellian scenario where they "spend most of their lives in abject fear, nervously awaiting the moment when the omnipresent windmill with its mind controlling red rays" will single one out to be "subjected to an ordeal of telly torture as an example to the others." The British humor webzine Palindrome offers a droll, Monty Pythonesque entry called Teletubbies: The True Story, which purports to be a natural history journal containing observations about the mysterious species "Tubbis tele" ("The actual act of Teletubby procreation has never been observed, although several mating rituals have been recorded. A common one involves two Teletubbies running towards each other, then colliding in mid-air ...").
The anti-Tubby jokes are so funny because they're grounded in truth -- "Teletubbies" is indoctrination, it is mind-control, it is a transparent attempt to institute brand-recognition and consumer craving in the youngest, most innocent viewers. "To be free to learn, children must be free to dream," gushes the manifesto for Viselman's itsy bitsy Entertainment Company.
Free to dream -- as long as they dream of Tubbies.
SALON | April 3, 1998