Monday, August 18, 2014

Monday's Poetical Prose: The View from Travis McGee's Head

by Pa Rock
Poetry Appreciator

Mystery writer and itinerant philosopher, John D. MacDonald, created a fictional character in 1964  who went on to become a cornerstone of American crime and detective fiction.   Travis McGee, a Florida “boat bum” who worked as a detective primarily only when he needed the money, was featured in twenty-one novels over twenty-one years, and eventually became as essential to the American detective fiction genre as Hercule Poirot was to that of the British.

McGee was clearly John D. MacDonald’s alter ego, and all of the practical wisdom laid out by the detective was most obviously the expressed opinions of the author.  What interested or concerned the mind of John D. MacDonald was voiced by Travis McGee.

I have read many of the Travis McGee novels over the past three decades.    They always tell a good yarn, often with a fair amount of violence and mayhem, and they are always steeped in the author’s thoughts on life.    My current goal is to re-read the entire set.   Every McGee book has a color in the title.  I am currently reading book two:   Nightmare in Pink.

Today, while marching along on the treadmill in cardiac rehab, I was reading from Nightmare in Pink, a book that is set in New York City rather than McGee’s usual stomping grounds of south Florida.   As I marched and read, I came upon one of MacDonald’s / McGee’s philosophical nuggets – this one on how the world will begin to end.  I am regarding that piece, and one other, as poetry for today’s post.  They are, at the very least, very poetical shards of prose.   The following long paragraph has undoubtedly been an influence on a whole slew of movie scripts since it was first published fifty years ago in 1964:

“New York is where it is going to begin, I think.  You can see it coming.  The insect experts have learned how it works with locusts.  Until locust population reaches a certain density, they all act like any grasshoppers.   When the critical point is reached, they turn savage and swarm, and try to eat the world.   We’re nearing a critical point.  One day soon two strangers will bump into each other at high noon in the middle of New York.  But this time they won’t snarl and go on.  They will stop and stare and then leap at each others’ throats in a dreadful silence.  The infection will spread outward from that point.  Old ladies will crack skulls with their deadly handbags.  Cars will plunge down the crowded sidewalks.  Drivers will be torn out of their cars and stomped.  It will spread to all the huge cities of the world, and by dawn of the next day there will be a horrid silence of sprawled bodies and tumbled vehicles, gutted buildings and a few wisps of smoke.  And through that silence will prowl a few, a very few of the most powerful ones, ragged and bloody, slowly tracking each other down.”

Calling Mel Gibson.  Calling a young Mel Gibson!

I had barely begun processing that powerful image, when on the next page I encountered another MacDonald / McGee philosophical detour.  This time McGee was pondering his hotel room and picturing a dystopian guest accommodation of the future.  Elements of this description have also been seen in a fair number of movies.

I frowned at my sound-proofed ceiling and thought how they could improve the hotel service.  Make the rounds – manager, technician and chambermaid.  Are you happy enough, sir?  Not quite.  Gather around the bed, open the compartment in the headboard, pull out the joy tubes and slip them onto the veins, unreel the joy wires and needle them into the happy-making part of the brain.  Adjust the volume.  Is that better, sir?  Enormously.  When are you leaving us, sir?  Turn me off next Tuesday.  Thank you, sir.  Enjoy your stay in New York, sir.  Happy hallucinations.

Is the alarm set on your clockwork orange?

National Public Radio (NPR) ran a piece by Susan Stamburg last week in which she interviewed a few of the hundreds (thousands?) of young screenwriter hopefuls who take up table space in America’s coffee houses while plying their craft on laptop computers.    Maybe Starbucks should start scattering a few Travis McGee  novels about their shops just to help generate some ideas!

John D. MacDonald died in 1986, and with his passing Travis McGee grew silent.  I miss them both.


Don said...

Meyer was always my favorite of all McGee's hangers on. There was a time in the mid-80's where I think I'd read every Travis McGee novel in existence. I used to wonder when he's run out of colors to use in his titles. I sure did miss the author when he died.

Pa Rock's Ramble said...

I like Meyer as well. He's not featured in the first two volumes, and I am curious as to where he first appears in the series. MacDonald died one day before my mother, a cold December day in 1986. It was about that time that I discovered my first McGee volume in the book section at the local grocery. It was "The Lonely Silver Rain" which turned out to be the last of Travis McGee's adventures.