Monday, July 16, 2018
Books

At his centennial, John D. MacDonald's writing still fresh

It's always a little nerve-racking to re-read the work of an author you loved years ago but haven't read since.

So let me just say it: For a guy who's turning 100, John D. MacDonald is holding up beautifully.

Next Sunday, July 24, will be the centennial of the author's birth. Born in 1916 in Pennsylvania, MacDonald became by choice a Florida writer — he moved to Siesta Key in Sarasota in 1951 and lived there until his death in 1986. It was there that he wrote his best-known works, 21 crime fiction novels about "salvage consultant" and knight errant Travis McGee, resident of the Busted Flush, Slip F-18, Bahia Mar Marina, Fort Lauderdale. Each one titled with a color, from The Deep Blue Good-by to The Lonely Silver Rain, the McGee books have sold more than 40 million copies and been the basis for several movies.

Random House has marked MacDonald's centennial over the last three years by reissuing almost all of his 70-plus novels, in trade paperback editions and, for the first time, as e-books.

In Sarasota, they've been celebrating MacDonald all year, kicking off programs in the county's libraries in January. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune has published tributes to his lasting influence by more than two dozen authors, including such luminaries as Stephen King, Lee Child and Dennis Lehane, as well as some of the many current Florida crime fiction writers to whom he was an inspiration: Tim Dorsey, James W. Hall, Randy Wayne White and more.

That months-long homage culminates on July 23 with an all-day celebration that includes a panel discussion, a plaque dedication, talks by authors (including Dorsey, John Jakes and the Times' Craig Pittman), a showing of the movie A Flash of Green (based on MacDonald's 1962 novel) and — something the writer would have appreciated — a cocktail party. (For details, go to onebooksarasota.com/events.)

My own first acquaintance with MacDonald's books came by accident. When we were in our teens, my brother Gerry and I were binge-reading California author Ross Macdonald's classic series of mysteries about private investigator Lew Archer. One of us picked up a John D. by mistake, and we had a newfound passion. We zoomed through several of the stand-alones, including The Executioners (twice made into a film titled Cape Fear), and all of the McGee books he'd written by then, digging the Florida settings and McGee's breezy tough-guy persona and racy lifestyle.

Fast-forward about 10 years and I'm a graduate student in the English department at the University of South Florida, up to my eyebrows in Middlemarch and Ulysses. But among the faculty was a professor named Edgar Hirshberg, a Yale Ph.D. who taught Victorian literature — and also edited the JDM Bibliophile, a newsletter dedicated to the books of John D. MacDonald. An enthusiastic fanboy, Hirshberg (who died in 2002) also organized MacDonald conferences and even wrote a critical book about his work — not the usual drill in that still-stodgy academic era.

It reminded me how much I loved those books and also helped introduce me to the idea of applying critical analyses to popular culture, a new idea in the 1970s — and one that has shaped my career ever since.

But one drawback of being a book critic is that you almost never have time to re-read anything; the new books shoulder the old ones out of the way. So it had been decades since I last read any of MacDonald's books — until I cracked open a crisp new copy (nice cover designs, Random House) of The Deep Blue Good-By recently.

If anything, it was even better than I remembered. MacDonald could draw vivid characters, create crackling dialogue and sketch setting with a painter's eye.

And then there's McGee. He describes himself deftly in the first novel: "that big brown loose-jointed beach bum, that pale-eyed, wire-haired girl-seeker, that slayer of small savage fish, that beach-walker, gin-drinker, quip-maker, peace-seeker, iconoclast, disbeliever, argufier, that knuckly, scar-tissued reject from a structured society." Oh, yes.

I've also re-read the book many consider MacDonald's best, Condominium. I have to stay with the McGees as my favorites, but Condominium is terrific. Published in 1977, it's set in a Florida city very similar to Sarasota, with a huge cast made up of retirees who migrated to Florida to live in new condos and the developers, investors and local officials who are happily ripping them off.

Condominium is rightly renowned for its hair-raising, merciless portrayal of the impact of a Category 5 hurricane. (Lesson No. 1: Barrier islands are not permanent geographical features, so building on them isn't such a good idea.) It's also a startlingly prescient examination of environmental degradation.

But I was more impressed than I had been when I read it years ago by the lead-in to the storm. MacDonald had an MBA from Harvard and throughout his life was a keen observer of finance and politics, and all the grubby intersections between them. His detailed depiction of the machinations behind granting permits to projects that should never be built, of developers and politicians gleefully raking in profits on projects they know will fail, is chilling — just change the names and it could be a story from tomorrow's paper.

So, if you're a fan, read MacDonald again for his centennial. If you've never read him, give him a try. And either way, you might be surprised how contemporary a 100-year-old can be.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

Comments
Tampa Bay Rowdies player Hunter Gorskie is reading about better nights and mornings

Tampa Bay Rowdies player Hunter Gorskie is reading about better nights and mornings

Hunter GorskieBecause soccer fans around the world will be watching the FIFA World Cup’s crowning game today, we decided to touch base with one of our own soccer players: Hunter Gorskie, the Tampa Bay Rowdies’ No. 27. Gorskie, a defender who played c...
Published: 07/13/18
Lori Roy’s novel ‘The Disappearing’ draws from Florida’s Dozier and Ted Bundy

Lori Roy’s novel ‘The Disappearing’ draws from Florida’s Dozier and Ted Bundy

TIERRA VERDEAuthor Lori Roy has lived in Florida since 1996, but it wasn’t until her fourth novel that she wrote a story set in the state. "I just wrote an essay for CrimeReads on the intersection of Southern Gothic and crime fiction," Roy says. "You...
Published: 07/12/18
Review: St. Petersburg author Gale Massey deals a winning debut with ‘Girl From Blind River’

Review: St. Petersburg author Gale Massey deals a winning debut with ‘Girl From Blind River’

Life has dealt Jamie Elders a lousy hand. The 19-year-old wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible from her hometown, a bleak little corner of New York state called Blind River. But she’s stuck there. In the opening chapters of ...
Published: 07/06/18
‘Barracoon’ editor Deborah Plant on discovering Zora Neale Hurston, reading Alice Walker

‘Barracoon’ editor Deborah Plant on discovering Zora Neale Hurston, reading Alice Walker

Deborah PlantWe caught up with Plant, the editor of Barracoon: The Story of the Last "Black Cargo," a newly published book by Zora Neale Hurston, after her recent appearance at the Sulphur Springs Museum and Heritage Center. The book is based on Hurs...
Published: 07/06/18

Book events: John Cinchett to discuss ‘Historic Tampa Churches’

Book TalkJohn Cinchett (Historic Tampa Churches) will discuss and sign his book at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Oxford Exchange, 420 W Kennedy Blvd., Tampa.Teacher and author Rob Sanders reads from his new children’s book, Pride: The Story of Harvey Milk and...
Published: 07/05/18
Poet Donald Hall’s ‘A Carnival of Losses,’ to be published after his death, offers essays on his life

Poet Donald Hall’s ‘A Carnival of Losses,’ to be published after his death, offers essays on his life

Donald Hall, a former U.S. poet laureate, died on June 23 at his home in Wilmot, N.H. He was 89. An influential poet for more than 60 years, the prolific Hall published more than 20 poetry collections as well as memoirs, fiction, essays, biographies,...
Updated one month ago
Review: Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ a powerful portrait of urban Indian life

Review: Tommy Orange’s ‘There There’ a powerful portrait of urban Indian life

Every American is a child of immigrants.The only difference is how long ago your forebears came here from another land, by sail or steam, on foot or by jet engine, by choice or by enslavement.The clear winners of that contest, of course, are Native A...
Updated one month ago
Review: Look inside the tent of a Gibsonton-based sideshow in Tessa Fontaine’s memoir ‘The Electric Woman’

Review: Look inside the tent of a Gibsonton-based sideshow in Tessa Fontaine’s memoir ‘The Electric Woman’

Grief can unhinge us, disconnect us from our daily lives, make us do things we’ve never done. Grief made Tessa Fontaine run away and join the circus.To be more exact, the sideshow: World of Wonders, the last traditional traveling sideshow in the coun...
Updated one month ago