Saturday, April 21, 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.

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