Friday, July 23, 2010

John D. McDonald: An Appreciation

When Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, and the other writers who became associated with the development of the "hardboiled" detective mystery were creating their new style of story—a style which later in film became the seeds of film noir—they were in part reacting against the constraints of the English "cozy," those tightly-plotted, carefully-constructed drawing-room mysteries epitomized by Agatha Christie. They were also inventing for the first time a distinctly American style in crime fiction writing.

Often, major changes in literary style, which this was, come about because of a renewed pursuit of realism in fiction. An old mannerist style is replaced by something more reflective of the current times, in terms of what stories are now more relevant to the times, but also in the ways in which the current times are represented. We are going through a similar major literary transition right now; the symptoms of it are all around, although some are determined to ignore them. Chandler, in his desire to pursue a more realistic fiction, made some pithy observations about social problems, not least the gulf between the have and the have-nots; and in this sense Chandler's stories meet the requirements of what novelist/critic/Medievalist John Gardner termed moral fiction.

Chandler's seven novels, at least three of which in my opinion are so good as to be unbeatably archetypal of the form, are driven by character rather than by plot. In fact, Chandler's plots are often rather weak and sketchy, compared to some other writers. His great strengths are in setting mood, poetic descriptions of people, places, and events, his dialogue which seems very natural to the ear but in fact is carefully stylized, and the progression of events in his stories which often seem close to real life in their sometimes illogical and chaotic and inexplicable drama. Chandler was a keen observer, and had a gifted ear for dialogue. In some ways Chandler's style was a rebellion against the existing constraints of the existing detective novel of that era; in other ways, his style was just the way he wrote.

What we're left with from that early era of the hardboiled detective novel is some writing that is surely amongst the best of the 20th Century. The three novels of Chandler's that I think are his best—The Long Goodbye; Farewell, My Lovely; The Big Sleep—and Hammett's best novels—including The Maltese Falcon—I would put up there with anything written in the past century in mainstream literary fiction.

Not only did Chandler et al. create a distinctly American style of crime fiction, they also created a distinctive voice in which to write. It was like Walt Whitman all over again, a surprisingly American dialect emerging from an unexpected direction. Every contemporary thriller on the best-seller lists in New York City owe a debt to these writers. Most of these latter day thrillers don't have such a distinctive style, many of them are bland by comparison, lacking poetry and sheer archetypal magnitude, but the debt is still owed to Chandler, Hammett, et al.

And one or two others.

One of these is John D. McDonald.

I came late to reading McDonald. I had been referred to his writing by other writers who I've respected. Homages and avowed influences. The enthusiast's charming invocation: Hey, if you liked that, you'll love this! Some direct tributes, one or two pastiches. Unlike Hemingway, who late in life became a self-parody, McDonald is very hard to pastiche. Finally I got around to reading McDonald, figuring if that many other writers who I like to read like to read McDonald, then there must be something there. Indeed there was.

If I were to recommend a place to start reading McDonald, honestly I'd say start anywhere. He was a prolific writer, and unlike many others who have high and low points in their careers, the quality of writing is consistently high. Or you could do what I did, finally, and start reading in the Travis McGee series. I'm fairly sure that McDonald thought of himself as a hack writer, the definition of a hack being one who writes for money rather than in the service of High Art, but like Chandler he transcends.

In some ways Chandler's Philip Marlowe and McDonald's Travis McGee are the same type of character in two different times and settings. The lone antihero, the tarnished knight always fighting against being dragged down by the evils and horrors of the lives of those they move among. Among the differences, there are many similarities. Both are soiled knights with solid personal ethics who operate within often squalid settings, often emerging at the end of a story quite scathed. One of the main differences between Marlowe and McGee, though, is that while Marlowe succeeds, perhaps unbelievably, in never really compromising his moral standards, there are a few times that McGee does cross the line, due to the necessity of action—and hates himself afterwards for doing so. McGee is even more mortal than Marlowe, in a way. Some of the finest character moments in the McGee novels are in the epilogues, when the protagonists take a long hard look at themselves, after all the main action is done.

McDonald's setting was often Florida, or the Gulf. Several of his non-series novels are also in those settings. He had a knack for showing the reader the simultaneous layers of past and present that a native sees when looking at a beloved place going through changes—often negative changes brought on by over-development, pollution, poverty, crime, and related issues. McDonald's descriptions of locale somehow manage to make us see, from within his character's viewpoint, both what they used to love about a place, what has become soiled, and what little beauty might still peek through between the billboards. McDonald was not really cynical, he was just keenly observant.

One can expect from a McDonald novel a deeply existential tone, an awareness of the ephemerality of all of life, darkening even the sunniest day, but also lightening some of the dark nights. But this existential feeling is rarely on the surface, instead it's an underpainted layer that often explains the quiet desperation of surface action. If life has no meaning, then let's keep dancing. What makes McDonald a great writer is precisely this ability to give the reader many layers of meaning simultaneously, always subtly and without fanfare. Mainstream so-called realistic literary fiction is rarely this genuinely realistic.

McDonald had a knack for depicting the deeply absurd aspects of even the most serious scenes, and there are times when the reader is tempted to laugh and cringe at the same time. Sometimes it's just gallows humor. But often what it is, is a writer giving us a moment of very complexly mixed emotions, many things going on below the surface, very much like real life. Like those moments in real life when you stand on a cusp of change, of decision, of liminal choice. One of the most remarkable aspects of McDonald's writing style is that you can be pulled inside this emotional complexity even as the fists are flying.

McDonald's prose style is lyrical and blunt at the same time. You get poetic descriptions of people, places, and events, and then a moment of dialogue which slaps you back into paying attention. The first person internal monologue inside Travis McGee's head will wander off into a reminiscence of the old Florida, then you're back in the moment with what's going on. This sort of associative, layered thinking is again very like real life. McGee sometimes makes mistakes because he gets distracted, or lets passion overrule good sense. Sometimes there are consequences. McGee's feeling is that it's okay to mess himself up this way, but powerfully not okay to mess up with his friends and clients and loved ones. If you've ever beat yourself up repeatedly for saying or doing something you horribly regret, you know exactly what this feels like.

The dialogue is almost always more intelligent and erudite than not. That's in part because of Meyer, McGee's good friend and neighbor who is often consulted on matters both practical and philosophical. Some have suggested that Meyer was McDonald's own alter ego within the McGee novels, and that seems possible. Certainly his use as a character who provides discourse affects the viewpoint and interpretation of events, often pivotally.

McDonald is more tightly plotted than Chandler, but again a lot of the action is character-driven, and the scaffolding of plot does not show. I think there is a need for careful plotting in crime fiction, perhaps more so than in other genres, but one way to sort the grain from the chaff is by whether or not the scaffolding shows. The less it shows, the better. McDonald's plots often feel quite surprising and unpredictable in their twists and turns as they unfold before you, yet seem quite inevitable after the fact. Character does drive a lot of the twists. The seedier the character, the better, perhaps.

I'm trying to describe a writing style that cannot be taken apart like this without making of it less than it is. I feel in some sense that I betray McDonald in the act of describing what I like about his prose. I don't want to give a false impression; McDonald may be an heir to Chandler, but I don't want to unfairly overdo the comparison. McDonald is very much his own man, with his own unique and contemporary voice. I worry that I might lead the prospective reader astray, because I am clumsy where McDonald is not.

So in the end I recommend that you go read a John D. McDonald novel for yourself. Start anywhere, and dive right in. You're in for a bracing, exhilarating, memorable, and potentially life-changing reading experience.

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Anonymous Robert Gable said...

This inspires me to pull out my Travis McGee paperbacks that I haven't read for twenty years.

5:04 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Excellent! There's no better possible response!

9:48 AM  

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