Thursday, February 2, 2017

Review: The Deep Blue Good-By

The Deep Blue Good-By The Deep Blue Good-By by John D. MacDonald
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

A couple days ago I saw Monty Python and the Holy Grail again. I laughed, as always, at the scene where the gang, encountering the vicious bunny guarding the final cave, tears into them. “Run away,” they shout, as the rabbit proves a menace greater than any other they’ve encountered.

In this one, the bete noire is also a rabbit. It’s what McDonald labels “rabbit culture,” his thinly veiled reference to the prevalence of what Playboy promised with its photo-shopped pictures of naked beauties whose fake willingness hides a deep need. And here as well, we see a knight overwhelmed and fleeing in terror.

On the one hand, there’s a measure of almost admirable sympathy to that view. Never mind that middle-aged Travis McGee seems always to be having to dodge the interest of such women, women who turn to him because they sense his strength and pry after it with their sexual wiles. At least (and it isn’t much) he sees beneath the veneer to a sense of the despair that mid-1960s culture represented.

Rather than see such women as fully realized humans, though, he pities them for the way they’re inclined to settle. It’s not that he envisions the lives they might have if only they valued themselves more and put themselves forward. Instead, he laments that there aren’t enough decent men to pair off with each one. It isn’t the dependence and sexualization that makes him sad. It’s that such women find themselves in a world that makes it all the harder for them to become the wives and mothers they ought to be.

The story within which that cultural sadness plays out has to do with Junior Allen, a vicious con-man lothario who imposes himself on one woman after another. He steals a fortune from a hapless family of a widow and her daughters, debases an especially lovely woman – more “lovely” than the dancers and centerfolds he also meets because of her New England breeding and family wealth – and takes up with a bunch of attractive 20 year-olds who, in McGee’s cold daylight study, have ‘flaws’ that keep them from being grade-A sex objects.

McDonald moves the mystery/pursuit forward throughout this, but there’s a clumsiness that surprises me. Secondary characters rarely have any depth to them. Many reminded me of the kinds of characters you meet in video games. They just sort of exist until the point-of-view character arrives, asks the right questions, and get the next step toward the solution.

With that, McDonald rarely goes more than 25-30 pages without moralizing about the sordid nature of the world we’ve built for them. He’s never subtle, always blunt, putting forward a pre-Reagan era cultural conservatism. As he says at one point, “Most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men.” Or, soon after, “These are the slums of the heart, and bless the bunnies. This is the new Eden, and we are making no place for them.” Meanwhile, because he has pledged temporary loyalty to his upper-class client/girlfriend/pseudo-wife, he declines the chance to have sex with the girl who actually shows him the naked photos she’s had taken and sold to girly magazines – all this aboard a boat called “the playpen.”

I understand McDonald by reputation as the most prominent heir to Hammett and Chandler in the 1950s to the 1970s period. This is the second I’ve read that suggests that’s far from true. There is some skill in the way he moves the narrative forward – there’s the occasional thumb nail sketch that makes me stand up and pay attention – but there’s an equal laziness about the form, a kind of second-rate Vegas act that knows its audience knows how the show works and has showed up just because it’s what you do when you’re in Vegas.

Put that alongside the tired and condescending view of women – and the underlying sense that the real problem isn’t so much women as the sad fact that there aren’t enough Travis McGees to satisfy all of them – and this seems as much hack work as anything by Mickey Spillane.

The final scene takes the sordidness almost to a new low. [SPOILER] There, as McGee mourns the loss of the woman he might have loved, he allows himself to accept the ministrations of a less attractive, less compelling woman. She’s wrong for him – a fact we know because she disrobes at his request rather than through any particular initiative – wrong because she has the temerity to have had a child and to have gotten early middle-aged chubby. She shows him comfort, though, and he takes it just long enough to get back on his feet. If it isn’t easy to watch McGee in his condescension, it’s even worse to see him wallowing in self-pity.

Here’s a character who understands himself as heir to Chandler’s vision of a knight conducting himself as best he can in a fallen, modern world. Chandler makes the fantasy work because, judgmental as he is of the modern world, he still recognizes himself as part of it. He’s a curator of a lost code, a writer fashioning the what-could-be of today. McDonald is a heavy-handed moralizer, someone using his detective code as a tool for a sexism that, however it looked half a century ago, seems as sad and unimaginative as his own view of the then contemporary world.

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