Thursday, May 01, 2008
BooksFirst - April 2008
A Purple Place For Dying by John D. MacDonald
Ballroom Of The Skies by John D. MacDonald
The Big U by Neal Stephenson
Nightmare in Pink by John D. MacDonald
Having read the middle section of Quicksilver last month but not ready to start the final third, I added to my Neal Stephenson checklist by digging out a long buried copy of his first novel, The Big U. The titular U is American Megaversity, a troubled major university where the entire campus is a series of high rise dorms sitting on top of a single large labyrinthine classroom complex. The story follows a half dozen different misfits (in the ‘geeks are good’ sort of way) as the campus slowly descends into chaos. About half way through the book, Rodents Of Unusual Size show up and then it gets really weird.
Stephenson has downplayed The Big U saying that he would prefer that readers focus on his better, later works. Still, this book shows off many of the themes and motifs he would later use to better effect in Snow Crash and Cryptonomicon. While it has a first person narrator, the storyline shifts around to the several characters that will later all interact, just like pretty much everything else he writes. We have the disillusioned student body president, the misunderstood genius, the proto-computer hacker, and one of the first ever Live Action Role Playing groups described in print. Despite being written in 1984, a lot of the technology and social matrix stuff about campus life still works and applies.
The book is wildly uneven. Stephenson has never successfully managed the end-game chaos that he sets off early in his books, and this is no exception. Although I must say I came out less confused than I did with Zodiac. Pretty much from the first page I was reminded of a J. G. Ballard minor classic called High Rise that also documents a descent into madness among a group of buildings residents. And bad, early Stephenson is still better that a lot of other books.
About the time I started doing BooksFirst posts, I had an ambition to re-read my John D. MacDonald collection, especially the Travis McGee novels, and write about them. I’m a collector of the first editions of his paperback originals and I tend to have multiple printings of each title. For the BooksFirst posts, I like to add a picture of each book I read. Usually for the accompanying cover picture I just Google the appropriate image and appropriate it (for review and comment, I consider this reasonable fair use). From now on, for the JDM novels, I am scanning the cover of the true first edition and using that even though I probably actually read a later reprint. These yellowed paperbacks from the fifties and sixties are often too fragile to physically open any more.
Nightmare in Pink was the second of the Travis McGee novels and I have always considered it one of the weaker ones. Nothing in the rereading has made me change that opinion. Travis is a beach bum with cynical shell but a core of idealism. He finances his leisurely lifestyle by righting injustices for a split of the profit. In Nightmare, his war buddy (McGee is a Korean war vet, which became increasingly anachronistic as the series dragged well into the 80s) has a sister whose fiancé got killed after discovering a secret at his high-finance office.
Travis, despite his sense of obligation to his buddy, beds the sister and has some of the best sex anybody has ever had anywhere in print. The actual descriptions are delightfully coy, but the superlatives just roll off the page. James Bond could only dream of being the stud that Travis is. Of course, the conspiracy goes deeper than anybody knows. Where the book gets a little dated is when Travis is kidnapped and kept under an LSD haze (hence the pink nightmare) until he can escape and save the day. The book predates the hippie era and the descriptions of the hallucinations are delightfully trippy but whiff of Reefer Madness.
The action all takes place in New York and there are plenty of dishy society and finance type characters. In one set-piece, Travis sets up an undercover meeting with a escort service. With these old books, I like to add a zero to any price mentioned to adjust for inflation. In the book, the call girl costs $250, which would put her in Eliot Spitzer territory today. And MacDonald’s little asides about the mechanics and logistics of high class hookers is amazingly detailed. Travis McGee never wears on me and I need to redouble my effort to reread these books.
I never did get around to posting a real review of The Deep Blue Good-By back then, so I'm including it now. John D. MacDonald had been writing for about a decade before he embarked on the serial hero stories of Travis McGee for which he would become famous. The Deep Blue Good-By is the first of the colorfully titled books in that series.
The story takes place in and around Travis McGee's Fort Lauderdale stomping grounds. A dancer (legitimate, not exotic) friend introduces him to Cathy Kerr, a troubled girl whose husband died in prison before he could tell her where he hid the stash of precious stones he smuggled out of Burma in World War II (JDM had served in that theater as well). He did tell his bunkmate Junior Allen who stalks and befriends and eventually terrorizes Cathy to get to the loot. Junior Allen is one of the great sadistic sociopaths of pulp fiction. He should have been played by Robert Mitchum, who was in Cape Fear (based on a non-McGee JDM novel). It's not giving away too much to say that Travis nearly meets his match.
Despite being the first in the series, this is one of the best Travis McGee books. It has a lot of the elements that would become the cornerstones of the series: a setting near the sea, a sociopath, a troubled vulnerable girl or two, a bone crunching fight sequence, and sardonic sociological commentary. All it is missing is an overly complicate real estate deal to be unraveled by the yet to be introduced Meyer.
I can't recommend this book enough and despite being written over forty years ago, the insights and asides are as acerbically true today if not more so.