Thursday, October 19, 2006

Me And Travis McGee

Back in high school, a girl whose taste in books I respected (she was also a fan of Kurt Vonnegut and pre-movie Princess Bride) told me I should read the Travis McGee novels. Based on her recommendation, I spent one summer working my way through the seventeen book series. Part of the gimmick for the series is that all the books have a color in the title, making reading them in chronological order a tricky task. Early in the series, more than one book would come out a year, so copyright year alone wasn’t enough to figure out the sequence. Fortunately, the books are fairly self-contained and didn’t get much of a continuing storyline until late in the series.

Travis McGee, the anti-hero in rusted armor of the series, is a lanky beach bum who rights wrongs for people caught in legal gray areas for a 50% share of the net recovery. Despite this mercenary approach, Trav, as his friends and paramours call him, is an avenging angel that is always on the side of the underdog and the disenfranchised. It helps if the victim is attractive and sexually vulnerable. The books are full of the softcore obligatory sex scenes that were a fixture of trashy paperbacks of the sixties and seventies.

John D. MacDonald was a World War II veteran and an MBA’ed business refugee that cut his teeth in the same oversaturated post-war magazine market that gave Kurt Vonnegut his big break. MacDonald then moved onto the lurid cover paperback original scene before beginning the Travis McGee series.

What separates Travis McGee from Matt Helm and Remo Williams and his contemporaries is the sense of place developed form the Florida setting. While the first several books jumped around, the series eventually settled down to focus on the environmental and financial horrors in shady Florida real estate deals gone awry. The books are much more exciting than that synopsis makes them sound.

As a then-Floridian, I took particular delight in books that exposed the hypocrisy of the region. Behind the adventure there were always biting commentaries on whatever injustice MacDonald wanted to filter through his muscled alter ego. Travis eventually gained a retired economist as a sidekick, so that the more esoteric exposition could be plausibly revealed.

After I worked through the series, I read other novels by MacDonald and then I became more than a fan. I became an obsessed connoisseur. I started hunting down the yellow paged first editions of each book. I bought books about Travis McGee. I watched bad movies based on MacDonald novels. After college I had moved back to Florida and got wind of a semi-academic symposium in Sarasota on the by-then late John D. MacDonald and dragged my wife to it on a whim. There I met even more devoted fans of the man. Some had flown in from California just for the event. I had even started a now lost Geocities page that was to be the ultimate Travis McGee fan site.

Finally, on a trip through Fort Lauderdale I made it to the Holy Grail of McGee fandom, Slip F-18 at the Bahia Mar. This fictitious address at a real marina was completely imaginary until the developer actually built an F pier. The Travis fame forced the place to start numbering the slips from 101 to protect the privacy of the actual owners.

In tribute to Travis McGee, and to give literary stalkers like me a photo op, they placed a literary landmark out on the dock. In a moment of true geekdom, I made sure I immortalized my visit on film. In the next several months, I intend to recreate those heady summer days where I read the Travis McGee books as fast as I could get them by rereading them at a book a month pace. I will post a review or commentary or whatever you want to call it on The Deep Blue Goodbye soon.

Blatant Comment Whoring™: Is there a regional writer that you like just because he or she writes about places you are familiar with?


Jamy said...

I love those books too. I got hooked while I was in grad school--they were the perfect contrast to the boring, quantitative sociology articles I had to read.

Another favorite from that time is Elmore Leonard.

Jennine said...

I feel the same as you do about Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion". Who doesn't love an author who says stuff like "Selective ignorance, a cornerstone of child rearing. You don't put kids under surveillance: it might frighten you. Parents should sit tall in the saddle and look upon their troops with a noble and benevolent and extremely nearsighted gaze."

Jeff and Charli Lee said...

Headline: Yellojkt and Harmonica Man read same books!

What can I say. It doesn't happen very often :0

Elizabeth said...

Velma Wallis, an Athabaskan Indian who was born in Fort Yukon, Alaska wrote Two Old Women, Bird Girl and Raising Ourselves. But I think Two Old Women is her best by far!!

Anonymous said...

I've always loved Wilbur Smith. He writes about Africa, and although I have never been there I have learned a lot about that continent.

In fact, when my brother went there and brought back pictures, I was able to identify places based on the descriptions from the novels.

Anonymous said...

Watched Colbert, thought of you.

Anonymous said...

Oh, the Travis McGee books. Somebody recommended these to me years ago, and they've been on my reading list for a long time, but I never remembered who recommended them, or why, so they just keep sleeping down the list.

Now I know why, so I'll have to check them out.

For me, some of Larry McMurtry's books capture my home pretty well. I also really loved Mary Karr's, The Liar's Club because I grew up on the Texas Gulf Coast south and east of Houston. It's not a pretty picture she paints, but it's definitely honest.

Anonymous said...

For some reason this wouldn't post the other day:

When Spider Robinson's Callahan series was still set on Long Island (they've since moved to Key West), I picked up many clues that suggested that the stories were set in a location quite close to where I grew up. So I'm pretty sure I know exactly where the bar was located. (Famous Last Words from many of his readers.)

Since I moved down here, I enjoy reading Anne Tyler's efforts to shoehorn Baltimore streets and landmarks into her books. They don't always make a lot of sense, but this is Baltimore dammit, and we're gonna inject some Baltimore into the story.

Anonymous said...

Michael Chabon's first couple of Pittsburgh-based books were so familiar, I found myself wondering if I'd ever met the guy. In particular, the characters in "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" were exactly my age and in the same situation I was in at the time (post-college, trying to figure out who the hell we are). His descriptions of locales and people are so dead-on with my reality at the time that it's almost scary.

Looking forward to the movie, currently in production here in Pittsburgh (after a whole lot of bribery on the city's part, after they threatened to shoot in Canada). Word is that they've changed the plot quite a bit, and one of the actresses recently called us "Shitsburgh" in Rolling Stone, but looking forward to it nonetheless.

Anonymous said...

The Travis McGee books should be read in order of publication if possible because you get the progression of the Travis McGee character. This is not as important in the early books as the later works, but it will add to the experience. Some other authors whose works should be read in order for the character's evolution are Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch, Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak & Liam Campbell,John Straley's Cecil Younger,Sue Grafton's Kinsey Millhone,Robert Crais's Elvis Cole & Joe Pike...I could go on; but the point is, it adds that something extra to the story.