Monday, October 6, 2014

Motiveless Malignity, Women and Travis McGee

John D. MacDonald, in the Travis McGee mystery A TAN AND SANDY SILENCE, gives us a hero in McGee that is in some ways an update on the character of Sam Spade in THE MALTESE FALCON, by Dashiell Hammett, and of Philip Marlowe, in both THE BIG SLEEP and The LONG GOODBYE, by Raymond Chandler, and that in some ways is a character all his own. This is what a good author does—he goes both with and against the grain of the genre he or she and his or her characters inhabit. In McGee, MacDonald creates a character whose modus operandi in solving crimes and whose relationships with women are significantly different than those of both Marlowe and Spade.

The last of the novels of Hammett and Chandler was THE LONG GOODBYE, from 1953. A TAN AND SANDY SILENCE hails from 1970. 1953 to 1970. From the pre-Elvis era to the final year of the Beatles’ existence. From Chevy’s with tail fins to Toyotas; from Ike to Nixon; from Korea to Viet Nam; from the conservative utopian dream of the Fabulous Fifties to the liberal dreams of the 60’s—equality, peace love truth and beauty—to the beginning of the cynical 70’s, where Nixon resigns, athletes are slaughtered in Munich, we begin to lose our world economic dominance and finally, worst of all, disco displaces rock and roll. And that was only 17 years?

One of the things that separate the 50’s from the 70’s is the popular attitude towards psychology and especially “therapy.” You never would have had the Bob Newhart show in the 50’s. In the 50’s, psychologists and psychiatrists were for crazy people, and in the 70’s you were crazy if you didn’t want to go to therapy. You wouldn’t see Marlowe or Spade analyzing suspects or themselves in the explicitly psychological fashion that McGee does in A TAN AND SANDY SILENCE, but McGee does.

McGee is still an old-school, hard-boiled private eye like Marlowe who, in THE BIG SLEEP, says that this world is not one for knights, that chivalry is dead, but then turns around and does the knightly thing, the mitzvah, the good deed, and generally tries to be a stand-up guy. McGee, however, wonders if his own macho gallantry is just a sham. He claims to be a “tinhorn knight on a rent-a-steed,” and wonders if his masculinity is really just a cover for his fear of social rejection and his fear of the death he is always courting. He even questions why he must always court such oblivion: “I’m hooked on the smell, taste, feel and the nearness of death.” This is an observation Marlowe probably wouldn’t, or couldn’t, make.

Indeed, this kind of psychologizing is not really the kind of thing that the tough guys of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction went in for. Those guys knew what was what and who was who because of what they felt in their guts, and they didn’t apply any kind of psychological scaffolding to themselves or their suspects in order to figure out how they were built.

In fact, psychology, or at least therapy, comes in for a lot of bashing in both Chandler novels, such as when one of the members of the LA police force tells Marlowe in THE BIG SLEEP that the force could stop all that murder and extortion and rape if only they could sit down with those maladjusted crooks and talk to them about their mothers. To those namby-pamby psychologist types, everything could be explained in terms of failure at some stage of development, which makes the world a less scary place, but is somewhat less than realistic. Motiveless malignity? No, just a little bit of a developmental misstep, a trip, a hiccup, at the anal or oral or phallic stage. We’ll go back and fix it, the shrinks say. Just edit the person, you might say, the way an author edits a book.

Marlowe and Spade do depend on a deep understanding of human nature, of the nature of both others and themselves, but they don’t go in for self-doubt too much. Marlowe has what he calls an “insubordination problem,” and Spade seems to have one too, but neither worries about where it comes from. And certainly you can understand someone and even yourself without resorting to the tools and methods of the I’m-Ok-You’re OK-and-everything-will-be-OK-if-we-just-learn-to-really relate- to-one-another school. It makes one wonder how Shakespeare ever got along without Freud. How did he create those characters of his, with all their repression and sublimation and projection and transference, without even knowing what those things were? Of course, if Richard II or King Lear got too in touch with themselves they wouldn’t be such great characters.

McGee and/or MacDonald also go in for the psychological analyses of others. McGee’s pal Meyer says of Paul Dissat, who uses his sister Lisa to try to extort money from Mary Dillon’s (McGee’s old friend and lover) second husband, and who kills Mary when the plot turns sour: “He’s not a madman in any traditional sense. He cannot feel guilt or shame. If caught, he would feel fury and indignation at the game’s ending too soon…… He isn’t aware of evil. Only of being caught.” It’s hard to imagine Marlowe or Spade doing such an analysis, although they would have been able to see Dissat for what he was.

McGee says of Lisa Dissat, the femme fatale of the novel: “She went away and spent a dozen years corrupting because she believed herself corrupt, debauching because she had been debauched, defiling because she was the virgin defiled.” He doesn’t just recognize the evil in her, like Marlowe would have, he looks for its origins and explains them in a typically 70’s way, a way that would have seemed alien in the 50’s.

Just as with Marlowe and Spade, there is an element of deception and cruelty in the way McGee treats women who might be called “femme fatales.” However, his relationships with other women go beyond both sex and the use of sex as a tool for manipulation. You might even say they are psychologically healthy. He has a genuinely lustful and affectionate relationship with Jillian Brent Archer, but when she offers marriage and a life of extreme wealth to him, he turns her down on the same terms Marlowe turns down Linda Lorring—he’s too used to his independence and he doesn’t want to be a lap dog, even a pampered one. Still, McGee doesn’t list the ephemeral nature of love and desire or the impossibility of relationships that are both lasting and healthy as one of his reasons for turning her down.

It is McGee’s relationship with Mary Dillon that is the healthiest of all. He nurses her back to emotional health after she breaks up with her husband, without sex being the goal of his kindness, and she turns to him for solace when she realizes there is no quid pro quo involved in their association.

Macdonald allows McGee’s quest for some kind of romantic fulfillment form a compelling subplot for the book, and he attacks the 70’s pseudo psychological babble about relationships while he is at it. He wonders aloud to Meyer whether his 70’s style enlightened sexual ethos is just bullshit: “we must not hurt each other or anyone else, darling. There has to be giving and talking on both sides… I won’t hurt you. I just want to screw you and make you a more sincere and emotionally healthy woman….it sounds like glossy sales talk. I was kidding them. I was kidding myself.” He talks about how the mystery and magic has been taken out of sex, and about how some of his progressive attitude is just because he fears commitment. Thank goodness he doesn’t use the word commitment. I just couldn’t stand to hear a hard case like him use such an effete word.

I don’t think McGee’s use of psychology in one breath to understand the criminal mind and his condemnation of it vis-à-vis sex in the next is a problem. MacDonald has merely created a complex character capable of contradiction. That complexity makes the character more believable, not less.

As for the plot, of course McGee kills Dissat. The two scenes where McGee escapes the evil killer are a little ridiculous, but I didn’t care.

OK, the same somewhat contrived plot in both the fifties and the seventies, I thought. And the same kind of black humor. When Dissat corners McGee and his friend Myer, holding a nail gun on them, McGee skewers both Dissat and the advertising industry by saying: “He was like a color still shot for those ads Canadian Club used to use. (“I never knew how challenging it could be to hold two men captive with an automatic nailing device until I tried it”).”

In the end, McGee learns to live with the contradictions within him. He tries a relationship again, takes a chance on romance, and his friend Meyer tells him that, even though he may be an adrenaline junkie whose ironic self detachment is just a silly pose: “Don’t suffer all over me McGee. You’re a good man. There is no man alive who is not partially jackass.” Even if I didn’t know that MacDonald wrote another sixty McGee novels, I could have told you that McGee, managing all those contradictions like a juggler, would be back fighting evil, too.

© 2014 Mike Welch

1 comment:

  1. One year I collected and read all of the Travis McGee books - maybe I'll go through them again. John MacD is one of my favorite writers! t.j.straw