Hey all. Gerry Boyle here. The other day I’m chatting with the good people at the library in Scarborough, Maine, when I get the question, “Who are your influences?” I cut to the chase and tell them: “John D. MacDonald and his hero, Travis McGee.” And I see this fellow in the audience smile and nod.
The guy turns out to be an acquaintance of mine from Colby days named Dick Cass. Dick is a writer recently relocated to Maine from Connecticut. And he gets in touch later and explains the smile and nod. Dick, it turns out, knows Travis McGee very well. In fact, he’s written about him. He explains it better than me, so I’ll let him have at it. It’s a great piece, and you don’t have to be a McGee fan to appreciate it.
Travis McGee Ruined My LIfe
By Dick Cass
Travis McGee ruined my life. If you don’t know who he is and you like your life the way it is, quit reading now and consider yourself saved.
A tall, wide-shouldered sandy-haired man with cool gray eyes, McGee is the hero of a series of popular novels – 21 in all, published from 1964-1985 – by the prolific pulp author John D. MacDonald. Each title is distinguished by a color in the title: The Deep Blue Goodbye, Bright Orange for the Shroud, The Green Ripper.
McGee drives a pickup truck named Miss Agnes, cut down from an old Rolls Royce, and lives in Bahia Mar, Florida, on a houseboat named The Busted Flush. He named the boat after the poker hand that bluffed the bet that eventually won him the boat. The boat’s owner wanted to wager his Brazilian mistress next, trying to break even, but ever the gentleman, McGee declined.
McGee’s business is salvage, which he interprets broadly as reclaiming anything of value that anyone had lost, for a fee of half its value. Practically this means he is the court of last resort for regular people duped by con men, conniving bimbos and corrupt politicians, sometimes all three. He is physically and mentally tough, he knows how to fight, and he was an environmentalist in Florida in an era when that meant dropping your beer bottles in a trash can instead of on the beach.
From the first of his adventures I read, I wanted to be him.
First of all, he lived in Florida, which meant he was warm most of the time. From my second- floor bedroom in Boston, I would look out into the snowstorms and read with disbelief about how, when it got too cold in Florida, he would put on a windbreaker. Where I came from, we wore windbreakers in the warm months.
He kept the world of work in its proper perspective. Congenitally unable to work for the Man (before that was a concept), he answered questions about his profession by saying he was taking his retirement in installments. I hadn’t entered the working world, except from the periphery – delivering political pamphlets for pocket change and stocking the milk cooler at Cumberland Farms part-time – but I knew in my core he was on to something. Even if his income came and went, earning it was in his hands, not at the whim of some faceless face “at corporate.”
Most importantly, he had a code, something arguably more important to boys than men, but it included behaviors I found easier to swallow than Hemingway’s stoic self-abnegation. McGee’s code incorporated the usual manly actions and ideals, but it also included pleasure as the birthright of anyone who lives.
McGee saw himself as knight-errant, seated on a “spavined steed” and tilting at the evil of the world on behalf of those too weak to mount their own resistance. He held his ideals – honesty, clear speaking, friendship, generosity – but he was far more brutal to himself when he failed to measure up than any post-post-modern character is today.
Women wanted him, though sometimes, unbelievably in that Playboy-ideal era, he turned them down. What a revelation for a teenage boy to hear there were times it was a better part of character to turn down an offer of sex and pour yourself a glass of Plymouth gin instead.
But Travis McGee’s deepest effect on me was the knowledge you could be a man and own an introspective nature. This sounds ridiculous in twenty-first century America, but in 1965, nothing about that was clear. McGee was never afraid to question what he was doing and why, but it never kept him from acting. That I could think my thoughts without worrying about my manliness was gold. I read widely as a boy, but McGee was the first male fictional hero I believed in.
No one would call these novels literature, though my friend Tom Doulis makes a pretty good case that John D. MacDonald strained the popular fiction conventions and, at times, wrote fiction that transcended the genre. I still read the series, start to finish, every few years.
The rhetoric, the attitudes toward women, are very much of a time and they don’t always travel well, but the painstaking dissection and flaying of corrupt politicians, the satisfying defeats of greedy real estate developers, loud exposures of double-dipping bureaucrats and con men and women could be ripped, as the saying goes, from the headlines today. I would give much to hear McGee’s Harvard- trained economist buddy Meyer, reluctant partner in some of his “salvage” operations, expound on the Wall Street of the subprime boom and the subsequent economic collapses.
And the psychology of the characters remains true. McGee, in self-doubt, despite his successes, never quits. The villains and the supporting casts, both good and evil, are complex believable people – any one of them could be your neighbor. McGee’s truth remains: greed is everywhere, even within us; the strong prey on the weak; and we must resist anything that diminishes people in any way.
But beyond the character and how he helped me learn the ways a man could act, the great lesson of Travis McGee’s world is that it was a meritocracy, that success was most often a result of individual effort.
Meyer, McGee’s sidekick, was an independent consulting economist, in great demand from governments and individuals across the globe. McGee’s competencies were rougher but equally potent: he could out-sly you, beat you in a fist or knife fight, design an elegant punishment for your mistaken apprehension that someone else’s property belonged to you, and always manage to leave a few dollars in the hidey-hole in the Busted Flush to further his ongoing retirement.
Neither man trusted organizations or bureaucracies, or anywhere the ability to get along was prized over a healthy self-respect. The most heinous villains in the McGee stories are the politicians or business people who use the veil of government or the corporation to hide them while they do their evil. McGee would set himself adrift in a Viking funeral before he’d plug into a cubicle.
Heady stuff for young men, even now. So here are the lessons that Travis McGee taught me:
* Work, not too hard, at something you care about.
* Take up the interests of people you can help.
*Know who you are and who you’re not.
*Never forget to take your pleasures.
*Live where it’s warm.
You can see what I mean when I say he ruined my life. You could spend your life trying for ideals like these, and never even get ahead.
Thoughts on this guest post? E-mail Dick Cass: firstname.lastname@example.org
I read all of McGee when they came out. Loved Meyer! Loved this article, too! Dee
Terrific post! I. too grew up on the series and have always wanted my own Miss Agnes. The thoughts posted here do a far better job explaining the attraction of these stories than I ever could. Gerry, thanks for adding this to the blog and Dick, thanks for articulating something I think a lot of people growing up in that era loved.
I too read and loved every single one of these books! Thank you for sharing what is a wonderful essay on one of America’s real heroes – I wish someone would step up to the plate and write a double for Travis in this day and time! Thelma Straw in Manhattan
I love these books, am reading them slowly since one day soon I will have read them ALL. I thought you did an absolutely great job of describing them (and perfectly properly with no spoilers)!
I can agree. Travis McGee ruined my life too. At least my feminist outlook. I read my first McGee in 1994. From that moment on, I wanted to live on a houseboat and solve crimes while drinking, smoking, and being objectified. McGee made pulp cool. And still is. My writing always has a part of him.