Me and Travis McGee

The protagonist of John D. MacDonald's Florida crime fiction is something better than a hero — he's a useful guy.

Buyenlarge/Archive Photos/Transcendental Graphics/Archive Photos/swim ink 2 llc/Corbis Historical/Getty Images//Art: Jack Koloskus
Adam Fleming Petty
Good Reads

I love shitty crime novels. Yes, I admire the kinds of modern crime novels that feature “good writing” and are favored by my fellow literary types — your Megan Abbotts, your Tana Frenches — but I also love books whose lurid covers feature lush paintings of whiskey glasses, loaded guns, and leggy dames. Cheap mid-century paperbacks with slapdash prose, spotty characterization, and questionable politics. The kind that sell for two bucks at used book stores. The shortcomings of such books increase my fondness for them, as if I’m nursing the poor unread volumes back to health.

But my pulp habit led me to a genuine discovery in the form of Travis McGee. McGee was the creation of novelist John D. MacDonald, who wrote 21 McGee novels throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, along with dozens of other standalone novels and hundreds of short stories. MacDonald was one of those iconic mid-century crime writers, tapping away at his typewriter for a dozen hours a day, supporting his family solely by pumping out a new book every year. He was a prolific, bestselling novelist, but to me, early in my habit, he was new.

The Travis McGee novels look like other crime paperbacks of the era. Diaphanous fabrics drape the bodies of beautiful women. Jewels glitter in the mouths of grinning skulls. Open the books, however, and you’ll discover the careful work of a dedicated artist. The McGee books are fantastic, each one a small masterpiece of character, voice, and social observation. Here’s a passage from the first chapter of The Deep Blue Good-by, the first McGee novel. He voices his suspicion of the drastic changes the United States is experiencing in the booming postwar era.

I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement savings benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, deodorants, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny.
I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.

“There is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it.”

Now that sort of thing will stay with you.

McGee lives in Florida, near Miami, because of course he does. What better vantage point for observing the many varieties of American greed? His home is a houseboat, the preferred domicile of laconic bachelors, which he names the Busted Flush. If that detail isn’t enough to endear you to McGee’s brand of sardonic masculinity, I don’t know what to tell you.

McGee possesses many traits of the classic private detective, even though, strictly speaking, he isn’t one. He has no investigator’s license. He doesn’t have an office and maintains no regular hours. He does have military experience, having served in Korea, but beyond that, his employment record is irregular and unconventional. He styles himself as “a salvage operator,” available to extricate acquaintances out of whatever tawdry jam they find themselves in. With each task accomplished, McGee pockets a fee, handed under the table, from grateful friends. This being south Florida, there is no shortage of jams to entice the gullible, providing McGee with enough steady work to last him for nearly two dozen books.

A few years ago, Adam Gopnik wrote in the New Yorker about the long-running success of Florida crime fiction. “The thing about Florida crime writing isn’t just that there’s a lot of it; it’s that . . . there are few first-rate writers in Florida who aren’t crime writers.” Write a novel about Florida, and you will end up writing a crime novel. And the writer who pioneered this tradition was John D. MacDonald.

Gopnik gives a name to the genre: Florida glare. It’s a deliberate pun on “L.A. noir,” the genre that emerged in southern California during and immediately after the Second World War. L.A. noir is shadowy, urban, obsessed with movies; Florida glare is sunny, suburban, and narcotized by television. Crime in L.A. is committed at night, under cover of darkness; crime in Florida is committed at day, under a sun so bright it makes you blink. Florida crime writer James W. Hall wrote a novel whose very title invokes this phenomenon: Under Cover of Daylight.

The sleuths of early L.A. noir were self-torturing knights errant, adhering to a code of morality in a world gone wrong. Not so the protagonists of Florida glare. The moral fabric of the Sunshine State has long gone to tatters. Laws are nothing more than a means for real estate developers to pave over the Everglades. The best that McGee and those who follow in his footsteps can hope for is decency, at an individual level. That may sound cynical on its own, but a consequence of McGee’s stance is that he never looks to be the hero of the story. He has no interest in glory for its own sake.

Say it with me: The Virgin Philip Marlowe vs. the Chad Travis McGee.

But that’s overstating it. McGee is neither monk nor cad. He is a paradigmatic example of an American type. He is A Guy. And being A Guy, I would submit, is one of the best things a man can be.

Everyone wants A Guy in their lives. They want to know A Guy. They want to tell their friends, “I got A Guy.” When you find yourself entangled in trouble, to the point that no other institutions or authorities can help you, that’s when you need A Guy.

Above all else, A Guy is useful. He solves the problems no one else does. Common law husband run off with your inheritance? McGee can handle that. Niece get swindled by a con artist? McGee knows how to track him down. He is a tool precisely fitted to a specific task, like a — a socket wrench, maybe? I admit I’m not A Guy like McGee, and never will be. But I can still try, in my own modest way, with McGee as my shining example.

An equally important part of what makes McGee A Guy has to do with what he lacks. He is not heroic in a conventional sense. He does not believe he has some special destiny to fulfill. He does not risk his life in the service of abstract principles, nor recruit others to his cause. He is not idealistic; he is practical. McGee, as A Guy, is something better than a man. He is an adult.

I came across the McGee novels at a point in my life when my own status as a man was tenuous. For nearly a decade, I have been a stay-at-home father. When I first made the decision to leave my teaching job and stay home with our children, it was made for practical reasons. My wife earned more money at her job, plus she received better health benefits.

At first, I thought I could handle the change in my responsibilities, and my identity, without much trouble. I was never all that stereotypically masculine, anyway. I don’t like sports, don’t know anything about cars. I am a sensitive artiste, for crying out loud! I read poetry and write novellas! I don’t have to worry about living up to outdated gender roles!

But I quickly discovered I still possessed my own fair share of masculine insecurities. When I took my kids to story time at the library, and was the only dad in a sea of moms, I won’t lie: I felt left out, uncertain of who I was. Useless, even. Which is just wrong, factually speaking. Simply being able to stay home and raise our kids was a privilege, one which allowed my family to save money on childcare. But I found the traditional, narrow definitions of masculinity exerted a far greater hold on me than I guessed. Even when I knew I was under no obligation to live up to such definitions, I still felt judged for falling short of them.

It was in this state that I discovered Travis McGee. I picked up my first McGee volume at a used book store. I drifted over to the crime section, in the mood for a book where stuff actually happens. The old mass market paperback covers caught my eye, as they’re meant to. The cheerfully vulgar designs were a welcome change from the “book blob” aesthetic that’s afflicted literary fiction for far too long. But beyond the stylish covers and rat-a-tat dialogue, the McGee books offered me the skewed perspective on masculinity I didn’t know I craved.

Bright Orange for the Shroud, the sixth McGee novel, shows him in top form. McGee is all set to enjoy a summer consisting of nothing but fishing, sleeping in, and lounging topside on the Busted Flush. Those plans are quickly dashed when an acquaintance, Arthur Flush, stumbles aboard and passes out in his bed. Following a night of fitful sleep, Arthur relates his tale of woe. Arthur met a woman named Wilma Fermer and immediately fell under her spell. She hung on his every word and made him feel like a real man. At her suggestion, Arthur married her quickly. But once their relationship was legal, Wilma changed. She finagled Arthur into a risky real estate deal, convincing him to invest all the money he inherited from his family’s department store business in upstate New York. The deal went south, and Wilma fled, leaving Arthur penniless.

Arthur, as McGee makes out, was the subject of a long con. Wilma, it turns out, was working with local bad guy Boone Waxwell. Waxwell is a man of avaricious appetites, with a long history of treating people poorly. He’s also given to delivering monologues in delightful Floridian diction. After McGee lands a punch on him, Waxwell declaims, “Man, man, you as rough and quick as the business end of an alligator gar. Taught ol Boo a Sunday school lesson.” You can easily picture John Goodman delivering such lines and having a grand old time of it.

Everyone who gets involved with Waxwell ends up worse for their troubles. Wilma turns up dead. So do several other former business associates. McGee tracks Waxwell’s wake of destruction to one of his former homes. With Arthur’s help, he digs up the yard and finds part of the stolen money buried there in coffee cans. Better than nothing, McGee thinks. But when he returns to the Busted Flush, none else but Waxwell awaits him there. Following a scuffle that sees Waxwell tossed from the deck of the ship and impaled on a jutting mangrove tree, McGee checks Waxwell’s belongings and finds the remainder of Arthur’s lost money. McGee lets him have it at all, not even bothering to pocket a finder’s fee.

At no point during the balmy adventure does McGee involve the authorities. Upholding law and order, meting out justice and punishment — McGee has no time for such frivolous pursuits. Waxwell’s fleecing of Arthur is all perfectly legal, anyway. If the law can be twisted to such harmful ends by such awful men, how useful is it, really? Waxwell does meet justice in the form of that mangrove tree, but it’s a pratfall, a comic happenstance, devoid of the seriousness you can get with hard-boiled noir types.

This is what I love most about McGee, and what I try to learn from in my attempts to be a better man. McGee’s actions are sometimes heroic, to be sure, but he never sets out to act the hero. He doesn’t want to save the world, he just wants to help his friend.

Being useful also requires recognizing there are problems you can’t fix. For McGee, those problems usually take the form of women.

The Travis McGee novels hold up well, and I recommend them to anyone looking for sharp tales of Floridian degradation. It’s worth pointing out the books’ portrayals of women carry a certain datedness. Less so than other examples of the time period, I think. But still, be prepared for overly descriptive passages when it comes to women’s appearances.

But as characters, with their own motivations and inner lives, the women come off rather well. Like McGee, they too are adults, aiming to live their lives and enjoy themselves from time to time. Sometimes, women come to McGee needing help resolving matters beyond the help of lawyers or officers of the law. Other times, McGee will meet a woman off the clock, as it were. They will enjoy each other’s company for the better part of 200 pages. But the moment always comes when McGee winds up alone on the Busted Flush.

One of the most moving examples of this dynamic is found in Cinnamon Skin, a late entry in the series. In the midst of investigating the fallout of a mysterious boat explosion, McGee maintains a relationship with a woman named Annie Renzetti. Annie is the general manager of a hotel, highly skilled at her job. Their relationship is more than just casual, while also not quite serious.

Annie gets a job offer from another hotel. The hotel is bigger, fancier — and located in Hawaii, half a world away. She and McGee talk, halfheartedly, about McGee possibly following her out to Hawaii. Eventually, though, Annie tells McGee they’ve come to the end of the road. She tells him, “I can’t use all of myself with you because neither you nor the years will let that happen. But I can use all of myself in my work. . . I want do what I want to do because it is tricky work, and when it goes well I feel an intense satisfaction. Can you understand that?”

McGee says he can try. He wants to say more, but refrains. He returns to the Busted Flush, pours himself a drink, and thinks ungenerous thoughts. After a little while, though, he has to admit that Annie is right to do what she did.

Yes, I knew exactly what she meant. I knew exactly why she had made her decision, and I was forced to admit that no matter what I thought of it, it was the right decision for Annie Renzetti.
Then came the hard part. I had suffered loss. I had been rejected. I was the lover cast out. And when I tried to plumb the depths of my grief and my loss, I came finally upon a small ugly morsel way down in the bottom of my soul. It was a little round object, like a head with a grinning face. It said ugly things to me. It kept telling me I was relieved. I strained for the crocodile tears, but the little face grinned and grinned. It shamed me.

Every guy — every Guy — has that little face inside him. Learning to live with that pain, without inflicting it on others, is the most useful thing you can do.

Adam Fleming Petty is the author of a novella, Followers. His essays have appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Electric Literature, Vulture, and other outlets. He lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan.