Nov/Dec 1997  •   Salon

Sometimes I Wish I Lived on a Houseboat

by Tom Dooley

I'd been wishing I could find the time to read one of the Travis McGee novels I possess but still haven't read. I knew if I were to pick one up, though, I wouldn't be able to put it down until I'd finished it. Life as I'd constructed it in my busy little microcosm would have to take a backseat to the fictional world provided by John D. MacDonald. Of course, I couldn't afford to let that happen. There were papers to grade, clothes to wash, and yes, an editorial to write. I hadn't yet achieved (as if implying I might in the future!) the kind of carefree existence McGee enjoyed.

Well, hell, I went ahead and did it though, and 147 pages later I've come up for air.

Who's McGee, you may be asking? If you know, then you probably know why I was pining to read another of the 21 novels John D. MacDonald wrote over the span of three decades about the adventurous boat bum from Ft. Lauderdale. And once you've spent some time in McGee's shoes, you've probably found yourself wishing your own lifestyle wasn't tied to a million obligations and responsibilities, with little sense of adventure in sight. With no time, perhaps, to even sit down and read another novel when you want to.

If you haven't read any Travis McGee novels before, some words of introduction are in order. Jonathan Kellerman said they are "among the finest works of fiction ever penned by an American author." Stephen King said the author, John D. MacDonald, is "the great entertainer of our age." Perhaps the most meaningful praise was offered up by Dean Koontz, who said, "[MacDonald] captured the mood and the spirit of his times more accurately, more hauntingly, than any 'literature' writer, yet managed always to tell a thunderingly good, intensely suspenseful tale." For my part, I can attest MacDonald's were the first "real" (not children's) books I ever read, and he's still the only author who genuinely inspires me to want to write a novel today. His books were incredibly meaningful to me at 11 years of age, and they're meaningful to me now at the age of 27, and I have no reason to doubt they'll be meaningful when I'm eighty.

The premise for the Travis McGee novels is deceptively simple and, perhaps, predictable. An ex-football player lives on a houseboat in Ft. Lauderdale, enjoying his retirement while he's still young enough to enjoy it. Every so often, he does favors for people, getting their money back when they've been conned and such. He's a "salvage consultant," and he keeps half of whatever he salvages. In this way, he gets to take his retirement in four to six month bites, until the money runs low and he must look for more work.

McGee departs from private investigators and ex-cops and special forces tough guys helming the many other series available in the action/adventure/suspense genre, most notably in terms of his philosophy. He is the thinking man's action hero, extraordinaire.

There are a few things about the series that are, frankly, kind of cheesy. For example, each book is named after a color. There is the first book in the series, The Deep Blue Goodbye, and the last book, The Lonely Silver Rain. In between are such gems as The Long Lavender Look, A Tan and Sandy Silence, and Bright Orange for the Shroud. Currently, I'm reading Free Fall in Crimson. I bring up the titles only because I think many literary purists might be tempted to pass over a book with a title like Dress Her in Indigo. Don't be fooled.

Another somewhat cheesy aspect has to do with names. An academic type might have trouble taking a passage seriously with characters like Puss Killian or Daviss Grudd, or Gretel, Mits, Magoo, Preach, or Knucks. The names may be contrived, but the characters themselves are vividly realized and realistic in the best sense of the word. MacDonald gives us people just unique enough, but at the same time just predictable enough: we recognize them immediately and yet they continue to surprise.

I'd like to give you a taste of classic McGee, from Free Fall in Crimson. The passage below explains a lot about McGee, and it also informs the series as a whole. Meyer, mentioned here, is McGee's best friend: a hairy, disarming, world-class economist who inhabits a nearby boat and gives him advice from time to time. Gretel is the lady he fell in love with two novels previous, and who was murdered one novel previous. McGee hasn't quite gotten over her yet, but a recent liaison with a motel manager named Annie Renzetti is helping him along:

Meyer says that if I could, for once and all, stop my puritanical ditherings about emotional responsibility, I would be a far happier and less interesting man. In childhood I was taught that every pleasure has its price. As an adult I learned that the reprehensible and dreadful sin is to hurt someone purposefully, for no valid reason except the pleasure of hurting. Gretel, in her wisdom about me, said one night, "You are never entirely here. Do you know that? You are always a little way down the road. You are always fretting about consequences instead of giving yourself up totally to the present moment."

Add those ingredients together and stir well, and you can come up with a lasting case of psychological impotence. Meyer said to me, "You spend too much time in the wings, watching your performance onstage, aching to rewrite your own lines, your own destiny."

"And just what the hell is my destiny?"

I can never forget his strange smile. "It is a classic destiny. The knight of the windmills. The man rolling the stone up the mountain. The endlessness of effort, Travis, so that the effort becomes the goal."

Right, in a sense. But Meyer is not all that infallible. There are times. Annie had been totally now. An immersion. So vital and hungry I had no need to be the man in the wings. I turned on the handy projector in the back of my head and ran through a box of slides, of still shots of her in the underwater green of the towel over the bed lamp, when she was biting into her lip and her eyes were wide and thoughtful, and she was shiny with the mists of effort. Being the neurotic that Meyer believes I am has the advantage of giving me a far narrower focus of pleasure than if I did not truly give a damn. The now is that unexpected, unanticipated place where the mind and the body and the emotions all meet in a proper season, destroying identity, leaving only an intensity of pleasure that celebrates all parts of that triad: body, mind, and spirit.

It is the difference maybe between the gourmet and gourmand. In a world of fast food chains, the gourmet seldom eats well. But this again is too much of a celebration of sensitivity: "Oh, my God, look at how vulnerable and sensitive I am!" Which becomes a pose. And turns one into that kind of gourmet who looks for sauces instead of meat.

The only suitable attitude toward oneself and the world is the awareness of pathetic, slapstick comedy. You go staggering around the big top and they keep hitting you with bladders, stuffing you into funny little cars with eighteen other clowns, pursuing you with ducks. I ride around the sawdust trail in my own clown suit, from L.L. Bean's end-of-season sale: marked-down armor, wrong size helmet, swaybacked steed, mended lance, and rusty sword. And sometimes with milady's scarf tied to the helmet, whoever milady might be at the time of trial.

Meyer has pointed out that condition, that contradiction, which afflicts everyone who thinks at all: the more you strive to be sensible and serious and meaningful, the less chance you have of becoming so. The primary objective is to laugh.

Perhaps the colorful titles and the contrived character names are MacDonald's way of making sure we don't make the mistake of taking McGee too seriously. And yet, it's difficult not to take him seriously. This is a man with all the moxie of Mike Hammer and at least half the acuity of Hercule Poirot. He's dangerous enough to give Rambo a run for his money. On top of all that, he's capable of the kind of interior dialogue shown above.

The dilemma facing McGee is that by choosing his unattached lifestyle, he has given up a sense of purpose. He knows how to enjoy life, but enjoyment without purpose is hollow indeed. He recognizes that those of us on the other side are no better off. We've given up enjoyment as the price of purpose. Our careers and families and myriad other obligations become an elaborate web of stimulus-response mechanisms we create and to which we willingly subject ourselves. The cost is deadly. We give up our health and happiness, first and foremost. We neglect the ones we love, for whom we allegedly do these things in the first place, and as a result we spawn generations of curiously troubled kids who have attention deficit disorders or lack responsibility or worse yet, have no sense of morality. This is just one of the problems we face, and McGee knows it, so while he occasionally allows himself a bout of self-deprecation, it's hard to imagine he'll ever want to step off that houseboat onto permanent dry land.

Of course, I'm glad to have him stay right where he is. If I can't have his lifestyle, at least I can read about it. If I can find the damned time.