Joseph Wambaugh offers this advice, “When you despair of what passes for storytelling in today’s dumbed-down video ‘culture’… Turn on some Gershwin, Ellington, Cole Porter, curl up, and open to the first page of a John D. MacDonald novel. You shall be restored!”
Most of us older folks living here in Mexico are familiar with the novels of John D. MacDonald; and the name of his most famous character — Travis McGee — is easier for us to remember than the names of some of our cousins.
Travis McGee, of course, is the “tattered knight” who lives in the Fort Lauderdale marina on “The Busted Flush,” a houseboat won in a poker game. He is introspective but not a “loner.” And he loves women. Although he works occasionally at commercial salvage, what Travis McGee really likes to salvage is the wounded heart, the “broken bird,” usually a very attractive female to whom he offers his own brand of therapy in the large bed of his gently rocking boat. In middle age and very healthy, he likes to take retirement “early and often,” although he finds himself confronting greedy developers, racists, bullies, and worse too often for his own tastes.
The Damned is not a Travis McGee novel. Travis McGee didn’t make his debut until 1964 in The Deep Blue Goodbye (but it was a very successful debut, followed by twenty more Travis McGee novels). The Damned, published twelve years earlier, is nevertheless a darned good novel (and one of the central characters, Bill Danton, “the lanky Texan,” is almost a prototype for Travis McGee).
Of interest to readers of Mexico Connect, MacDonald had been traveling a lot in Mexico (eventually living both here and in Florida), and The Damned is set in Mexico. Some novels that followed, like Border Town Girl (1956) and The Empty Trap (1957) are at least in part set in Mexico. Likewise, Mexican settings are prominent in some of the Travis McGee novels, like A Deadly Shade of Gold (1965), Dress Her in Indigo (1969), The Empty Copper Sea (1978), Cinnamon Skin (1982), and The Lonely Silver Rain (1985).
Following World War II, long before he began writing novels, MacDonald was submitting dozens of short stories to the “pulps.” Finally, a popular pulp magazine, Dime Detective, sent him a check for $40 for his 4500-word short story, “The Female of the Species.” Pulp magazines were very popular entertainment in those years before television and the paperback novel. They were printed on cheap (“pulp”) paper, were usually about 7″ x 10,” and the general public loved them. They paid their authors between 1/2 cents per word to 2 cents per word, sometimes going up to 3 cents per word for well known authors. Like Dashiell Hammett (creator of Sam Spade) and Raymond Chandler (creator of Philip Marlowe) before him, MacDonald began selling consistently to the major pulps, to magazines with names like Black Mask, Doc Savage, and The Shadow; occasionally he sold a story to a “slick” (printed on glossy or “slick” paper) magazine including Esquire, Liberty, and Cosmopolitan.
By the end of 1946, after his first year of intensive writing, MacDonald had earned $6,000, enough to enjoy a middle class standard of living at that time. He was so prolific that he often wrote for some of the pulps under “house names” – like John Wade Farrell, Scott O’Hara, Peter Reed, and Robert Henry – so that a magazine could run two, three, or even four of his stories in a single issue.
In was not until 1949 that MacDonald earned his “first check with four figures to the left of the decimal point,” for a story he sold to Collier’s titled “Louise Follow Me.” During those six years following World War II, he published more than two-hundred short stories, mostly mystery and suspense, but also some science fiction, sports, and westerns. He had become his own “writing school,” teaching himself how to write, teaching himself what worked and what did not work, through the sheer, lonely, exhausting, exhilarating effort of “cranking it out.”
He was well prepared now to begin writing novels. His first novel,The Brass Cupcake, appeared in 1950, and it was published as a Fawcett Gold Medal Paperback Original. Paperback novels were just beginning to be commercially introduced and, as their popularity increased and television became available as entertainment, the pulp magazines began the inexorable decline that ended in their dying off, one by one. MacDonald says he wrote for the pulps until “the last of them were shot out from under me.”
In 1952, MacDonald hit it big. His novel The Damned became a best seller, with two million copies sold. Making use of his experiences in Mexico, The Damned tells the story of several characters waiting to take the ferry across the Rio Conchos to then heard north to the Rio Grande where they could cross on the bridge between Matamoros, Mexico and Brownsville, Texas.
Because the new ferry – purchased by some local “dolts” to impress the president – was too big and too heavy to move easily across the Rio Conchos when the water was running low, Mexican laborers had to dig, by hand, with each ferry crossing, “a channel to get the ferry close enough so that large timbers can be used as a ramp.”
As the story begins, the lead car had been waiting more than four hours. Behind it stretched a long line of cars waiting to cross on the ferry that could only carry two vehicles at a time. In these cars is our cast of characters, thrown together by circumstance, who all have their own life situations to contend with, and all of whom feel some urgency to get across the Rio Conchos and up to the border.
One of these characters is Darby Garon. Darby is a “successful man, with two kids in college, with a trim-bodied charming wife, with a good position with an oil company, with a fine home in Houston,” who, nevertheless, at age forty-four felt some “aimless restlessness,” and this led him, one hot afternoon in San Antonio, to pick up Betty Mooney, who “at twenty-three was precarious overripe” and to offer her a short fling south of the border. She agrees as long as it “isn’t a budget trip.”
Three very long (and expensive) weeks it was, but at last Darby is driving Betty back in a long, boring trip to the border only to get stuck in the long line of cars and trucks waiting to cross the Rio Conchos. He ponders what he has done, after twenty years of fidelity to his wife Moira… “Twenty years to balance against three weeks of debauchery.” Darby stares at Betty whom only three weeks earlier he had found “bountiful”:
He had tried to call it a deathless romance, a great love. And the rationalization had shattered suddenly, leaving him naked. He saw a gaunt foolish man of middle years spending his savings on a raw, big-bodied young girl with limited IQ. The pores of her cheeks and nose were unpleasantly enlarged. In conversation she repeated herself interminably, expressing childish infatuations with movie actors, TV stars, disc jockeys. Her love-making was an unimaginative compound of all the movies she had seen, all the confession stories she had read. He stared in wonder at the meaty mass of her hips, at the lactic, bovine breasts, startled that he should have thought this worth the risk of destroying his world.
Another couple, John Carter Gerrold and his wife Linda, a former model, had just honeymooned in Taxco and were now headed home. Linda wants to talk about some difficulties lurking under the surface of their marriage. “Suppose sometimes I want to whoop or holler? Dammit, I don’t want to go through life being too ladylike.” John and his mother – who flew down to spend their last week with them and to ride back with them – want Linda to be the way they a woman must be. More “ladylike.” They are both willing to patiently help Linda walk the right path. John is very agitated by the love of sex that Linda has demonstrated during the trip, but he believes, “She would get over it after a bit and take a proper wifely attitude.” The sensual and lovely Linda, on the other hand, wants to “release” John from his discomfort with sexuality (and from his mother’s control). While John’s mother rests in the car, Linda leads him down a little path and off to a hidden place near the bank of the river… where they can make love.
Del Bennicke, still another character who arrives at the crossing, “had the strut of the soldier of fortune,” was “a professional guest, and between times he had smuggled gold, worked on oil crews in Venezuela, pimped in Japan. Fists and tongue and knife had got him out of nearly every variety of trouble.” His current trouble began at a party in Cuernavaca when, after his host, a popular young bullfighter, had apparently passed out, Del went after the host’s girlfriend, a young item named Amparo.”
Del got to the little girl with neither more nor less difficulty than he had anticipated, and found it to be very good indeed, very unusual, and as torrid as an expert flamenco. And now he knew that he should have taken off right then and there, hopping a turismo back to the city. But it had been so good he was thinking in terms of just one more time, “Solamente una vez más, por favor.” But the bullfighter bounced back from what should have been a clobbering hangover.
Bill Danton – who demonstrates some Travis McGee qualities – is, through his mother Rosa, half Mexican, and “at twenty-five, he was perfectly content with his life, perfectly adjusted.” Like Travis McGee, Danton “comes to the rescue” a couple of times, most importantly when he faces down a powerful Mexican politician, Atahualpa, who was insisting his car be put at the head of the line while Danton was trying to help a stroke victim across the river and to medical help. Challenging a Mexican politician of a certain ilk could get you killed. No one was willing to do anything. Danton knew there could be retributions but even though “logic said to lay low” he chose to act. His Mexican buddy Pepe tells him, “Everyone was wise except you, Beel.”
Danton was impelled, though, because as Linda, the young bride, stood before him, her “fine eyes were on his, in helplessness and in appeal. And his father had said, many times, ‘When you have to do something right, boy, don’t stop to count how much money you got in your pants.’
And so there you have it… a few words about most of the main characters in The Damned. With the exception of Danton, the situations in which the central characters now find themselves are the consequence of very bad decisions. The long wait under the hot Mexican sun begins to bring out both their worst qualities and their best qualities, and the novel proceeds to expand both their separate stories and now the new stories that come about because they are gathered together at the river.
I like John D. MacDonald’s books. I’ve read all of the Travis McGee and most of the others. I, like millions of ordinary folks, consider myself a fan. MacDonald’s fans also include some not-so-ordinary folk… writers like Sue Grafton, Robert B. Parker, Dean Koontz, and Mary Higgins Clark. Stephen King calls him “the great entertainer of our age,” and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. says “To diggers a thousand years from now… the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”
First published in 1952
Available from Amazon Books: Hardcover