|An inexcusably pulpy cover|
His first McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, appeared in 1964, and while it seemed to ride on the coattails of James Bond's runaway success, there's a lot more to it than that. Strange as it seems, the McGee books were part of a thriving culture known as 'books for men,' in an age when men - mainstream, actual men - read books. Books on war, books about cowboys, books about private detectives. Pulp writers like Zane Grey pumped out western after western, and war titles were also numerous. Somewhere along the line, (I'd say about 1980) men stopped reading, and mysteries almost died out with them, until Sue Grafton and Sara Paretzky came along with female leads to save the genre. But that's another post.
Approaching the McGee novel's from a writer's perspective, there's an awful lot to learn from the success of one of America's great mid-list genre authors. So let's tear into one specific passage, looking at its key strengths and weaknesses, to answer the one question every author needs to ask: Why should my reader keep turning the page?
This passage occurs on the second page, after McGee introduces that he's on his boat, The Busted Flush, and the location is Lauderdale, Florida.
Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. She had come over because I had the privacy and enough room. She had shoved the furniture out of the way, set up a couple of mirrors from the master stateroom, and set up her rackety little metronome. She wore a faded old rust-red leotard, mended with black thread in a couple of places. She had her black hair tied into a scarf.
She was working hard. She would go over a sequence time and time again, changing it a little each time, and when she was satisfied, she would hurry over to the table and make the proper notations on her clip board.
Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work. She stomped and huffed and contorted her splendid and perfectly proportioned body. In spite of the air conditioning, she had filled the lounge with a faint sharp-sweet odor of large overheated girl. She was a pleasant distraction. In the lounge lights there was a highlighted gleam of perspiration on the long round legs and arms.
There's nothing fancy here, it's just clean simple prose, a bunch of facts with only a few moments of inspired writing. But for a moment, let's just soak in that first sentence: Chookie McCall was choreographing some fool thing. Here are my reactions to that sentence:
1. What kind of name is that? It's great, a mix of hard consonants ending with a soft l; it speaks of a mind tuned to whimsy and seriousness in equal measure.
2. We know Chookie's a dancer, but not just any dancer, she's one who does choreography. In 1964, most men would be happy to date a dancer, but Trav has met a woman who goes one better - she 'writes' dance.
3. From 'some fool thing' we know all sorts of things. First, we know Trav doesn't know or appreciate much about dance. Second, we know that even if he doesn't care about dance, he cares enough about Chookie to let her do her job on his houseboat.
That's pretty cool, that he can pack all that information into one short sentence.
Overall this scene is a great indication of the compassion Trav feels for women. As it turns out, Trav and Chookie aren't sleeping together. As the book develops, Trav's feelings for women separate into a strange mishmash of 60's paternal chauvinist condescension with a fig leaf of equality-of-sexes neo-enlightenment. This little bit here on the boat, where Trav is both patron and companion is a great bit of foreshadowing.
The paragraph continues with a bunch of things they tell you not to do in writing school, namely start four consecutive sentences with the pronoun She. There's a lot of descriptive tour-guiding with one stellar phrase (rackety little metronome), and I'm willing to let MacDonald break a workshop 101 rule because he's given me enough confidence from the opening of the book and his 'some fool thing' line that I move along the bridge of description till we get to the payoff: 'Dancers work as hard as coal miners used to work.' Here we get a sense of Trav's appreciation for Chookie and her career even if he knows nothing about it. He's a guy with some insights. In other words, he's a voice worth listening to.
Then he spends a few sentences of pure 'male gaze,' reducing Chookie to her body and its smells and the pleasure he gets from them. It's really kind of piggy, and justified only because she's a dancer, and dancers are a reduction of body to art, but it's still a male privilege thing, which, while offensive, plays to MacDonald's audience. Which is another measure of MacDonald's talent. You can reduce McGee to sexist pig, or you can try to rationalize it by saying MacDonald created actual empowered women - and he does have a lot of strong female characters - but - and this is not a small point - you still trust McGee as a narrator. McGee is self-aware, confident, and reliable. This goes a long way in securing the trust of a reader.
You may think MacDonald wasn't smart enough to think through all these issues of gender and patrician attitudes, but later passages, where McGee thinks of himself as a modern knight errant, saving damsels and feeling guilty for bedding the women he saves, would prove you wrong. These are exactly the kinds of things writers think about, and when he was on, MacDonald was in tune with everything he was doing, and with his core audience.
And so, let's reduce everything to one rule: Find your audience, and give them a reason to keep turning the pages. Everything after that is gravy.
And that's enough for now.