King Does MacDonald – and More

Just like millions of other readers, I greatly enjoy curling up with Stephen King’s writing. While King may not always receive the critical accolades, many in the know appreciate his creativity, his skill and his extraordinary ability to tell fascinating stories. From what I’ve seen, other writers tend to appreciate King more than literary critics. In turn, I’ve read King writing about the many writers he admires. High on his list is John D. MacDonald. MacDonald wrote many different genres, but perhaps is best known for his Travis McGee mysteries, all of which are set in Florida. Count me as a fan.

Thoughts of McGee haunted my reading of Stephen King’s 2008 novel, Duma Key. A national best seller, Duma Key has sold untold copies and has been optioned for a move (though not yet made). It’s an extremely well-known book. I don’t know why it took so long for me to pick it up. Perhaps it is the 600 plus pages? It’s a very heavy tome to carry around?

There’s no real need to to review or report in general about the book. The plot is easy enough to find and King’s writing is solid, throughout. Perhaps it is not his most interesting or important work (who has read them all?), but Duma Key nevertheless resonated with me for two key reasons.

First, the main character in the novel is recovering from a life-threatening accident, having nearly died in a vehicular crash. Our hero lost his arm and is in pain throughout the book. The physical condition of our protagonist, his aches, pains and limitations, shape the narrative. In 1999, King was hit by car while walking on the side of a highway. He, too, nearly died. It wasn’t difficult to see King’s perspective and thoughts in Duma’s hero.

Second, while there is but one direct reference to MacDonald in the novel, his prose, his characters, and his asides are woven throughout Duma. This was the first of King’s books to be set in Florida. It also has the kind of semi-cynical asides and observations that are reminiscent of Travis McGee. I wondered: if John D. MacDonald were to try to write a Stephen King story, would it be like Duma Key? My sense is “yes.”

Duma borrows both King’s personal history and King’s admiration of John D. MacDonald. For these reasons – above and beyond the usual good horror writing from Stephen King – are more than enough to warrant picking up Duma Key. That is, of course, if you haven’t already read it.

And if you’re at it, don’t forget read some Travis McGee.

David Potash

High-Quality Humanized Potboiler?

One of the challenges living close to Myopic Bookstore – perhaps Chicago’s best used bookstore – is that it’s convenient, inexpensive, stays open late, and (did I say this already?), is perhaps Chicago’s best used bookstore. My shelves seem to fill without planning. It’s not a lack of discipline, either on my part. There are just so much good things to read . . . .

Recently I picked up a novel by John D. MacDonald, one of my favorite writers. Known for his mysteries, MacDonald also penned more than a few stand alone novels. He wrote, wrote – and wrote some more. If you like his style – taut, cleverly plotted, every character sketched with care, ample philosophizing but rarely in a didactic manner – you will recognize his prose within a paragraph or two. It’s tight and consistently entertaining.

At a recent Myopic visit I picked up one of his books that was a complete unknown to me. Written in 1984, One More Sunday is a sprawling novel about a large and successful evangelical church in the South. Chock full with a wide range of characters, the book is also about good and bad behavior. In fact, most of it is about wickedness. It covers the loss of faith, lust, adultery, envy, lying, murder, extortion and theft. There’s enough crime and creepiness in the book that it could veer into parody.

However, MacDonald’s skill gives the reader a page-turner with tolerance, ambiguity, and more than a little reflection. He leavens the luridness with compassion. That’s a welcome trait in a book that could only become an R movie.

If you run across it, give One More Sunday a chance – especially for the beach, the vacation, or when you want a high-quality diversion.

David Potash

A Writer’s Writer and His Cats

John D. MacDonald is a brilliant writer. He is a writer’s writer, a master at clear prose and a strong narrative voice. His plots are tight, his humor insightful, and a special kind of wisdom infuses his texts. Something of an American Trollope, MacDonald writes about people but tells us much more. Steven King, Kingsley Amis, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., and many other outstanding authors have paid tribute to MacDonald. He is very good. Or was – he passed away nearly twenty years ago. House Guests

Like many other fans, my first MacDonald’s were Travis McGee mystery/thrillers. Over time I expanded to other novels by him, some short stories and the occasional non-fiction piece. The man wrote constantly and consistently well. However, I picked up The House Guests, his book about his cats and other pets, with misgivings. It is a book about his pets – two cats and a goose – or so the cover claims.

People’s fascination with cats puzzles me. Cat people talk cats. The rest of us have little to say. When my inbox features links to cat videos, their only source are the feline-obsessed. Look at rankings and ratings on the internet, though and it’s clear felines are trending. Some say that cats are poised to take over the internet. But why? Cats – and I’ve had good relationships with more than a few – are usually supremely indifferent to us. MacDonald, I was certain, was a dog person.

I had him wrong. He wrote The House Guests, in part, to settle a debt he had with the species, a way of righting a childhood wrong. He also wrote it as a love letter to the animals that made his family life so much richer. I suspect that his devotion to his cats and other pets, stemmed from the same sense of empathy. When we care about our pets, we slow down, think and feel. MacDonald understands that and much more.

Still, it is not a good book in the sense of what a book ought to be. There is no real beginning or end, save the animals’ eventual demise. (Books about animals almost always end with the animal’s death. I don’t know who made that a rule. I recognized it as a young reader after Old Yeller, Charlotte, and a children’s book of animal stories that had me weeping.) The House Guests is series of anecdotes, stories and observations from a very smart and funny man. It is warm, enjoyable, and makes you wish that you had time to visit the MacDonald family and their animals all those years ago. It is a sweet book. And in many ways, it can be easier to hear about a friend’s pets than to hear about their children.

Still, I’m not getting a cat.

David Potash