Saturday, February 22, 2020

17. Slam the Big Door by John D. MacDonald

I have a later 50 cent copy. The blurb reads
"From the best-selling author of THE DROWNER,
celebrated TRAVIS MCGEE series"
Another one in the Ed Gorman list of best non-Travis McGee JDM's, Slam the Big Door walks a line between being a crime novel and a drama at first and then veers entirely into the latter.  I was disappointed, hoping for more of the former but it nevertheless ended up being quite satisfying, with both the highs and lows of John D. MacDonald.

Mike Rodenska, reporter on leave, comes to his old army buddy Troy's place in an exclusive beach community in western Florida. His wife died recently of cancer and Troy and his new wife invited him down to just relax and heal.  We get all the great world-building and social critique that makes JDM so enjoyable. Here we have an enclave of long-time outsiders who now consider themselves local. They have their club and their cocktail parties and their gossip.  It takes a while, but we start to get hints that Troy and Mary's marriage is not doing that well and that Troy may be over his head in a big business deal.  There is a great setup here, when a group of local businessmen, including a super wealthy good ol' boy, meet and plan how to break up Troy's project and take it over for good.

At this point, I got quite excited, as I was expecting a story about a battle between Mike Rodenska, journalist with character from the North coming in to defend his friend, and these local semi-corrupt developers.  There was even some nice little investigating by Rodenska.  Then, all too quickly, he meets up with the good ol' boy, impresses him with his character and basically rescues the deal for his friend.  I was like, that was it?  Where is this book going to go?  Well it turned out to be much more a psychological study of the breakdown of his friend, who had cracked up once before.  There are some of the crazy period sexual politics, including the classic sexually irresistible temptation character (as seen in the great Clemmie), here personified by horsey-looking Jerranna.  When Troy gets with her, he either has to kill her or become a total alchoholic sex fiend and of course always chooses the latter, while she doesn't seem to care one way or the other as she is just in it for "the kicks".

So despite his friend coming down and saving his ass, it all goes to shit for Troy or rather he drives himself to shit, ultimately "Slamming the big door" on his own life. I guess ultimately this was about the damage the war did to him, but weirdly JDM seems to blame the women around him just as much.*  The trigger in the end that he uses to ultimately destroy his life is his flirtatious and amoral daughter-in-law.

Despite it not going the route I had hoped for, I did end up kind of enjoying it.  Yes, it meandered when it got into the weird relationship conversations and JDM moralizes a but much even for him about the youth of today with no morals, but it also had some great passages and awesome portrayals of sordid little places, like the depressing rental cabins.

*Below is the passage when Rodenska seeks out Jerranna after she shows up in Florida and Troy starts going back to here.  He finds her in a bar next to the seedy rental cabins.

She gulped the beer with automatic greed, her long thin throat working.  The years had coarsened her.  He had detected a certain sensitivity, a capacity for imagination, in the girl in New York.  But the years and the roads, the bars and the cars and the beds and the bottles --they all have flinty edges, and they are the cruel upholstery in the dark tunnel down which the soul rolls and tumbles until no more abrasion is possible, until the ultimate hardness is achieved.  So here she sat, having achieved the bland defensive heartiness of a ten-dollar whore. 
But there was more than that.  She had retained that unique sexual magnetism which had no basis in either face or figure.  It was a dark current generated in some unthinkably primitive source, a constant pressure which tugged the male mind into grubby yet shamefully enticing imaginings.  In the back alley of the mind of every man there is a small, black, greasy pool of evil, an unawakened capacity for foulness, a place of guilt.  She could walk through your house, past all your prides and glowing purposes, ignoring your display of awards for small victories, and take you out the back door and down the alley to the brink of the blackness you have learned to ignore, and point at it and smirk with an ancient wisdom and say, "See what we found?" 
If all men are alcoholics, she is the bottle.  If all men are compulsive gamblers, she is the gaming table.  If all men are suicides, she is the knife, the rope, the bullet.  In fair exchange for your soul, she offers self-disgust and avoidable repetition.

I mean it's half-nonsense, ultimately misogynist christian morality, but so much fun to read!

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