“I am tall, and I gangle. I look like a loose-jointed, clumsy hundred and eighty. The man who takes a better look at the size of my wrists can make a more accurate guess. When I get up to two twelve I get nervous and hack it back on down to two oh five. As far as clumsiness and reflexes go, I have never had to use a flyswatter in my life.” - Travis McGee
We are all products of our upbringing. Many things we embrace, others we reject – sometimes very deliberately. If it can be said that I discovered reading, it was because of my parents, my dad in particular. Both of my parents had night tables next to their sides of the bed, and they were both piled with reading materials – mom’s with books, magazines and sections of newspaper. Dad’s was almost entirely books; paperbacks and hardcovers haphazardly stacked, double-stacked and all delicately balanced. If they’d fallen, I’m sure the floor would have collapsed. The top layer of books always changed, whether purchased or borrowed from the Great Neck Library – history, biographies, mathematics, fiction; he read everything. But it was the bottom six levels of books that intrigued me, the ones that always stayed there, like the previous civilization’s layer at an archaeological site.
There were three distinct bodies of content in the subterranean collection. The first was about 5 years of Science Digest, a Reader’s Digest sized monthly (and a similar format) with articles about general science and the history of science. I think I first learned about “Killer” Bees and Brown Recluse spiders by reading through it – and this would have been the late 60s, early 70s. But that was just the appetizer. Digging further I found the mother lode of books for guys (no, not what you think, get your minds out of the gutter). Better than smut, real pulp - Mickey Spillane, and even better than Spillane, John D. McDonald’s Travis McGee. If you don’t know McGee (and unless you’re a guy over 50,) you probably don’t, Here’s what you need to know. He features in 21 novels written by John D. McDonald between 1964 and 1984, and all the titles are color coded.
I wanted to be Travis McGee. I think many of you, once you’ve read 3 or 4 of the series, will want to be McGee too, especially the guys. Maybe we want to see a little of him in ourselves. Travis McGee lives in Fort Lauderdale on a custom-made houseboat named The Busted Flush that he won in a poker game. McGee’s address as it were, is Slip F-18 at the Bahia Mar Marina. McGee isn’t a cop or a P.I., and he’s not a wise-guy. He’s a “Salvage Consultant.” He finds things (or fixes them) because his clients can’t do it themselves. They can’t go to the law, or they already have and the system gave up, or came to the wrong conclusion and left honest people hanging. He takes on new cases when the cash runs low, or when the victimized person is an old friend or a damsel in distress.
McGee is honorable in a way most of us would want to be, and honor and integrity – individual and national – is a significant theme throughout the series. He’s a philosopher; expounding on the despoliation of Florida, the social ills facing the US, the inability of the unfortunate to get a break, and the honor and ingenuity of the every-man. It’s inferred that he served in Korea, that he played college (and maybe some pro) football, and he’s terminally single but not on the make. There’s sex, but it’s alluded to, not described. McGee is matter-of-fact worldly and cautious, but he’s not cynical in the vein of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robichaux - though both characters share a disdain of politicians and corporatism. Florida and Louisiana may share more than the Gulf of Mexico.
McGee is grounded by his nature, but he’s an action guy, a doer. His impulse check is his friend Meyer, an Economist with an international reputation who also lives at Bahia Mar, on his houseboat the John Meynard Keynes. When it’s blown up (in a failed attempt to kill him,) he replaces it with the Thorstein Veblen. Meyer is cosmopolitan worldly, sometimes filling in the big picture for Travis, other times connecting the banking and legal dots, or finding related bits of information that McGee couldn’t do as easily.
All this of course with landlines, AM/FM radios and televisions with CRTs (Cathode Ray Tubes.) Al Gore hadn’t invented the Internet yet, and computers look like double-wide refrigerators with reel-to-reel tapes on them. In short Travis McGee is (in my mind) the anti chick-lit hero; he solves problems, he doesn’t revel in them. At the end of the day he kicks back with a Boodles over ice, not shaken – not stirred or any of that other fru fru stuff.
McGee also owns a Electric Blue, custom modified Rolls-Royce that’s been converted into a pickup truck. He calls it Miss Agnes.