Because of the county-wide celebration of John D. MacDonald’s 100th birthday, I dipped into two of his books: One Monday We Killed Them All and The Deep Blue Good-bye, Those led me to look at other Florida books by authors not necessarily known for writing about Florida, including James Michener and William McKeen.
The MacDonald books are good beach reading. One Monday We Killed Them All is narrated by a police lieutenant in a small panhandle town, whose brother-in-law has recently been released from prison where he’d been incarcerated for manslaughter. Some reviews called it ponderous; and there is indeed a lot of information about law enforcement, the judicial system and what makes a man do evil things. However, MacDonald’s turns of phrase kept me going. Describing the felon, the narrator says “Where a man doesn’t fit in the pattern of most people, you might as well try guessing how high a bird will fly on Tuesday.” He describes his wife this way: “She was a girl to stand tall and proud against you, filling your arms and your heart.” And on the Monday in question, one character described the national media concentration on the final shoot-out: “while it was going on, it was like being trapped in a fireworks factory along with a thousand starving ducks, after being rolled through an acre of poison ivy.”
The Deep Blue Goodbye introduces us to Travis McGee: “salvage consultant…knight errant.” It sets the stage for the 21 books that follow: lots of beautiful women, some damsels in distress, expensive boats, and cars, and extravagant life styles. In contrast, Travis lives aboard his boat, the Busted Flush, in a Fort Lauderdale marina. (There is a plaque at Slip F16, dedicated to the barge-like boat, designated a Literary Landmark in February, 1987). It is not really a case of “you’ve read one, you’ve read them all,” but you can count on the basics, which, in my opinion, adds to the growth and development of the character. You know Travis McGee by the end of the first book (or even before the end) and you know that he will do whatever he can to save the damsel, sail the boat, drive the car, bring the bad guys to justice, rough or legal.
Another FL book, is Matecumbe, by James Michener. The back story is almost better, for me, than the main work. Matecumbe tells the story of two women, mother and daughter, both of whom are divorced and looking to find their own way in an uncertain world. Mary Ann, the mother, struggles to keep her four girls clothed and fed after her husband leaves her. Her oldest daughter, Melissa, becomes a reference librarian in Philadelphia, and it is her story we hear. The afterword, written by Joe Avenick, details the development of Matecumbe, and his involvement with this and other works of Michener’s. He ghost-wrote parts of Michener’s major novels, including Chesapeake, and “several magazine articles that appeared under [Michener’s] name in The Saturday Evening Post and in Reader’s Digest.” After Michener died, Avenick submitted Matecumbe to the University Press of Florida. He says Michener was inspired by the symbolism and allegory of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea and felt “Instead of a fisherman, I finally have found my vehicle – two divorced women…I need Matecumbe to exhale slowly all of the symbols and allegories.” Avenick feels the resulting novella is not exactly Michener, but “Michener Plus” and suggests readers weigh “possible alternate/hidden meanings,” such as the recurring mention of the color blue. There are a number of other things to look for, and reading the afterword first may strengthen the main work for you.
For a completely different look at Florida and the Keys give Mile Marker Zero by William McKeen a try. The subtitle “The Moveable Feast of Key West” gives a clue to its contents and the jacket blurb says it all: True tales of writers and pirates, painters and potheads, guitar pickers and drug merchants in America’s southernmost city. Hunter S. Thompson, Jimmy Buffet, Thomas MGuane and a whole boatload of artists and writers “wove a web of creative inspiration,” and through it all built lasting friendships. The parties and bed-hopping tend to wear the reader out, but they are all part of what makes Key West Key West. Now the large cruise ships dock for the day and flood Duval Street with even more tourists, but I suspect you can still rub elbows with some pretty interesting people. In 1991 I had the good fortune to attend one of the Key West Literary Society seminars, where William Stryon, Peter Matthiessen, Jan Morris, Patrick Smith, Calvin Trillin, Thomas McGuane, Robert Stone and others spoke, mingled and were generally accessible in typical “Florida friendly” fashion.
Two other books on Florida are worth mentioning: Lee Standiford’s Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the spectacular rise and fall of the railroad that crossed the ocean and A Land Remembered, by Patrick D. Smith