Why Travis McGee?

I love it when I encounter real treasures in trash culture. A country station playing Conway Twitty's wrenchingly wistful "Crazy in Love". A motel restaurant in Crescent City, decked-out in plastic and gilt decor, serving the tastiest prime rib in memory. Tuning in to The Simpsons and finding the best social satire on the tube coming out of those cartoon mouths.

About a year ago a friend gave me a truly tacky-looking 1960's paperback and suggested I not judge the book by its cover. Once I got into it, I discovered amazingly excellent writing, with little gems of wisdom, humor, and compassion casually slipped-in among the preposterous and inevitable sex, murder and mayhem. Classy trash! A beach book for intelligent readers! John D. MacDonald's insights on issues like environmental degradation, overpopulation, irresponsible development, and mindless materialism are as urgently relevant today as they were thirty years ago.

The basic framework of a Travis McGee story is this: Travis, a brawny combat veteran, is a self-described beachbum and salvage expert. By "salvage" he means he will retrieve something of value that was taken from its rightful owner, something the victim can't get back by himself, and keep half as his fee. He lives in a houseboat at Fort Lauderdale, drives an old Rolls-Royce which someone had converted into a pickup truck, and works only when he feels like it or when he can't refuse doing a favor.

His best friend and next-berth neighbor is Meyer, a renowned economist and goldmine of knowledge and insight. With these two characters, the author manages to find a way to say whatever he wants about humankind and the state of the world. (Click on "Selected Quotes" for some examples.)

For me the best thing about Travis is that he embodies the ideal of independence and is the very opposite of a Company Man. If MacDonald were around to write the series today, he would likely expand on that theme, comment on current and passing management fads, and make sad and ironic observations on the ways organizations are dealing with their people.