Fine. Fine. Fine.
I suppose if Leonardo DiCaprio wants to be Travis McGee in The Deep Blue Good-By, I guess I'm ok with it. Not because DiCaprio fits my image of McGee - at all - but because Good-By feels like such a different book than the later McGees. It's not as dark or broody. In fact, even with the death and horrifying crimes, the book is nearly bouncy. McGee doesn't have any scars yet, there is no mention of his time in Korea, he hasn't yet been involved in the death or injury of any friends. He's scrappy...but a fun kind of scrappy. Not yet burdened by years of defending friends and lovers against the worst humanity has to offer.
So...whatever. I guess DiCaprio with his pretty eyes, smooth skin, charitable donations, and environmental activism can play Early Travis McGee.
Good-By features Cathy, a single mom dancer who was swindled by a mean ole dude called Junior Allen. Allen spent a few years in a jail with Cathy's father who hid away scandalously-obtained riches that were unknown to his family. After Cathy's father died in jail, Allen was released, sought out Cathy's family and stole those riches. Being a classy guy, he used his new money to kidnap and torture a rich chick named Lois.
So, Trav's job is to find creepy Allen, restore some money to single mom Cathy and help heal broken rich chick Lois.
And it does it with a playfulness that I had forgotten from my original reading of the book years ago. He teases sick, stick-thin Lois into eating more, rather than manipulating her. He describes himself as "bright eyes and white teeth shining...the proper folk-hero crinkle at the corners of the eyes and the bashful appealing smile," rather than as in The Green Ripper 15 years later - "an artifact, genus boat bum, a pale-eyed, shambling, gangling, knuckly man, without enough unscarred hide left to make a decent lampshade." Even his cynicism and distrust of structure and establishment seems mild:
Maybe it isn't too late yet! Find the little woman, and go for the whole bit. Kiwanis, PTA, fund drives, cookouts, a clean desk, and vote the straight ticket, yessiree bob.
Yessiree bob? It's a different McGee than I've become accustomed to in the later books...but it's a lot of fun. It's a tidy little tale and a pretty good read.
But more on that later. Today, we're gushing over Cinnamon Skin, which was written in 1982 and is the next-to-last book in the series. Quick plot recap, because apparently some people (such as my husband) think that "plot" is an important part of novels....
Travis McGee and his best bud Meyer live on houseboats in Florida. One day, while Meyer is in Canada lecturing about economics, his boat is blown up, killing a fishing guide his niece and her new husband, Evan. Or perhaps not. Apparently Evan is the real sketchy sort who floats around the country, gets women to fall in love with him and then kills them. McGee and Meyer set out to track Evan down and reconstruct his past. They end up in Texas, upstate New York and Mexico. They meet a lot of people and do a bit of sleuthing. There is a showdown. People get shot. The end.
If you are my husband and read a book for the story, Cinnamon Skin is routine hard-boiled fiction. If you are romantic, and fall in love with philosophical beach bums who run into more than their fair share of trouble, Cinnamon Skin is a story of devotion.
McGee and Meyer have that sitting-on-the-balcony-deconstructing-the-world-drinking-scotch kind of relationship - except their balconies are boats, and I think they prefer gin. Their years of friendship has led to complete trust and understanding of each other, so when Meyer thinks he might need Trav's professional detective assistance to track down evil Evan, Trav is insulted at Meyer's reluctance to impose.
Meyer speaks first:
"You'd come help out if I come upon anything like that?"
"Gee, I don't really know. I have these tennis matches with the ambassador's daughter, and I've been thinking of getting my teeth capped. You know how it is."
"I'll pay all expenses."
"For Christ's sweet sake, Meyer!"
"I'm sorry. It's just that I'm not at home in the world the way I was."
"You holler, I'll come running."
I love that author John MacDonald writes dialogue without exposition. He's created strong characters and carefully crafts conversations so I know just how Meyer and McGee are speaking without having to be told "Meyer asked timidly" or "Travis reassured him." That's the talent of a good writer who respects the intelligence of his readers.
MacDonald also had a talent for philosophizing on the workings of the world in a way that still feels totally relevant nearly 30 (or 50) years later. These bits are my absolute favorite parts, so please indulge a large excerpt here at the end.
A lead has taken Meyer and McGee to Utica, a small city in Central New York. In a resturant bar, McGee notices a group of young political professionals with "feverish gregariousness" and wonders why they "seemed so frantic about having a good time." Meyer's response nearly made me cry. My heart is in CNY. It's where I went to college, became my own person and fell in love. John MacDonald grew up there, and I think we share the same regret for the direction the region is heading.
Meyer studied the question and finally said, "It's energy without a productive outlet, I think. Most of these Mohawk Valley cities are dying, have been for years: Albany, Troy, Amsterdam, Utica, Syracuse, Rome. And so they make an industry out of government. State office buildings in the decaying downtowns. A proliferation of committees, surveys, advisory boards, commissions, legal actions, grants, welfare, zoning boards, road departments, health care groups... thousands upon thousands of people making a reasonably good living working for city, county, state and federal governments in these dwindling cities, passing the same tax dollars back and forth. I think that man, by instinct, is productive. He wants to make something, a stone ax, a bigger cave, better arrows, whatever. But these bright and energetic men know in their hearts they are not making anything. They use every connection, every contact, every device to stay within reach of public monies. Working within an abstraction is just not a totally honorable way of life. Hence the air of jumpy joy, the backslaps ringing too loudly, compliments too extravagant, toasts too ornate, marriages too brief, lawsuits too long-drawn, obligatory forms too complex and too long. Their city has gone stale and as the light wanes, they dance."
It's not that I won't enjoy Shatner's work in the future, it's just now I realize he's actually... human. And an actor. A very funny, intelligent and interesting actor, but now I can't be sure what is real and what is marketing. His current image - the quirky spoken word poetry, the self-depreciating humor, the goofy talk-show host - all seems a result of realizing that people ...audiences... like that version of him. They give Denny Crane Emmys, so Shatner consciously and deliberately becomes what people want - including a bit of Denny Crane. His current incarnation has been engineered.
He's an actor. Even when he's speaking at a convention as William Shatner. Or accepting an award. Or giving an interview. Or walking through the airport. He's acting.
It must be exhausting.
Up Till Now is a good book. Shatner has been working as an actor for eons and his career spans many phases of interesting culture changes. He started working in TV when it was a new media and his stories of the beginning of the industry provide interesting tidbits of history.
Shatner seems honest. Both about the flops in his career and mistakes in his personal life. He knows there are former co-workers that don't like him and he accepts at least partial culpability in those relationships. The insecurity and envy of actors (including Shatner) reminded me often of 30 Rock - Shatner throwing a fit because photographers were doing a feature on Spock in a shared make-up room without Shatner's permission, or Nimoy not speaking with Shatner - at all - for over a week due to a botched joke.
Shatner (or his co-writer) is a very good story teller and knows just how much to embellish to stay believable and keep readers hanging on every word of his misadventures involving poker tournaments, horse-riding injuries, epic canoe trips, poorly planned paintball wars. His wry humor had me giggling out loud throughout the book. Shatners voice, and his unique speaking style, translate well to paper.
Shatner also seems genuinely fascinated by all aspects of life.
I recognize that I'm getting older. And I do think about my own mortality. And what I now know is that there are so many questions to which I'm never going to know the answer. We are born into mystery and we leave life in mystery. We don't know what transpired before and we don't know what's coming ahead. We don't know what life is. We don't know even the truth behind the assassination of JFK. Is there a God? What is time? There's everything we don't know.He enjoys learning and trying new things. I doubt the man has ever said "no" to a new opportunity - hence the epic canoe trips and poorly planned paintball wars.
It is a choppy book, though, with some stories sort of crammed in randomly perhaps to make a chapter longer. At times, it feels chaotic and disorienting, and we're reminded that Shatner is an old man. Or trying too hard.
I'm glad I read Up Till Now, even it adds a little bit of skepticism to my enjoyment of Shatner's work in the future. He's still a ridiculously cool dude with the ability to tell a great story.
Seriously! It is fun stuff. Nearly as fun as blocking your first lace shawl or rolling around naked in your yarn stash.
Stephanie Pearl-McPhee, aka the Yarn Harlot, is a knitter, a mum (she's Canadian), a doula, the inventor of the word "kinnearing" and a super fun writer. I've been reading her blog for a few months and finally picked up one of her books. Yarn Harlot: The Secret Life of a Knitter is described as "a sort of David Sedaris-like take on knitting," but it is really so much better. Yeah, her stories are a mix of fun and touching and mostly involve hilarity at her own expense, but Pearl-McPhee seems more honest and...well she talks about yarn and knitting a lot which I can relate to much easier than say, being a gay guy in France.
Also, to limit the Harlot's writing to a "take on knitting" is too narrow. She isn't a knitter who writes. She is a strong, self-aware, interesting woman who knows how to tell a good story and also spends a lot of time knitting.
In case you didn't know, by the way, knitting is, like REALLY cool right now. There has been a huge resurgence of fun young people learning to knit and Pearl-McPhee has been very much involved. The Secret Life of a Knitter is a collection of tales of her 30-something years as a knitter.
She gets it. She knows why people knit and she tells a good story that knitters can related to...the insanity of finishing knitted gifts hours before Christmas Day, running out of discontinued yarn with half a sleeve left to knit on your first sweater, convincing friends that wool is God's gift to people and really not at all scratchy, and explaining to your spouse why that lost double-pointed needle MUST be found even though it only cost $1 and there are a bazillion more at the store. When Pearl-McPhee described the overwhelming joy in blocking her first lace shawl, I had to put on my first shawl and restrain myself from shouting at the book "I know! Isn't it amazing?!"
The Harlot's best stories evoke honest emotions felt by all people, even if they aren't cool enough to be knitters - like the comforting an ill friend or reveling in the success of a new skill and conquering a challenging project. I loved her description of her nana - "a hard woman to love." She doesn't sugarcoat her childhood but relates honestly that, even though we love our family, sometimes it's darn hard to figure out why or how.
She's also very funny. On her teenage daughter who declared that knitting was "boring" and that she didn't want to do it:
I fear for her future. I really do. If knitting is "boring" then what's it going to take to hold her interest? Hitchhiking? Spearheading a revolution? Dropping acid? (Do kids still drop acid? That's something I should probably find out, now that my very own flesh and blood is talking about not knitting.) It's a slippery slope, I tell you. First you tell your mother that knitting is "boring" and next something horrible has happened, like drug addiction, not folding your laundry, or (God forbid!) declaring wool is "itchy."Mostly I enjoy Pearl-McPhee because we share the same passion. She gets geeky over the same little things that I love about knitting - heels in socks ("that miracle, the cunning three-dimensional heel"), capturing bits of your life in a project ("I know it looks just like a hat, but really, it's four hours at the hospital, six hours on the bus, two hours alone at four in the morning when I couldn't sleep because I tend to worry"), and the wonder of wool.
The world has come a long way, and astonishing and intriguing machines arrive every day, but there is still not a machine on this earth that will shear a sheep. Every ball of wool starts with some man or woman somewhere in the world...holding fast to a pissed-off sheep while cutting its fleece free. Every ball of wool you and I have ever knit, all the balls of wool in the world in every country in the whole history of the world thus far, came from the sweat and grit of a person wrestling a hot, dirty, furious sheep.And now that wool is on my (and the Yarn Harlot's) feet. Very cool.
So, I did what every American girl does when she's in a rut...I went shopping. I came home with books by three people I know I find entertaining: William Shatner, Julia Child and Stephanie Pearl-McPhee. Don't know the Yarn Harlot? Check out her blog. An honest to goodness book review is coming soon.