Cinnamon Skin: Travis McGee (CBR7)

You are going to be so sick of me telling you how much I love Travis McGee. No really, you are. There are 21 books, and having just read the penultimate novel, I've decided to start at the beginning again, rather than read the last book. I'm just not ready to live in a world where there are no new McGees for me to 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."