Underground Reading: One Fearful Yellow Eye by John D. MacDonald

One Fearful Yellow EyeOne Fearful Yellow Eye (1966) is the eighth novel in the adventures of Travis McGee, as penned by Pornokitsch favorite, John D. MacDonald.

The pitiful cry of an old friend brings Travis away from his Florida stomping grounds and up to snowy Chicago. Travis, as seen previously in Pink, is uncomfortable in urban places - prone to whining about the smog, the clutter and (in general) enclosed spaces. The wandering McGee is best in small towns and big oceans. Cities throw him off his stride.

Appropriately, MacDonald's best thrillers are set in small towns (Death Trap, One Monday We Killed Them All). And, likewise, many of his best character studies are based on the "growing pains" of small things becoming Big Things, with all the burdens and traps thus entailed (One More Sunday, The Crossroads). It is when he tries to write urban adventures in a big metropolis that things fall apart.

Following this trend, One Fearful Yellow Eye is a lackluster effort from Mr MacDonald - a ramshackle plot, artificially buoyed by cheap titillation.

Travis is in Chicago to help out Glory Doyle, an old friend (e.g. wrestling partner) of his. Once upon a time he rescued her, they shagged, then she broke it off to get on with her life (if you're keeping score, that's a Type 3). And get on with her life she did - Glory managed to snare a very rich doctor. A sick one, at that. 

Unsurprisingly, when the good doctor passes away, his children by his previous marriage are a little skeptical. And this skepticism turns to outright rage when his money goes missing. Poor Glory - widowed, broke and ostracized - she's got no one to turn to but Travis.

A complex, delicate situation - made all the worse when Travis crashes into it like a three-legged hippo. Within days, he's not only turned up all the dead doctor's various infidelities, but done his damndest to make sure that everyone else knows about them too. Daughter, meet mistress. Mistress, meet bastard. Bastard, meet wife. Anyone for tea?

Through this hurricane of desecrated memories, Travis does - almost - roust the right villain, but by the time he finds the baddie, the dude is already dead. Travis shrugs, shares out the money, grabs the girl and heads off to the sunset.

Were this all that One Fearful Yellow Eye had to offer, it would, at least, achieve a certain dullish mediocrity. Alas, the final third of the book combines some of MacDonald's most atrocious sexual politics with his most ridiculously fantastic plotting. 

The mystery "solved", Travis sails off with Heidi, the Doctor's daughter. [Just to recap: that means Travis has shagged the Doctor's wife, outed all of his past relationships, exposed his concealed bastard children and is now giving the full flush to his daughter as well. This is 'helping'.] Heidi's drop-dead gorgeous. It is a shame that she's... frigid. (EEEEEEEK!)

For those inexperienced with the wildly-entertaining sexual politics of mid-century fiction, "frigidity" is the worst affliction that could ever strike a woman. Lesbianism is also fairly cancerous, but at least it has erotic potential. Frigidity means that there are BOOBS and they are GOING TO WASTE. The more attractive the woman, the greater the crime. In Heidi's case, she's described as Grace Kelly with extra curves, making this the equivalent of kitten genocide. 

Frigidity is accepted in as a known medical condition. Heidi knows that she is WRONG for not wanting to have sex. God gave her lady-parts and she has FAILED to use them. Clearly, she is broken. 

Travis - generously - offers to help Heidi work through this (again, "Grace Kelly + Extra Curves = Doctor McGee is in.") For some ludicrous reason, she accepts. Before Heidi can come to her senses, Travis bundles her off to the Busted Flush, sets off for mid-nowhere and gets a-rompin'. Medically speaking, of course, this is what's best for her. (Travis, to his somewhat slimy credit, refers to this whole experience as a "reward" for good behaviour - apparently his pretense at sexual psychology is only for Heidi's benefit. He didn't shag the widow, see, so it is only karmically fair that he gets to take off with the daughter...). 

MacDonald could've ended the book at this point and not been too far over par. Sure, the patented McGee Defrosting Technique is a little slimy, but, still - not exactly unexpected. Alas, Yellow is still short the Big Violent Finish. Travis and Heidi are just getting down to some therapy when he remembers that whole "unfinished mystery" thing. 

Putting two and two together, Travis actually solves the crime and - not brilliantly - heads off to find the bad guys with Heidi in tow. A predictable bonk on the head later, and our two sex-addled protagonists find themselves in the hands of NAZIS. 

Presumably, MacDonald, ever keen to write culturally-relevant fiction had spotted some sort of now-ludicrous trend for escaped-Nazi villains. But as a Travis McGee adventure? Travis is often goofy, but always possessed of a certain gritty realism. Having one's fairly-prosaic blackmail mystery solved by the introduction of high-ranking Nazi torturers? Just a teeny bit over the top.

Readers excepted, the big loser here is poor Heidi. Just recently cured of her sexual hang-ups, spending a long, uncomfortable hour in the sweaty Teutonic paws of Herr Torturestein proves a bit of a set-back. [Just to recap: Travis has exposed all her family secrets, taken a load of her money, trapped her on a sex cruise and then gotten her captured by Nazis. This, also, is 'helping'.]

With the arguable exception of the oft-villainized Nightmare in Pink, One Fearful Yellow Eye is the worst Travis McGee novel so far. The two share much in common: the fish-out-of-water "urban McGee" syndrome, the awkward and improbable ending and extremely unsavory sexual politics. When MacDonald is at his finest, he creates works of unparalleled social insight and incredible entertainment. When he's at his worst, he writes books like this one.