Underground Reading: Dress Her in Indigo by John D. MacDonald
Tuesday, October 05, 2010
Going into this book, I had dimly recalled Dress Her in Indigo (1969) as one of my favorites in the series. Happily, on re-reading it, it didn't disappoint. Combining unexpectedly tense action sequences with withering social insight, this book, the 11th in the series, may be the best so far.
Lest I get a little too gushy, Dress Her in Indigo does wrap everything up with one of the more ludicrous endings. Wildly over the top (and more than a little offensive), it at least provides good fodder for discussion. And giggling.
A friend of Meyer's, a self-absorbed banker, ignored his daughter for her entire life and - when she took off for Mexico - he put it down as a childish act of rebellion. However, when Beatrice ("Bix") dies mid-rebellion, the stuffy banker is filled with sudden pangs of guilt. He pays Travis and Meyer handsomely to travel to Mexico to piece together the story of Bix's dying days.
Did Bix have fun? Did she discover her artistic side? Was she addicted to drugs, prostituted for 4 pesos a throw and then sold to a lesbian slaver? (No reward for guessing the right answer on this one).
Although it combines many of the traditional McGee tropes (blonde, guilt, Mexico, dead women), this is (so far) a unique mixture. Travis and Meyer have, ostensibly, very little to do. And, accordingly, they start slowly. Following Bix's geographic journey is easy - even in the pre-interwebbery days the paperwork is still pretty simple to trace. And once they get to her final destination (very literally), our two gumshoes need do nothing but drink and gossip.
And, as we all know, Travis excels at drink and gossip. Throw in "shag", "fight" and "wax nostalgic", and you'll have the five pillars of Zen McGeeism.
As Meyer and Travis do their drinking and gossiping, they uncover the seedy underbelly of Mexican tourism. The American community is small, but incestuous. By wrangling a single introduction, the two snoops quickly meet every expatriate in a 100 mile radius. Despite their many differences, all of them - rich, poor, hippie, square - are linked by a certain desperate need to talk to their "own" kind. It is the first of many hints that the author drops - if there's any overriding theme in Dress Her in Indigo, it is that there's no such thing as escape.
And all the expats in America are escaping. Some have thrown themselves into art and archeology, but most are coupling their geographic separation from "society" with shameless debauchery. Drugs and sex are present in all their forms, as well as the petty (and not so petty) criminality necessary to fund them.
Travis and Meyer avoid the trap of passing easy judgement - which is only fair. The two of them are interpreted as "dull squares", "sinister blackmailers" and everything in-between. Whilst patiently enduring everyone else's response, they manage to coax out life stories a-plenty. This is where MacDonald shines. From the sex-starved British aristocrat to the speed-addicted runaways, the reader gets both sides to every story. MacDonald can create an easily-identified stereotype in a sentence - and then spend a half-chapter explaining how wrong that stereotype was.
These tiny biographies are the heart of Dress Her in Indigo. The mystery surrounding Bix's death provides a framing device, but very little drama. The poignancy is in the author's heartfelt distress about the lost generation of American youth. The best and the brightest - trying pathetically to escape from their parents' lives, and winding up as ruined shells.
MacDonald does offer some escapism of his own. For readers that tire of wall-to-wall empathy, Dress Her in Indigo abounds with a host of villainy. There's "Rocko", a cunning, drug-peddling brute who keeps his college-age cronies in check by carefully doling out random handfuls of pills. There's a (spoiler-free) mystery baddie - he's a genuine surprise, but he comes equipped with a completely believable motivation (hard not to take his side) and unbelievable modus operandi (an Aztec death-sock). And, finally, there's the aforementioned lesbian slaver, who appears just in time to conclude the book in the most ridiculous and improbably titillating fashion possible. It is a bit like MacDonald, wrapping up the book, panicked about the level of character development, and threw in some old-fashioned nekkid-wimmen-on-wimmen action to appease the drooling masses.
And, to appease own our drooling masses, here's Travis' list of conquests from Dress Her in Indigo:
- Maria (1): Historical conquest, who taught Travis how to pronounce the names of Mexican volcanoes (whilst sharing his hammock).
- Lady Becky (1-with-a-star): Lady Becky's escape is through sex - she's vowed to become the "jolly best piece of Anglo-Saxon ass in all Christendom". The good Lady spends two nights with McGee. In the first, she conquers him thoroughly. In the second, he reclaims his manliness, and leaves her a-tremble the next morning. Jolly best piece, meet the McGee Experience.
- Mary Catherine (2): Another historical romance (when did Travis hit puberty, 8?). Mary Catherine is unveiled in an anecdote about drug abuse. Travis did his best to get her off barbiturates, but it wasn't enough...
- Elena (1): Another fling, but at least not a historical one. Elena is one of a pair of local "cheeclets" (we learn the difference between "cheeclets" and "crumpets" during the book). She and her sister are travelling, and looking for some vacation romance. Travis and, surprisingly, Meyer are there to help. Again following the book's theme of fleeing and escapism, the two sister's benign search for a little holiday romance is in stark contrast to the obsessive hedonism of, say, Lady Becky.
None of these romances is particularly key to the plot - perhaps another reason that Dress Her in Indigo is one of the finer moments in the series so far. The book features a broad cast of fascinating characters, each brought to life in an sympathetic and often-surprising way. MacDonald clearly cares about his subject matter in Dress Her in Indigo, and his melancholy permeates the story from start to finish.
A final note, for series fans, there's an interesting bit where Travis indiscreetly recounts the Lysa Dean blackmail saga, complete with giving her name, to a total stranger. As well as unbelievably indiscreet, it does foreshadow some unfinished business between Travis and Miss Dean.