Saturday, January 11, 2014

"Subourbon" Hell

"No, now things are colder and more cruel and more vicious. There isn't any unity. I mean people aren't living and hoping for the same things. Now it's all keyed to one idea. I've got to get mine before the roof falls in. People want sensation. They want money only because then they can buy more expensive sensations. I guess we're upper-middle-class."  

While I like all the Travis McGee novels, I’m an even bigger fan of MacDonald’s earlier novels from the 50s. Most of them are crime novels, but there are a few science fiction and otherwise thrown in. Clemmie is more a novel of manners than crime or noir. It’s a look at suburban life in the late 1950s, complete with backyard barbecues, cocktail parties, fights, secretaries, suicides, alcohol, husbands, wives, jobs, suburban malaise and adultery.

Fawcett Gold Medal
Our hero, Craig Fitz, is a 39 year old married father of two. He’s got a job at a local plant where he oversees the factory production of a variety of products. His wife, Maura, has taken their two daughters for a summer trip to visit Maura’s parents in England. Craig is left home alone with the long stretch of a dull hot summer ahead of him. Craig tried to pass the time by visiting friends and neighbors, by knuckling down on his job, doing things around the house, but things just aren't clicking for him. He’s got that middle-aged angst that haunts him in the quiet night after a few too many highballs alone. He’s bored, discontented and horny. His job is uninspiring and he has a new boss with a reputation of sweeping the staff out to cut costs. One night, Craig accepts an offer from another coworker to go out for a night of bachelor shenanigans. Before the night is through, Craig’s buddy is arrested for D and D and hauled off to the slammer, leaving Craig alone in a dark neighborhood lit by neon and whisky. While walking home, Craig passes a gin-joint and hears a fight taking place in the parking lot. One shadow is beating the hell out of another, accompanied by a girl screaming for them to stop. Half drunk, and half cocked, Craig plays the hero and breaks up the fight. The girl at the center of the fight is Clemmie. 

Clemmie is one of those dangerous girls that draw men like moths to a flame. One of those sexual vampires that can take a jerk and juice him dry and cast him aside, leaving him a ruined shell of his former glory. And Clemmie has a new guy in Craig to latch onto. One of those straight, righteous, dependable, earnest fellows that would make Daddy proud. With barely a twitch of her ass, she’s got Craig by the balls, leading him home to her warehouse apartment by the river. Ever the gentlemen, Craig tells Clemmie that he’s married. As if Clemmie gives a hot damn! After a night of wild, mindblowng sex, Clemmie makes Craig an offer the next morning.

“I think you’re good for me. I think I’m good for you. So while your Maura is in England, I offer you a summer affair. I’ll play it your way. No tricks or sly gimmicks. I shall be your available Clemmie, your summer love, and when it’s time for it to be over, we’ll shake hands, shed one tear and part forever. Will that suit your lordship?”

Right! If only it were so easy. You know, I know, Clemmie knows, and Craig knows that this is a bad deal. But Craig’s just been drained of his summertime blahs by this hot bitch in heels and there is no way he’s going to do the right thing by Maura, and himself. And so the fun begins...

This could have gone a number of ways, but MacDonald plays it straight. He lets the characters work the plot out for themselves, which is something I've always liked about MacDonald’s novels. Yes, there are the editorial intrusions here and there, when characters make long speeches against the societal ills of the world that MacDonald is known for. Nothing happens that doesn't end in a seamy melodrama. Everything is tainted by sin in this novel. Sometime it’s too much. But the pull of the story is still right there as you watch Craig’s life go inexorably down that spiral of mid-life hell.   

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