Saturday, February 6, 2010

Henry Wiggen: Action Hero?

All due respect to the title character of this blog, my favorite fictional character of all time is Travis McGee.

McGee is the hero of a series of 21 novels written by author John D. McDonald from the 1960s all the way through to the '80s. McDonald was appreciated for his literary fiction (terrific books like Condominium and The Executioners, the title of which was later changed to match its big-screen adaptation - Cape Fear), but he was most well-known for Travis McGee.

The McGee books - which all had colors in their titles, like Nightmare in Pink and A Deadly Shade of Gold and The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper - were usually published as pulp-fiction mysteries. But the writing was anything but pulp. McDonald, who died in 1986, was a masterful writer.

A little background - Travis McGee is a beach bum who lives on a 52-foot houseboat called the Busted Flush (he won it in a card game). The boat is tied up at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Fort Lauderdale, Florida. To make money he is, in his own words, a "salvage consultant." Basically, he finds lost items. If somebody takes something of value from you, McGee will get it back and keep half its value as his fee. Because getting half of your lost fortune back is a whole lot better than nothing. McGee takes his retirement in installments between jobs.

I first became interested in Travis McGee when my dad gave me a stack of recommended books. Some I liked and some I didn't, but among the pile was a book called "Cinnamon Skin." It's the next-to-last book in the series. I read it in record time and absolutely loved it. I raided his libraries for more McGee books and found others at used book stores until I had about 13 in all. A few years later for Christmas, my wife bought me the remaining books in the series to complete my collection.

A couple weeks ago I picked up my dusty copy of "The Deep Blue Good-By," the first book in the McGee series, because it's written in first person. My own novel-in-progress is also in first-person, and I wanted to see how McDonald used the technique to his advantage. Before long I was pulled into the story and decided to read it through.

On Page 74, something caught my attention. McGee is trying to work his way next to a rich businessman, whom he hopes will help lead him to a lost fortune. But the beach bum looks somewhat unusual in a business suit. This is what he says:

I checked myself in a full-length mirror. I smiled at Mr. Travis McGee. A very deep tan is a tricky thing. If the clothing is the least bit too sharp, you look like an out-of-season ballplayer selling twenty pay life."


Fans of this blog know Henry "Author" Wiggen is a ballplayer who, in the off season, sells life insurance.

I chalked this up to an unusual coincidence and kept reading. Then I came across this passage on Page 85. McGee is on an airplane, and being flirted with by a large-boned stewardess "styled for abundant lactation." Then McDonald drops this bomb:

...I had the curious feeling I had met her somewhere before, and then I remembered where - in that valuable book by Mark Harris, Bang the Drum Slowly, the stewardess that Author runs into when he is on his way out to Mayo's.

Holy crap.

Travis McGee was a Henry Wiggen fan!

Astounded over this discovery, I realized McGee and Wiggen aren't so different. McGee was a professional athlete, too, a tight end for the Detroit Lions. Wiggen and McGee both have an interesting perspective on life, one that becomes jaded as their perspective novel series continue. Both are ladykillers, although Henry settles down with Holly while McGee remains a confirmed bachelor. Both have well tuned bodies, Author a brilliant pitcher, McGee with reflexes so quick he has never once needed a flyswatter. In "A Ticket for a Seamstitch," Henry shows kindness toward a tender fallen bird of a woman; McGee makes a practice of this throughout the series.

In another life, could Henry Wiggen have been an action hero instead of a baseball star?

I like to think McGee and Wiggen were cut from the same cloth.

--Matt Kelsey

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