Pontifications: Christopher Lowe
Christopher Lowe is the author of Those Like Us, a collection of interlocking short fiction published in 2011 by Stephen F. Austin State University Press and When You’re Down By the River, a just-released fiction chapbook from Batcat Press. The title story appears in the current edition of Pembroke Magazine. Born and raised in Jackson, MS, Lowe has an MFA from McNeese State University in Lake Charles, LA, where he is a faculty member in the graduate creative writing program.
Here, Lowe muses on John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee detective novels and how they've shaped his writing and reading experiences. For more from the author, visit http://christopherlowefiction.com. And while the getting's still good, pick up your copy of When You're Down By the River here.
Me and Travis McGee
I read The Deep Blue Goodbye on a condominium patio, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. I bought the book because, at 14, I was deeply devoted to Dean Koontz, a writer who, based on the interviews he gave, appeared to be deeply devoted to John D. MacDonald.
The week before we left for our vacation, my mother took us to the bookstore. I picked up a copy of The Deep Blue Goodbye. It was a Florida book, and I was going to Florida. It was logical.
During the days in Destin, my mother went to a local church to conduct training sessions in the Catechesis of the Good Shepard. I stayed with my brother in the condo. We told our mother that we would go to the beach or the swimming pool, but mostly, we stayed upstairs. I sat on the patio in my swimsuit, let my skin shade darker, and read about Travis McGee.
Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Travis McGee, beach bum detective, shaggy knight errant, lives on a houseboat at Slip F-18, Bahia Mar, Ft. Lauderdale. He won the boat in a poker game. He took his retirement early, pays for it by acquiring things that have been lost or stolen for half of their worth. He is a big, shambling, raw-boned fellow. A drinker of gin. A lover of sandy-rumped beach girls. Screw smoky offices in Los Angeles. Forget the snub-nosed .38 and poor disposition. McGee is genial, fun, violent, sexy. Imagine James Bond in khaki shorts. Imagine one of the Hardy Boys as a 30-something who’s discovered what fun it is to sip a beer and go fishing. McGee is, in short, exactly what a 14-year-old would want in a detective.
A Gravel Road Just Outside Columbus, MS
A brief, incomplete list of the aspects of the McGee novels that I didn’t much care about between the ages of 14 and 20:
- the mechanics of plot and form
- the trajectory of the central characters (McGee and his friend Meyer) from book 1 to book 21
- the language
- the environmentalism that saturates each book in one form or another
- the sexual, racial, and economic politics of each mystery, carefully layered in by MacDonald
So now I’m 20, and I’m driving on a dirt road – something I have done quite a bit of since moving from Jackson (the big city!) to Columbus (the small town!) for college. Of the two sounds that bombard me in this moment – 1. rocks bouncing and pinging off the little Sentra, 2. Darren McGavin’s silky-smooth audiobook narration of The Lonely Silver Rain – MacDonald’s precise words are the ones that I won’t be able to pull my memory. I’ll remember how each pop of rock against undercarriage sounded, remember vividly the feel of tires slip-sliding, remember the uncertainty of going too fast on an unpaved road, but I won’t remember a single sentence that I listen to.
The words I will remember from this year come from writers who will affect my adult years the way MacDonald affected by teen years. In twelve years, when I sit down to write an essay explaining how I feel about a writer who was one of the most transformative figures in my life, I will be able to quote whole chunks of The Sun Also Rises and The Pugilist at Rest and The Things They Carried, but I won’t remember a line of the book I’m listening to as I careen down this gravel road. I won’t remember anything from the other McGee books, either. But look, that doesn’t matter.
On this night, Tim O’Brien’s novel is on the seat beside me, but MacDonald’s words are filtering into every open space, the volume a few notches too high.
Ft. Lauderdale, FL
She promised me this one, last thing. We weren’t even together anymore, had broken it off ahead of our paths diverging: her to grad school in Miami, me to an MFA in Louisiana. Still, I said yes to the long trip, the 18 hours in a U-Haul with the accumulation of her four years in Mississippi rattling in the back. We made the drive, breakdowns and all, in two days, and once we’d unloaded the thing, she kept her promise.
We drove the empty truck north, found parking that was too expensive, and walked to Slip F-18, Bahia Mar.
There is an image, imprecise and foggy, of Bahia Mar that existed in my mind before I saw the place for what it really was. Now, I can’t unsee the reality of it. MacDonald writes in nearly every book about the disappearing version of Florida. McGee is, more than anything else, a chronicler of change. Houseboat to yacht, beach to condominium, local to tourist. I stood beside my ex-girlfriend and let go of McGee just a little.
When I arrived in Lake Charles two months later, I didn’t include John D. MacDonald or Dean Koontz in my list of favorite writers.
It’s the same town, really. I go back, and I have beer with old friends, and it’s all the same as it ever was. Always more boring that you expect. Jobs, kids, all the clichés of adulthood.
My favorite bar has closed, and I’d like to find significance there, would like to use it as a marker to differentiate then from now, but even if it was open, the 19 year olds who go to my college wouldn’t have the same experience I did because they’re too busy having the exact same experience I did. We trundle along into our lives. I haven’t read MacDonald in a long time.
Lake Charles, LA
The sun is still low when we leave in the mornings. To get from our apartment to my daughter’s daycare, we turn onto a small bridge, one of the many that litter Lake Charles. We are in the heart of the city, so the canal that runs beneath the bridge is devoid of life other than some ancient turtles and fish you don’t want to eat.
My daughter sings to herself, and I turn the wheel, and the tires catch bridge as a white heron rises from beneath us, hovers, wings beating beside my daughter’s window. I take my foot off the gas, and her song shifts to a cry of “Bird! Daddy, a bird!” and I am back again, with McGee in a fishing boat beneath some south Florida bridge as the birds rise around him. Soon, a woman’s body will fall, dropped from a great height, and the mystery will start again, as it always does, but in this moment, it’s me and McGee watching something brief and beautiful before it is gone forever.