The Neon Jungle by John D. MacDonald
In the mid-'80s, as I neared the end of my lengthy career as a professional undergraduate, I became immersed in '50s pulp fiction as a sort of antidote to the classic-type literature I studied in class. The Black Lizard reprints of Jim Thompson led me to other writers of the period whose work was also coming back into print: David Goodis, Harry Whittington, Gil Brewer, and Dan J. Marlowe, to name but four. In the Summer of '86, after finally getting my degree, I went home to upstate New York (way, way upstate, as in almost Canada) for a few days before I could move into the apartment I was to share with my Malarians bandmate, Bob Medley.
I had recently discovered the work of John D. MacDonald after scooping up every dog-eared crime paperback I could find at the Amherst League of Women Voters book sale in April of that year. The first book of MacDonald's I read was The Damned, which concerns the intersecting stories of a group of people at a Mexican border crossing, and I was hooked. The effortless prose the ingeniously interwoven plots - it was clear that I was reading a master of the form.
After that, I wasn't interested in the books featuring MacDonald's popular series character Travis McGee, but his "stand alone" titles like The Brass Cupcake, The End of the Night, and The Exectutioners (better known as Cape Fear). And then I found the mother lode.
While killing time at my parents' house, I decided to see if there were any used bookstores in the area where I might indulge my obsession and stock up on crime novels. One of the women who worked at my Dad's office suggested The Paperback Browser in nearby North Lawrence. So I jumped into my T-Bird and headed there. To my amazement, the little store had thousands of '40s and '50s crime titles, many of them in their original editions, most of them for 25 cents apiece.
That Summer, I read my way through the MacDonald oeuvre, but somehow I missed The Neon Jungle. Well, 25 years later, I have corrected that oversight. I also finally got around to reading The Beach Girls, which I heartily recommend to JDM fans and devotees of Florida fiction.
The Neon Jungle tells the story of a squalid neighborhood in a fictional city somewhere on the East Coast, and centers around the Varaki family, who run the local grocery store and live in the three-story house connected to the market. As if by osmosis, tragedy hits the family hard, beginning with the sudden death of the matriarch of the clan, followed by the favorite son's death in Korea, then the teenage daughter falling in with a bad crowd, smoking reefer, having sex, and becoming a junkie before you can say "Jack Robinson." There's also the other son, Walter, who has been dipping into the till to fund his escape from Doris, his shrewish, sharp-tongued wife.
There are several villains, including Vern Lockter, the sociopath delivery boy, "The Judge," the underboss who runs the local dope trade, and Detective Rowell, a clown-faced cop who leans on anybody he thinks might be a "bad egg." Rowell's counterpart is "The Preacher," a well-meaning parole officer, and a widower who finds himself attracted to Bonny, the widow of the KIA son of Pop Varaki.
As in many of MacDonald's novels, the arcs of all the characters intersect in an act of violence, or in this case, acts of violence, a bloody denouement involving a meat cleaver.
One writer described MacDonald's sexual philosophy as "somewhat courtly," but in this book it is downright neanderthal. Bonny suggests that what Doris needs is a good beating from Walter: "I mean, if I were a man, I'd shake her until her teeth rattled. I'd cuff her until she was too dazed to cry, then I'd make love to her...and let her know the next time she turned mean, the very same thing would happen. I think force is something she would respect."
In any case, I highly recommend MacDonald for anyone who digs crime fiction, or has an interest in the sociology of the '50s. In addition to the novels, several collections of his short fiction are well worth seeking out: Seven, The End of the Tiger, and especially The Good Old Stuff and More Good Old Stuff, which collect his early pulp stories.
John D. MacDonald died at the age of 70 in December of 1986, not long after I'd discovered him. He died too young, and while he was still turning out bestsellers. I felt a pang of loss when I heard about it, and given that I was at my folks' house for the holidays, I braved the snow and drove out to North Lawrence and bought the last few titles of his that I didn't already possess.
In the late '90s, I returned to the Paperback Browser in search of more bargains, but by then, the proprietors had discovered Ebay, and the days of finding first edition Gold Medal, Dell, and Lion paperback originals for a quarter were over.