Title: The Damned (Gold Medal 240)
Author: John D. MacDonald
"The heat hit them all, the scorching heat of Mexico, and it ate at their nerves. The stalled river ferry held them in the heat, and their nerves could stand no more."
John D. MacDonald’s 1952 novel THE DAMNED is an early, psychological thriller from the author’s pre-Travis McGee period.
The book opens on a Mexican ferryman who shows up for what he hopes will be a leisurely workday. He finds that his familiar, decrepit ferry has been replaced by a new vessel that is too large for the river and needs to be shoveled out every time it docks. As a result a long line of cars has backed up on the far shore and the tempers of the delayed travelers are rising in the heat.
This simple premise gives the novel an interesting and fairly modernist structure as it forces a number of short character portraits into a traffic jam of a novella.
The stranded characters include: a man on the run from the aftermath of a murderous love triangle; an over the hill Catskills comedian and the young sisters he is cultivating into a twin stripper act; sexually mismatched newlyweds with mother-in-law in tow; a business man stuck with the regrettable morning after partner of his first and only torrid affair; an unfortunately portrayed (though not entirely unsympathetic) gay couple with a shiv; and a threatening nativist politician.
This is the first MacDonald I’ve read, but it feels like he was going out of his way to write a novel of ISSUES. The male characters are representative of every sexual neuroses laid-out in the Kinsey Report (from a Norman Bates level mother fixation to a more general arrested adolescence) and the female characters are attached (emotionally or financially) to these deluded or impotent men. The traffic induced delay in their forward movement is making everyone look deeply at their life choices.
The characters in each car start out in their own discreet story but as each situation reaches a boiling point, consequences pass from one car into another. A stray bullet from one story travels several cars away and unnoticed ends another story. An old-fashioned gospel number—plaintively sung by the disillusioned twin strippers—emotionally moves and affects the choices of all the characters in hearing range. The way this plays out reminds me very much of Robert Altman’s Carver film, Short Cuts.
The title THE DAMNED gives the proceeding a mythological significance. The ferryman serves as Charon carrying the characters across the river and to their fates. The line of cars itself (especially as the order of crossing is a key factor in how the stories play out) feels almost like a thread of fate.
The book ends as it began with the observations of the boatman, who returns to his small house and family after the hardest and most lucrative day of work he has ever done. He sees the travelers as:
Bright toys for children. . . . The expensive ones with the painted faces and the key in the back. . . . They come to the bank of the river. The machine inside them stops. They wait. They cross the river. The machine starts up again and they go off at a furious pace.His wife tries to convince him of the travelers’ humanity and that “a wait at the river could change many lives.” But the boatman is unmoved and states that they will only “drive madly half the night and catch up with the uninterrupted shadow of themselves and nothing is changed.” Then--after the only contented, non-fraught love-making--in the book, the boatman and his wife drop off to sleep.
All in all—with its vivid setting and a unique structure--the book is a recommended read. I’m giving my copy (a solid, readable third printing) away to the next person who places an order from my Vintage Paperbacks: Mystery catalog. Include a message during checkout (or email me separately) telling me you want the book.
Categories: 1950s Sleaze and GGA, Mystery and Thrillers,