I’ve been reading, recently, in an attempt to urge my brain towards creativity, and simply because this is what I do when I’m tired, stressed, and overwhelmed. As is my usual (in both writing and reading) I’m working on more than a single book. In no particular order, that would be: Handbook of Formulating Natural Cosmetics by Anthony Dweck (work-related), Beyond Order by Jordan Peterson (superb, dense, rich and chewy), How to Draw Manga (not my style, but interesting perspective), A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf by John Muir (since my plan to become a certified naturalist is on temporary hold), Beneath Devil’s Bridge by Loreth White (Boring enough I skipped to the end, which was at least a twist), Nightmare in Pink by John MacDonald (and others of his, which are all excellent), and The Stillwater Girls by Minka Kent (how can one book get so many things so wrong, and still get that many good reviews? I mean… so very wrong. All the wrong things and I should probably do a full review on this one but it would feel like a hit piece and it would be more of a helplessly clutching my hair muttering ‘that’s not how that works, that’s not how any of this works?’)
As you can likely ascertain from my asides about each title, not all of these are good reads. I definitely don’t recommend what I call the ‘bon-bon’ books in that list, the trashy thriller suspense titles I like as a mental relief from cogitating over Muir or Peterson or even MacDonald. Those are almost always KU, or the Prime First Reads title I get for free – and it’s worth what I pay for it. No, actually, there are months I don’t even grab a free book from their offering because they all look equally terrible, and I’d be losing money in using my time trying to read one. Sometimes I get one because it’s like poking at the gross thing, just to see how gross it really is inside. Yeah, I was that kid.
The good books, though! They get me to stop, and think, and take quotes to share with friends and family. Those are food for the brain. Beyond Order, in particular, is useful to me as a writer. Peterson is explicit in his work on how stories, and storytelling, is useful for mental health and human development.
He, like MacDonald, is clear on one thing: we all need a dragon slayer. Travis McGee may seem an improbable one, a beach bum with a quixotic urge to help the helpless, but nonetheless as you read MacDonald from the beginning (Brass Cupcake) the bleakness of the Floridian sun-drenched horrors does not conceal the underlying message of heroic efforts in the face of certain failure.
Reading Peterson and MacDonald at the same time is a peculiar experience, and I think you ought to try it, as well.
I’m struck by the words of a friend, when I commented on social media that I had not read MacDonald, in spite of my interest in pulp. He said ‘remember they were written in the 60s’ and I should probably go back and ask just what that was supposed to mean. Because yes, the sex is casual in the McGee books. Sometimes. Sometimes it is very much not, and I was surprised at the poignancy and McGee’s worship of the human female, wrapped up as it is in a nice concealing package of cynicism. If the friend was trying to caution me against misogyny, I’m not seeing it. What I am seeing, though, is the other thing that characterizes books of a certain era.
Heroes, dragon slayers who may be reluctant, but when called on they ride out into the dull certain fear of death, because by their death, they may win life for those around them. Not even those they care for, but the mission is to protect. End, stop, no qualifications. They ride against dark evil, the kind of men and women who destroy for the pleasure of destruction. Not against warped villainry that the reader is urged to find sympathy for. The fight is clear-cut. The hero must win through, or all is lost.
And win, he does. At a cost. There is always a cost to the effort of becoming better, as Peterson would put it. When we stop trying to become a better person, then we stop trying to live.
How many stories center around a desire for revenge that burned out of control, leaving only destruction in it’s wake? Cautionary tales, that show us the cost of paying back that which harmed us is perhaps more than the cost of simply bearing the hurt and learning to heal from it.
It’s turning the other cheek. Only, as we see from Travis McGee, sometimes we need a dragon slayer to ride in to the rescue before the blows continue. Only this far, and no further, he drives his lance into the mark at the village’s outskirts. I will let you go, dragon, if you stay on your side. When you come at the innocent again, then the consequences will fall. Innocent? Surely. Small sins are not the same as evil incarnate, and none are fallen here beyond picking up again and dusting off to set them on their feet. Innocent, compared to the dragon.