Don Bruns has 12 published novels and numerous short stories and anthologies. He is a novelist, advertising executive, musician, songwriter, cook, and painter who has no idea what he wants to do when he grows up. He makes his home in Sarasota, Florida. Thanks, Don, for permission to post this article.
John D and me: Don Bruns
When I wrote my first book, Jamaica Blue, I wanted Elmore Leonard's dialogue and John D. MacDonald's characters and settings.
Most fiction writers build heroes and villains out of thin air. In John D's books it was thick Florida air, with the humidity, the heat, the sweat in every pore of their body and every fabric that they wore. These weren't just characters. They were Florida characters, and there is no better study of the Sunshine State crazies than in his timeless novel, Condominium. MacDonald fabricated some of the most memorable Florida characters ever invented. Long before Carl Hiaason, Tim Dorsey or Randy Wayne White, MacDonald exposed crooked developers, loose women, real estate swindlers, and the fixed-income retiree in this epic novel.
His physical descriptions are unparalleled in modern day literature. Consider Harlin Barker, "a smallish man, pyramidal with long narrow head, sloping shoulders, wide hips and thick, muscular, hairless legs." I've never in my life heard a man described as pyramidal, yet it is so vivid. I'd recognize Harlin anywhere.
Characters, as we all do, suffered consequences for their actions. Consider Tom Shawn, a bar tender/bar owner who cheated on the drinks his patrons purchased. Cheap booze in expensive bottles. That sounds like it might just happen in Florida bars. Shawn was "five ten and weighed two sixty-five. Glossy curly black hair, bright blue eyes, boyish red lips, pink cheeks and a flawless complexion." It seems that Mr. Shawn, 41 years old, had been a running back in Georgia, had crossed up the gambling interests on a point spread in a bowl game, and had his knees broken with a ball bat. He'd gone to stock car racing and smuggling hash from Jamaica to Miami to getting shot in the stomach and drowning his partner in a pool in Miami. A normal Florida entrepreneur. But did John D invent the Florida characters, or did he just expose them?
When you read his books, especially Condominium, you know, deep in your soul, he didn't really invent them. They were people he was familiar with. Strange people, but still folks that he knew and thinly disguised. I read the book today and fervently wish that I knew the folks after which he modeled his characters.
And his settings were masterful. In a micro view, let's visit Tom Shawn's bar, The Sand Dollar, beyond the Beach Mall Shopping Plaza. "A former residence, a high-shouldered frame building made of hard pine and cypress." The ceiling was hung with nets, with glass and cork floats. Harpoons were chained to the walls. Chained, probably so none of the patrons would shoot at each other.
MacDonald set scenes in the marshy beaches with a thorough description of floral and fauna, in the big cities, in the suburbs, and he described the locales with more color than we see with the naked eye. As a reader I knew the locals better than people who live there. John was the perfect voyeur.
Read Condominium. Read any John D MacDonald book and revel in the characters and settings that this man imagined, saw, and described.
This article first appeared in the Herald Tribune, January 29, 2016
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