National Book Award Winners, part 2: 1979’s The Green Ripper.

11 Aug

(In which I read all of the previous National Book Award Winners, so you don’t have to.)

Fans of genre fiction often gripe about the lack of awards given to their people. You hear this with science fiction—although as a genre sci fi novels have for decades flirted with respectability, usually in the form of the dystopian novel—fantasy, romance, horror and crime fiction. Most genre writers, until recently, flew below any literary radar[1].

The National Book Award organization shook things up in 1980. They decided to award the top honor to a mystery novel. (At the time, this included procedurals, detective stories, and crime fiction.) They picked John MacDonald’s The Green Ripper, the eighteenth novel in a series of novels about Travis McGee, a salvage consultant who repeatedly finds himself in violent and extreme situations. When I saw the cover I thought it was some type of joke. It isn’t. The book is a very fine crime novel with a punishing moral center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The cover is misleading; this is a potboiler with a melancholy center.

The Green Ripper starts with loss and ends in carnage. McGee isn’t a detective or a cop. He’s an ex-military badass looking for happiness but continually finding dissolution and death. The novel begins with the death of McGee’s girlfriend. He mourns. He drinks. He suffers. Then he investigates. His travels lead him to a Weathermen-type terrorist organization. He infiltrates. He tries to ascertain who gives the orders. Then all hell breaks loose.

The novel is simple, logical, but untidy. Mistakes happen. Some decent people die. Most of the destruction is pointless. Little is resolved. A deep melancholy permeates its pages.

MacDonald belongs to a small group of professional writers with prodigious outputs and a (fairly) consistent level of quality. (Joseph Wambaugh, Stephen King, Anne Rice, George Simenon, Arthur Conan Doyle, and John Updike, I suppose.) He has a staggering 80 plus books to his name.

MacDonald is a fine writer of action, an underrated virtue. Action is hard to do; poetic descriptions of nature are much easier. He’s also insightful, incisive and spare, with aphorisms galore. Here’s a sample passage:

“We are all at the mercy of the scriptwriters, directors and actors who work in cinema and television. Man is a herd creature, social and imitative. We learn the outward manifestations of inner stress, patterning reaction to what we have learned. And because the visible ways we react are so often borrowed, we wonder about the truth of what is happening underneath. Do I really feel pain, grief, shock, loss?”

MacDonald earned tons of accolades from writers all over the map. He kept churning out novels of every stripe. He was one of those restless souls, banging out stories on his typewriter, never satisfied, never content, driven by unseen demons to keep writing, writing, writing. I don’t know if I’ll read another of his novels, but this one was pretty damn good.


The Green Ripper is solid, professionally written and intriguing. It isn’t a great novel, however, and not a great mystery novel either.

I can think of a dozen or so mystery/crime novels that deserve top awards. The Long Goodbye is a great American novel. So are James Ellroy’s American Tabloid and James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss. David Goodis’s Shoot the Piano Player is superb. Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest and The Maltese Falcon are both amazing. James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice is perfect. Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us is fantastic. Ross MacDonald is good, Dwight MacDonald is good, George Higgins is good (The Friends of Eddie Coyle is incredible!), Patricia Highsmith is good. Fat City, A Rage in Harlem, The Killer Inside Me, I could go on and on. And Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, sort of a crime novel, is one of the great novels of my life so far.

None of these won national book awards. None of them won much of anything. The writers, almost to a person, made their living submitting to b-grade magazines and publishers. Ellroy was a drug addict, Chandler was a lush, Crumley was a drug addict, and so on. They were a tormented bunch. They had what many of the literary establishment don’t have, which is real-world, and world-weary, credibility.

The trend for the last fifteen years or so has been literary writers trying to sneak into the hard-boiled club (or other genre fiction). They try and (almost) always fail[2]. Even a writer as talented, fascinating and strange as Denis Johnson was foiled by the genre; Nobody Move is flimsy, warmed over treacle, way beneath his talents. It seems easy, but it isn’t. Noir isn’t just guns and dames and heists and double-crosses. It’s atmosphere and attitude, neither of which can be faked.


The National Book Award people picked a strange year to highlight mysteries, because 1979 was as strong as year as any for fiction. Cormac McCarthy released his magnificent Suttree[3]. Angela Carter put out the odd and creepy The Bloody Chamber. William Kennedy published the critically heralded (if disjointed and dated) Ironweed, Anais Nin released Little Birds; Charles Portis published one of my all-time favorite novels, The Dog of the South; and Tom Wolfe released The Right Stuff (which probably would have won the award if it hadn’t been a mystery year).

[1] Which isn’t a bad thing. Part of the appeal of genre fiction is its ability to be nasty, trashy, transgressive, unpredictable, and fun.

[2] No Country for Old Men is unapologetically a crime novel and very, very good.

[3] Strangely, a descendant of The Man with the Golden Arm, the first National Book Award Winner. No one points this out.


2 Responses to “National Book Award Winners, part 2: 1979’s The Green Ripper.”

  1. Sean Kilpatrick August 11, 2013 at 2:59 pm #

    Let me know if you want to read the previous 17 McGee novels-> i’m pretty sure I have them all in well-loved paperback format.

    As at least a part-time Florida native, there is one underlying theme that might resonate especially with you. He looks at Florida politics & characters, as well as the ongoing love/hate affair it has with development and the environment. It was fascinating for me to read about how his character was worried about the draining of the swamps, the ticky-tacky little row houses, and petty criminal land deals; all in the mid-60’s.


  1. National Book Award winners, part 10: 1979′s Jem, by Frederick Pohl | simoneandthesilversurfer - September 14, 2013

    […] The organization clearly wanted to spread accolades and attention to the lesser genres. A western, a pop novel, science fiction, a spy novel, two literary novels (one in paperback, the other hardcover), a crime novel and a fantasy were all given prizes. (I reviewed The Green Ripper here.) […]

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