The Beach Girls

Tags:  crime-fiction,

I’m not sure why this book is called The Beach Girls. It actually takes place at a marina and it’s not really about girls.

The Beach Girls by John D. MacDonald

The setting is the ramshackle Stebbins Marina in fictional Elihu, Florida, on the Gold Coast just north of Miami. The time is 1959. The owners of most of the boats on D dock live aboard their boats year-round. For various reasons, they have rejected the staid, conventional lifestyle of the middle class in favor of a more carefree bohemian existence that involves lots of drinking and lots of sex.

The narrative structure of the first nine chapters is almost unique. Each of those chapters ends with a character’s narration dropping off mid-sentence, while the next chapter begins with a new narrator finishing the sentence and taking the story in a whole different direction.

In each of these chapters, we get to see from the inside a character whom we saw in the previous chapter only from the outside. From the outside, each character is a collection of traits. From the inside, we see them as fully drawn, complex people with distinct desires, imaginations, perceptions, histories and frustrations.

This is where the book really shines. MacDonald draws deeper, richer, more nuanced characters in just a few pages than most authors can draw in an entire novel. He tosses them off with ease, like a jazz musician whose impromptu riffs are more inspired and more polished than the most carefully orchestrated tracks of a studio album.

All of these people are here on the periphery of society because of some past shock or failure that left them reeling. Despite the easygoing appearance of the place, none of the inhabitants planned on living this life. Most seem surprised to find themselves here.

MacDonald has the grace and sense not to portray his characters as victims. They’re much richer than that. Many of them are simply bewildered and plodding on as well as they can.

There’s lots of tension beneath the surface of this big circle of friends, as you can imagine when a bunch of aimless people sit around drinking and screwing. The rivalries among the women can get catty and among the men they get violent. Add to that the tension of “progress,” of the wealthy and politically powerful Gold Coast real estate developers circling the down-and-out marina like vultures, waiting to swallow it up, displace its inhabitants, and wring millions from the waterfront property.

The best part of this book is MacDonald’s humane and perceptive portrayal of the community under threat, the individual misfits and outcasts living in the marina. On one end of the spectrum, you have the generous, outgoing Christy Yale. Her fiance, Jerry, was the only man she had ever slept with. Since he died in the military just before their intended wedding, she has remained single, set her expectations low, and devoted herself to playing the joker and making life a little lighter and a little more bearable for everyone around her.

This is her reflecting on the years since Jerry’s death, and the profound impact of an unexpectedly intimate conversation with the marina’s newest inhabitant, Leo Rice:

They killed him [Jerry] over there, on a hill with a number instead of a name, and when they’re dead you can’t tell whether it was a police action or a war. So I went through the motions of life for a year, while my heart rotted in my chest. No kids to amuse. No new name.

After a year, I woke up and counted my losses, brushed up on all my acts, rejoined, in a limited fashion, the human race. At least my spinsterhood was not virginal. Twice on the beach, twice in his [Jerry’s] boat. That was all. So damn little, and so damn wonderful. Bright little memories for the empty nights.

So you make all the adjustments, lock all the cupboards, sweep out the floor of your heart and wait with indifference for the years when you will be a very funny old woman. Then, without warning, an odd and gentle man comes into your life and responds to you in a way so reminiscent of Jerry that all the tidying up is undone. Debris all over the place. It isn’t fair.

On the other end of the spectrum of decency is Rex Rigsby. Handsome, charming, amoral, deeply misanthropic and misogynistic, he specializes in seducing other men’s wives. He hates women even as he seduces them, and takes as much pleasure in spurning and humiliating them after they’ve fallen for him as he does in the initial conquest.

One of his favorite pastimes on the boating scene is to befriend the wealthy men who charter his boat and wring from them an invitation to “stop by the house if you’re ever traveling our way.” If he likes their wives, he makes it a point to go traveling their way. When he visits, he fleeces the men at poker, sleeps with their wives while they’re at work, and then leaves just before he’s worn out his welcome.

The game comes so easy to him, and is repeated so often, he says, “Sometimes I feel like a midget who, successfully impersonating a child, goes to all the birthday parties and wins all the prizes.”

You know that sooner or later a guy as overconfident as this is going to take it too far and get in some serious trouble.

After the first nine chapters of alternating first-person narrative, the last four chapters switch to third person omniscient. The marina throws the big traditional birthday bash for the owner, Alice Stebbins. It’s an annual event, open to the whole town, where too many people drink way too much alcohol and things get out of hand. This is the perfect setup to resolve the roiling tensions among the marina’s inhabitants. You just know things are going to get bad as soon as the shindig begins.

The conventions of the genre require those last four chapters in which the final confrontation and denouement occur. Any competent author could have written them, though MacDonald did it with unusual flair.

The beauty of this book, however, is in the setup, in the world MacDonald builds and in the characters that inhabit that world. The author’s ability to portray character and place exceeds that of most of the “literary” authors I’ve read. He’s unusually versatile too, able to convey many different voices and temperaments with striking clarity.

I don’t know how this guy cranked out so many books, but I look forward to reading more of them.