Wednesday, June 4, 2014

A FLASH OF GREEN

"It had the remembered flavor of childhood, when Saturday was always a vast glad surprise, and Monday was a generation away."

Thirty some-odd years ago, I read A FLASH OF GREEN by John D. MacDonald for the first time. When I finished reading it I thought that it was both the best of the many John D. MacDonald novels I've read and one of the best novels of any kind that I'd ever read up to that point in my life. I finished re-reading the book a few days ago and my opinion hasn't changed. If anything, my admiration for this book has grown. It's still one of the very best books I've ever read.

The great thing about re-reading a book after a span of more than thirty years is that I had forgotten so many of the details of the story. I remembered the very basic plot of the story but I had completely forgotten all of the many richly drawn characters, dialogue and incidents that populate this fine work.

Originally published in 1962, A FLASH OF GREEN was one of the first novels to address the issue of widespread commercial developments along the Florida gulf coast. In the novel, Grassy Bay, a natural, pristine shallow bay situated in Palm County, has been targeted by a consortium of local businessmen for development into residential and commercial properties. A previous attempt to fill in the bay two years earlier was defeated by a local environmental group. But this time, things are different.

The group of men, lead by corrupt county commissioner Elmo Bliss, have all of their ducks in a row and to insure that their plan wins approval, they engineer a smear campaign against the members of Save Our Bay. Their chief weapon in the campaign is one Jimmy Wing, a disaffected reporter for the local newspaper.

Wing goes along with the plan, digging up dirt on various members of the organization while protecting one very important person from harm. Kat Hubble is the widow of Wing's best friend, the late Van Hubble. Wing is consumed by an almost overwhelming lust for the young red head while she considers Wing merely a very good friend. She and Van effectively defeated the first threat to Grassy Bay (with Wing's help) and now she and a handful of others stand alone against the developers.

But things start to turn very ugly and people are seriously injured, both mentally and physically. Wing's vegetative wife dies and her death, along with his guilt and culpability in the whole affair, cause him to suffer a breakdown. Finally, with literally nothing left to lose, Wing tries his best to stop the development from going through but he pays a very high price for his efforts.

A FLASH OF GREEN paints a vivid picture of the forces of rah-rah chamber of commerce capitalism arrayed against the desire to protect the natural areas of our country at all costs. Once Grassy Bay is dredged and filled, it's gone for good. There's no question which side of this issue MacDonald was on but he never comes across as preachy.

Wing is an interesting, intensely flawed hero. He spends the majority of the novel behaving like a shit and his grab at redemption is only partially successful. The development is approved by the county commissioners but Wing manages to expose the corpulent and malignant Bliss for what he really is, a revelation that impinges mightily upon the man's greater political ambitions. And while Jimmy does eventually make love to Kat, the experience is far from what he expected and truly desired. In the end, the hero doesn't get the girl, the bad guys have won (but have suffered some damage) and Wing is left to try and put the pieces of his life back together.

MacDonald has a large cast of characters in A FLASH OF GREEN but he makes each one unique and gives each man and woman their own voice, personality and back story. It's not a mystery at all and the thriller/crime elements don't come into play until late in the book. However, even at 449 pages, A FLASH OF GREEN is a page-turner of the highest order and I could have easily read another four hundred or so pages of these characters and their stories.

A film version of A FLASH OF GREEN was produced in 1984 with Ed Harris and Blair Brown starring as Jimmy Wing and Kat Hubble. I have a vague memory of seeing it once and it seemed fairly faithful to the novel as I recall but with a two-hour running time, not all of the material from the novel made it to the screen.

A FLASH OF GREEN pits big money capitalism and a lust for political power against environmentalists with a co-opted newspaperman in the middle. It's a struggle that still has resonance today, fifty-two years later. I loved every page of this novel. If you've never read a John D. MacDonald novel, you need to read this one. I consider it his masterpiece among a very impressive and substantial body of work. Highest recommendation.

 

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