Book Review : John D. MacDonald - The Neon Jungle (1953)
I migh've been the only person in the world reading John D. MacDonald's The Neon Jungle, last week. MacDonald is primarily remembered for writing the Travis McGee novels and what would eventually become the movie Cape Fear, but these aren't even half of his legacy. He published close to eighty novels and short story collection that are mostly forgotten today, like this little post-war noir here that would put ever poser writing about bank heists gone wrong to shame. Written over a decade before Travis McGee, The Neon Jungle is not for the meek. It will make you shit your pants if you are.
The Neon Jungle tells the story of Bonny, who was rescued from a life of petty criminality by Henry Varaki, a handsome a courageous soldier on leave. Before he was killed in action, Henry had Bonny joining the family business, Varaki Quality Market, so that his family would take care of her while he's gone. The patriarch Gus is happy to have her around, because she's the only living memory he has left of his prodigal son, but nobody else is happy to have her around. The oldest Walter and his wife Doris are suspicious of her motives and so is Gus's new wife Jana. There's also their delivery boy Vern Lochter who seems a little too well at ease for the job.
There's a dark cloud looming over the Varaki family and Bonny's caught right under it.
It might make you scream to hear this, but noir is strongly indebted to Shakespearean tragedy and The Neon Jungle is a good example of that. While it isn't an exact retelling, the parallels with William Shakespeare's canonical play King Lear are undeniable: a fading patriarch, three "daughters" (two conniving ones) vying for his succession, outsiders with hidden motives, etc. It is also structured like a stage play. The great majority of chapters consist in conversations between characters, which slowly puts together the piece of the inevitable violent ending. It's a little odd to read because events often occur at the same time and exposition mostly comes through dialogue but it's a fun dare.
The other important variable in understanding and appreciating The Neon Jungle is post-war America. There are two visions of the world facing off in this novel. Doris and Jana's greedy, self-indulgent opportunism and Bonny's old school, family-oriented values. And this is where The Neon Jungle gets very bleak. It shows the very idea of family as being under attack by self-oriented motives. I don't know about you, but it hit me right where I live. The idea of finding success for oneself is such a driving force in the twenty-first century and is portrayed in such a positive light, having John D. MacDonald showing the messy, violent process behind social ascension terrified the living hell out of me. The Neon Jungle is 65 years old, but it's almost prescient.
I'm not sure what the legacy of The Neon Jungle is, but I'd bet it is largely forgotten today despite having been reprinted in 2014. It is the earliest occurrence I could find of mixing noir with psychological horror or what I like to call contemporary noir, but I'm not sure it had any incidence in shaping it. But like every John D. MacDonald novel I've read so far, it deserves to be remembered. It's a more difficult book to read than any of the Travis McGee novels because of its odd structure and it's definitely the bleakest thing I've read all year, but it has the power to make you soil your trouser and reexamine your life.