I have recently read two books by well-known authors about retirement. They are The Great Leader by Jim Harrison and Condominium by John D. McDonald. Harrison is most famous for Legends of the Fall, which was made into a Brad Pitt movie, and which I have not seen yet. Nor have I read anything else by Harrison, although I have been well aware of his reputation for some time. I guess there was something about Harrison that has scared me, even as I filtered the praise of his work through my own filter for books I eventually plan to read. I'll come back to Harrison, because I am still trying to figure out what I think about his novel.
McDonald is easier to discuss. McDonald is rightly famous for his Travis McGee mystery series of books. Travis McGee was the guy that soon-to-be Florida transplants imagined themselves as. McGee lived on a low rent, well maintained 52-foot houseboat called the Busted Flush, (won in a poker game) , lived high by his wits, and was a speaker of complete sentences with a mid-century American competence, a type that we are likely never to see again. He was a retired salvage consultant, occasionally salvaging stolen wealth from bad guys for a piece of the take.
McDonald's novel Condominium was written in the late 70's so most of the residents are from the World War II generation, and have had some success in life, but are still filled with angst about the threat of losing all their investments: Most of their wealth is in their condominium. Condominium life in Florida in the 70s, was a bizarre scene, where the newly minted geezers were stored in giant concrete chests of drawers, with little balconies, that (in the good one's) overlooked the water. The novel is set on the West Coast, near a city like Tampa, called Fiddler Key. It could be St. Pete Beach, a place I know because my parents spent their 'mid-retirement' years there.
The Retirement Experience for my parents has to be seen as a success, at least now, ten years after their deaths which occurred nearly within the same year. They worked hard, saved their money and saw their NJ home appreciate to the point that they were able to sell it and buy a beautiful two bedroom bungalow with a perfect sawgrass lawn and an orange tree. Or maybe it was mango. That part of their retirement lasted about ten years. Mom sailed, Dad played golf and drank. They had parties, joined the Yacht club, gossiped, flirted with the other 60 somethings, and traveled in the State Rooms on cargo ships, where my Dad could shoot the breeze with his former shipmates, and Mom could be the belle of the boat. They went ashore into exotic, now too dangerous ports, and had some real adventures.
Then, in their early seventies, they started to slow down. It became too much to take care of the orange, (or mango) tree and the lawn, so they moved into a condominium on an inlet on the Tampa Bay. This was around the time McDonald wrote Condominium, so you see I have a bit of insight into the setting.
The story is set around the shoddy construction and shady business practices of the phony corporations that 'owned” the Condos, (the real owner was a shaky bank). The tragedies of falling condo resale prices are juxtaposed against a coming Hurricane. The people are so familiar and yet, so different than their children, (me), who are retiring today that it struck me as worth examining. McDonald catches people in the act of getting old. Some are getting sick, and some are finally beginning to live when it is almost too late. Sex is tacky, usually in the afternoon when the betrayed spouse is taking a nap, and dark conspiracies are hatched over poolside card games, plotting the overthrow of condo board members who proposed new rules that are denounced as stupid if not communistic. Antisemitism is rampant, and blacks are nearly non-existent except as cleaning crews. The maintenance superintendent is feared by all, as he has to power to decide when and how much repair to the units gets done. When I would make my Christmas pilgrimages to visit, it was always a trip down the rabbit hole. The old rules of the family were void because Mom and Dad were now part of a new community, a cult almost, where the greatest sin imaginable was to leave your wet bathing suit hanging over the balcony. Many had grown up in tenements during the 30s and the sight of clothes drying on the fire escape was a terrible memory, one that brought back the poverty of their Depression Era upbringing. You don't fuck with the Condo Board.
"No flip-flops in the clubhouse." "Nixon got a raw deal." "Six-month CDs (certificates of deposit) pay 12-15%." "You can set your watch to the 4 PM afternoon thunderstorm." "Somebody's been drinking my scotch!"
I secretly prayed for a hurricane during my summer visits.
McDonald's Condominium was made into a TV movie with lots of B-actors. McDonald was a brilliant man, whose analysis of the financial structure of condominium construction and the engineering of building them was worth the read for me. But like the Condos themselves, he had too many characters in this novel. The part that detracted the read for me was the ordinary lives he illustrated - they were too close to real life, an affluent version of Hobbes' dictum that life is nasty, brutish and short. It takes a special writer to make ordinary interesting, and McDonald misses it with this book. Unless you are looking for some old-people-in-the-seventies nostalgia, I would not recommend this novel – any of McDonald's Travis McGee books are a better read, even if the fiction is more fictitious.
So – lesson learned, don't move to a Florida Condo to retire. Check.
Jim Harrison also writes about retirement in The Great Leader. Harrison a Charles Bukowski-like figure, who seemed to do his writing while drunk, and who recently died, in his late 70s. The Great Leader is a cult leader whose followers are pre-pubescent girls who he initiates into the cult by having sex with them. Sunderson is a recently retired cop using his new free time to bring him down. But on nearly every page, Sunderson is mooning over the bent-over tushes of every woman who turns her back to him. He is a basket case, divorced of course, whose lonely predicament is his own fault on every account, and he knows it better than anyone.
There is very little plot, no transition, no continuity in The Great Leader. But of course, I have yet to discern any of that in 'real life' either. You get the feeling that Harrison might have actually written those transition parts, or at least thought about them, but didn't keep because it bores him, so he just jumps to the good parts. He gets beat up, has drunken, consensual sex with a lesbian who is associated with the Great Leader, and muses about the life he has led and the books he has read, and hunting, dogs, and the land. His land, like his people, is the land that others find ugly, trashed, clear-cut, and mined over, but he is in love with it anyway. He finds beauty in the low end of ordinary.
He is chasing a guy who is much the same as he is, only worse because the Great Leader is without remorse. Sunderson's life is nothing but remorse, and you feel that it is the lack of remorse that is his great white whale. His regret in part consists of his dreams of three naked women in his bed, even as he describes with frightening accuracy the mechanics of his own sexual decline. His dreams bring him a kind of comfort because they bring the only justice he knows to exist. He is a cop after all.
So what did these two books tell me about retirement, a state into which I have recently entered?
They teach me retirement is just like the rest of life, I am on my own, with no map, only a definite destination.