Book Report: Barrier Island by John D. MacDonald (1986)

This book provides an interesting amalgamation of some of MacDonald’s earlier work, the business-oriented novels, with some of the maudlin sentimentality found in the Travis McGee novels. As it was released as a heavy hardback, with nice paper, it aims to weightiness instead of brisk paperback sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unsatisfying.

The story opens on Tucker Loomis after a night with an old flame. He’s brought her out to a romantic rendezvous off of Barrier Island, a, well, barrier island off of Mississippi or Florida. He not only wanted to rekindle a little good lovin’, but he wanted his flame, a real estate agent, to witness a payoff to an assistant federal prosecutor. In case the fed fails to carry out his part of the deal, you see.

The book then explores several of the players as the land scheme for which ol’ Tuck is being prosecuted unravels. An idealistic partner in a real estate firm tries to hold his marriage together while investigating the scheme. It seems that Tuck bought the land, envisioned a tropical paradise for millionaires, and sold its lots before the federal government condemned it and seized it for park land. Loomis wants a big settlement based upon the big profits he would have realized, but the idealist real estate man discovers some of the land sales Tuck had made were fraudulent. In addition to his marriage, the partner has to worry about maintaining his real estate firm with the wheeler-dealer who got involved with Tuck in the first place. Meanwhile, Tuck’s dealing with a wife in a vegatative state and an attractive nurse who imagines herself as the new Mrs. Loomis–after the current Mrs. Loomis dies.

With this set of characters and framework, perhaps MacDonald could have done better. Unfortunately, the book suffers from two flaws:

  • The point of view is skewed. We’re introduced to Tucker Loomis in the beginning, so I wanted to root for him. However, he’s not the protagonist. He’s sort of the antagonist. The protagonist, as I can tell, is the idealistic real estate agent. Unfortunately, his voice isn’t very consistent throughout the book. When we get the maudlin asides about the pillaging of the environment by the newcomers to the Gulf Coast, it’s almost expository. It’s acceptable in the McGee novels because it’s a part of the character of Travis McGee; but here, it’s hanging out there on its own.
  • The end is abrupt. Tucker Loomis is laid low pretty quickly, and the masterful subplots and characterizations end up wasted.

I think the book mixes, unsuccessfully, elements of his early work, elements of the Travis McGee novels, and elements of his later, longer, hardback work (such as Condominium and One More Sunday). As one of his last works, if not the last, it’s not a capstone of his career. But my copy is a first edition, nyah nyah.

Books mentioned in this review: