Book Report: The Damned by John D. MacDonald (1952)

Book coverThis book is one of MacDonald’s situational books. He takes a group of disparate, sometimes desperate, characters and puts them in a stressful situation where they interact. You see this in Murder in the Wind, and you see this in Condominium.

In this book, though, instead of a terrible storm, we have a delayed Mexican ferry.

A middle-aged man with an impulse mistress he picked up and bedded for an expensive three weeks in Mexico City heads back, guiltily, to his life. An expat American who works on his expat father’s Mexican farm waits to go buy farm equipment. A married couple whose husband is a mama’s boy and whose wife is a former model wanting a good married life wait with his mother (who flew down to join them on their Mexican honeymoon), and the mother takes ill in the heat. An American kills a jealous matador who found the American and the matador’s girl in flagrante delicto after the matador shoots the girl with a harpoon while aiming for the American, and the American finds his flight delayed. An aging comedian and the two statuesque members of his act return from a gig in Mexico and are on their way to New York, but not for the reason the comedian thinks.

They find themselves stymied by a modern ferry that’s been put into a shallow river because a Mexican official crossed there once, a while ago. The draught of the boat is too deep, and it requires Mexican laborers to dig a channel for it before it can carry its two cars across. During the hours-long delay this produces, the waiting travellers interact, reach life-altering reconsiderations and decisions, and engage in some questionable activity.

It’s the sort of thing MacDonald does and does well. Even though the book’s ending leaves the storylines unresolved (although you think they’ll resolve badly, or maybe just less happy than you’d hope for the protagonists who emerge), I enjoyed it. There’s a frame story, wherein a Mexican laborer goes to work at the beginning and at the very end returns home very weary but well-enough heeled from the overtime (he has fifty pesos, half a month’s pay for a day’s work). At the very end of the novel, he and his wife are happy with what they have, which contrasts with the busy, machinating Americans who have a lot of plots but little joy.

Recommended. Have I gone a whole year without reading a MacDonald book? (Yes. My mistake.)

Books mentioned in this review: