The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald (1979).
1979 was a big year for John D. MacDonald. My local drug store shelves swam with his Travis McGee paperbacks. His 1977 epic Condominium made a splash as a syndicated miniseries. And I almost bought a paperback of The Green Ripper. The cover art intrigued me. But the first few pages, read at Struble's drug store on a rainy Friday night, left my 13 year old self unmoved.
I did not read my first MacDonald novel until winter 1994, a dark and fretful personal time. I read the first McGee novel, The Deep Blue Goodbye, and then Condominium, which I loved
And this week I finally got to grips with The Green Ripper.
I'm sure this is not a typical McGee adventure. The Deep Blue Goodbye was strictly small-bore, local, and tightly observed. I'd have to read a few more to assure myself The Green Ripper is aberrant, and I'm not sure I will.
The novel begins with McGee and his friend Meyer mulling over the horrible state of the world (for members of the U.S. petty bourgeoisie like themselves) on a dark and stormy December night:
"How much time have we got?"
"If nobody pushes the wrong button or puts a bomb under the wrong castle, I would give us five more years at worst, twelve at best. What is triggering it is the crisis of reduced expectations. All over the world people are suddenly coming to realize that their children and grandchildren are going to have it worse than they did, that the trend line is down. So they want to blame somebody. They want to hoot and holler in the streets and burn something down."
"Whose side are you on?"
"I'm one of the scufflers. Cut and paste. Fix the world with paper clips and rubber bands."
The cry of the panicked middle classes is also heard very clearly in Meyer's line "....there are too many mouths to feed." [Rebuttal here.]
MacDonald and his vigilante hero like to have their cake and eat it, too.
In Chapter One, we get McGee pondering the precarious state of the planet. He then makes love to Gretel, the love of his life. And then he gets a chance for some portentous humbuggery:
....So the gusty winds of a Friday night in December came circling through the
marina, grinding and tilting all the play boats and work boats around us, creaking the hulls against the fenders, clanking fittings against masts. While in the big bed in the master stateroom her narrowed eyes glinted in faint reflected light, my hands found the well-known slopes and lifts and hollows of her warmth and agility. We played the games of delay and anticipation, of teasing and waiting, until we went past the boundaries of willed restraint and came in a mounting rush that seemed to seek an even greater closeness than the paired loins could provide. And then subsided, with the outdoor wind making breathing sounds against the superstructure of the old barge-type houseboat, and the faint swing and dip of the hull seeming to echo, in a slower pace, the lovemaking just ended. With neither of us knowing or guessing that it was the very last night. With neither of us able to endure that knowledge had we been told.
As with any great vigilante revenge potboiler, love's young dream is short-lived. Someone slips Gretel a Georgi Markov stinger, and McGee sets off to find the killers.
Leading him to the rural training camp of The
Church of the Apocrypha. MacDonald presents them as a Jonestown-type cult, but bent on terrorism and having received training in Cuba, Lebanon, et cetera.
McGee poses as a father looking for a daughter lost to the cult years before. They imprison him and attempt recruitment;
"It's hard to see the point in doing it at all."
"Well, killing innocent people."
"Innocent of what, Brother? If you kill soldiers or police, it doesn't make enough difference. They signed up to take that risk. The people in this country are oppressed and they don't know it, and they don't give a damn. All the rest of the world is involved in a bitter struggle, and here the people are fat, happy, and dumb. The captive press and the television keep telling them they are the best people in the world in the best country in the world. The dirt and pain and sickness and poverty are all covered up. No person has a chance against the capitalist bureaucracy. We've learned that little attacks here and there are meaningless. Like fighting a pillow. They actually think they're free, the fools, even while they are supporting a regime that exports arms all over the world to the other oppressors. We have to make this fat dumb happy public sit up and take notice of the hidden tyranny that is oppressing them. How do we do that?"
Such a lot of it was by rote, repeated from memory in a sentence structure alien to her usual patterns. "How do we do it, Sister?"
"We make the oppressors visible to the people by giving them reason to show how cruel and tough they can be. We force them to react. Like Chicago and Kent State, but much much more."
"By going out and killing people?"
"That isn't the purpose, Brother. To kill people. Our civilization has gotten too complicated. It's full of machines and plastics. Brother Persival says it is very sick, and like a sick person, it can't survive if a lot of other things happen to it."
"Oh, we won't go after things that are really protected, like army places and shipyards and nuclear power plants and government buildings. That's dumb. You can bring everything tumbling down by going after things that would take years to fix. Big gas pipelines and oil pipelines. Bridges and tunnels and big computer places. Refineries and chemical plants and control towers. TV stations and newspaper pressrooms. Blow 'em up and burn 'em down. Targets of opportunity. Anyway, it's all being worked out. And then we'll know what our part of it is. I hope I don't get stuff to do that's too hard. I mean I want to be able to get it done. Then if I get away, okay, and if I don't, okay. But I'd hate to mess up. I hope I don't get a tunnel. I get really itchy going through tunnels. I think of all that water coming down on me."
"How do you do a tunnel?"
"Two people and two vehicles, right? The second one is an old truck. You've got a good big load of explosives, labeled something else. It takes a big blast. The lead car stops and you stop the truck and yank the wire that starts the three-minute timer. Then you run and get in the lead car and get out of there. It's the same for some kinds of bridges. I really don't want to do a tunnel. They make me so nervous I'll do something wrong."
She had turned onto her side, worked her head onto my shoulder. Her arm lay across my chest, her knees against the side of my thigh. She sighed and said, "I didn't have any interest in sex at all until I was in training overseas. Then it started to all come back. It's like that with most of the women who join. I mean the Church becomes the most important love life you have, and it wipes out everything else for a while. Then it's never as important again as it once was to you." She kissed the side of my throat and said, "Enough of all this talking already? You want to make it now?" She snugged the length of her body against me. This was a frightening little engine of destruction, all trained, primed, toughened, waiting only for someone to aim it at a target. Her breath had a faint scent of the deerburger onions. Her hair smelled clean, and her body had a slight coppery odor of perspiration. I remembered noticing at the table that her fingernails were chewed down to the quick.
Poor little assassin. She had gone out into the world with an empty head, and somebody had crammed a single frightful idea into it, dressed up with a lot of important-sounding rhetoric. She couldn't know the frightfulness of the idea because she had nothing by which to measure it. Fifteen to forty groups of from eight to fifteen? From a hundred and twenty to six hundred of them. So take the smallest number, cut it in half, and think about sixty people like this one, armed, mobilized, superbly equipped, and aimed at the pressure points of our culture….
I wonder where John D. MacDonald got his politics. The Green Ripper's country club fear fantasies make Jack Higgins' 70s thrillers look like sheer reportage.
MacDonald's fear, though he may not realize it or acknowledge it, was not of a brainwashed teenage cult army north of Ukiah, California. It was of rising revolutions in Nicaragua, Grenada, and Iran in 1979, building on past victories in Cuba and the U.S. defeat in Vietnam. When Meyer told McGee about dwindling resources, he expressed the dead-end reached by the bourgeoisie in imperialist countries. The changing mass psychology of workers and farmers around the world went unacknowledged.
The Green Ripper is a "Sapper" style thriller: one man killing-off his nation's enemies by any means at hand. Too bad Bulldog Drummond's wit and sense of the absurd is missing.
14 April 2018