John D. MacDonald is one of the titans of American noir fiction. He’s best known for his famous Travis McGee books, but he wrote an astonishing number of superior stand alone suspense novels, and The Neon Jungle is an entertaining, breathless page turner.
The book starts with a vignette about “The Neighborhood,” part of the fictional town of Johnston, where the reader is introduced to Varaki Quality Market—the residents and employees of which form the nucleus of the plot. That’s followed by the story of the courtship of Henry Varaki and Bonny. Henry is in the army and on a month’s leave before heading to Korea, and Bonny is detoxing from a bender, during which she was brutally beaten by— well, some guy. She’s suffering from “[m]alnutrition, alcoholism, pneumonia, anemia, and possible internal injuries from the beating [she] took,” and says of herself “I’m just one big smell of stale bedroom and warm gin.” Henry spends the entirety of his leave nursing her back to health, and marries her just before leaving again for Korea (giving up his time with his family to save her). Henry sends her to Johnston, to his father’s market, to work. A few months later, Henry is killed in action. Henry’s father, an immigrant called Gus, keeps Bonny on. Lucky her! Bonny spends most of the book struggling with her pain and her feelings that she doesn’t deserve to ever be happy, and isn’t capable of feeling happiness even if she did deserve it.
As it turns out, she fits right in at the Varaki Quality Market and the Varaki family. Also living in the building are Gus’s oldest son Walter, a weak-willed weaselly drip of a man who dreams of running off with Bonny while, significantly (?) reading a Mike Hammer novel and imagining himself as the main character. He’s married to a harridan called Doris, who is, unhappily, eight months pregnant and really, really annoyed about it. Despite the impending birth, both firmly believe their better days are behind them. Then there’s Gus’s youngest child, his daughter Teena who was once a good student with a bright future, but when her brother Henry died she became hopeless, skipping and failing classes, taking drugs, and hanging out with a terrible group of people who at one point set her up to prostitute herself with a fat, balding man. Then there’s Rick Stussen, the market’s dimwitted and sexless butcher. Finally there’s Vern Lockter, who got a job at the market when he was on parole but has stayed on, even though he has big plans of making it as a bigshot smalltime crook. He horribly manipulates several of the building’s residents, wreaking terrible destruction as he goes. He does it all with a manipulative smile. His sinister machinations are what propel the book, as he attempts to work his way up through the local criminal/drug dealing organization— and to save his own skin when things start going terribly wrong.
Outside the house there’s the idealistic parole officer Paul Darmond, who was Vern’s parole officer and got him the job at Varaki’s Quality, and who later places a new parolee, Jimmy, at the market. His attitude toward parolees earns him the derisive nickname “Preacher” from Officer Andy Rowell. Where Paul believes that criminals can be saved if not redeemed, Rowell essentially thinks that humans are venal and once you’re bad, you’re bad. Rowell doesn’t believe that Vern has much good in him, while it’s Paul who introduces Vern into the Varaki Quality Market.
So what is MacDonald saying about idealism? Rowell is nasty and cruel, but he’s at least as right about the world as Paul is (at least until MacDonald’s epilogue). No, I’m not being entirely fair. There’s plenty of poison in the Varaki house independent of Vern Lockter—Walter is involved in some highly shady and venal activities himself. But it’s hard to argue with Rowell when he says this to Paul in Chapter Fifteen:
”I don’t like you putting a mess of bad eggs in one of my baskets. A tramp and two one-time losers and a junkie in one household. I don’t like it. It means trouble. I don’t like that Lockter. He’s too smooth. He’s working some kind of an angle. I can smell it. If he’s working an angle, Preach, putting that new kid in there is just giving him an assistant so he can work the angle a little better, whatever it is.”
It’s clear that Paul is meant to be the sympathetic one (Rowell is brutal and nasty at various points in the book), but Rowell is right that his methods are putting too much strain on the Varaki household and market.
I just realized that I forgot to mention Gus’s much younger second wife, Jana. This is at least partly because she drifts into the background over the course of the story—you could go entire chapters forgetting about her existence. Jana blazes into prominence in the second half of the book. Her horrible abuse at Vern’s hands, and her subsequent rationalization, a major piece of the plot.
Also, I forgot to mention Anna, who is barely there at all. She cleans the house.
Sorry. Anyway, inexorably, inevitably, sadly, it all builds to a horrifying, gruesomely violent climax (the New York Times blurb on the cover of the third printing says it “Culminates in one of the most explosive murder scenes in recent fiction,” which is a hell of thing to put on the cover of a book— I kept anticipating it with a mixture of dread and menace. And boy does it deliver!) Hubert Selby, Jr. probably read this book and thought, “My gosh, lighten up man!”
But MacDonald cheats with the ending, at least a little bit. And I for one was glad that he did. While it’s impossible to “spoil” a great work of art (we all know that King Lear reconciles with his family and they all buy a farm together at the end, but that doesn’t stop us from re-reading and re-watching the play over and over again), I will in the following paragraph reveal at least part of the “explosive murder scene,” so if you haven’t yet read the book and don’t want to know what happens, skip ahead.
At the end of the book, Vern manipulates Gus into hacking Rick to death with a cleaver. Gus has a heart attack. Vern then uses the cleaver to hack Jana to death. Of the three who die in that scene, only Gus has emerged as a fully formed “character.” Rick and Jana are only briefly sketched out. And really, Jana is hardly much of a presence at all (her defining trait is her “sturdy peasant body,” as mentioned in Chapter Sixteen). This is a relief— the impact of, say, Bonny getting hacked to death would be almost too much for the reader to bear. It would be too much for me to bear, anyway. Seriously, if Bonny and/or Paul had gotten it, I probably would have fallen into a never-ending depression spiral and spent the next six weeks gorging on birthday cake and ice cream.
MacDonald wasn’t shy about dropping sly commentary into his work, but in The Neon Jungle that commentary grounds the work. It’s a testament to his superior writing skills that, for instance, Teena doesn’t feel like just another delinquent with a heroin problem—she’s a fully realized, authentic-feeling person, whose trauma informs her character. MacDonald handles the presentation with surprising subtlety and conviction. At least superficially, The Neon Jungle reads like one of those social commentary/juvenile delinquency novels that became so scandalously popular following the success of Irving Shulman’s The Amboy Dukes (Harlan Ellison’s Web of the City, Hal Ellson’s Duke, etc.). In Chapter Ten for instance, Wentle, the principal at Teena’s school, lays out the challenges today’s youth face:
"Great God, Paul, it isn’t enough that the lasses are jammed, teachers hard to get. Five thousand and more students now. Just enough funds to handle bare maintenance. That charming time of life, adolescence. We want to give them ousted activities. Teachers willing to supervise are damn rare. They don’t get paid for it. My God, it’s a hideous time of life when they run loose. Stuff that would sicken you. We found them using the auditorium, a bunch of them, as a big bedroom when they cut classes. That knifing two weeks ago. Running off pornography on the school mimeograph machine. They come from decent homes and get thrown into this millrace, and they think they have to conform. If they don’t, they’re labeled chicken…”
MacDonald borrows elements and tropes from the juvenile deliquency genre, but at no point do they ever overwhelm what turns out to be a terrific noir thriller. This book is so well written that it will make you feel terrible. That’s a recommendation!
For a much more in-depth examination of The Neon Jungle, check out The Trap of Solid Gold!