The Neon Jungle: A Novel

The Neon Jungle: A Novel

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by John D. MacDonald

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No writer captured the urban blight that befell postwar America in all its grime and commotion as well as noir legend John D. MacDonald. The Neon Jungle depicts a world in which the bright lights belie the turbulent lives of a lost generation.
Introduction by Dean Koontz
The smell of warm gin hovers over a whole…  See more details below


No writer captured the urban blight that befell postwar America in all its grime and commotion as well as noir legend John D. MacDonald. The Neon Jungle depicts a world in which the bright lights belie the turbulent lives of a lost generation.
Introduction by Dean Koontz
The smell of warm gin hovers over a whole section of town. The threat of violence hangs in the air. And the neighborhood kids know all about drugs, knives, and back-alley beatings long before they’re pushed into high school by weary truant officers.
This is simply reality for the family that runs Varaki Quality Market. Its patriarch, Gus Varaki, is doing all he can to keep his business afloat after his beloved middle child, Henry, is killed in action. But his oldest son is at a crossroads, his teenage daughter has been seduced by a rough crowd, and one of his employees is running a racket of his own. Only Henry’s despondent widow, Bonny, sees the awful truth—and the deadly plot hanging over all of their heads.
Praise for John D. MacDonald
“John D. MacDonald was the great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.”—Stephen King
“My favorite novelist of all time . . . No price could be placed on the enormous pleasure that his books have given me.”—Dean Koontz
“John D. MacDonald is a shining example for all of us in the field. Talk about the best.”—Mary Higgins Clark

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for John D. MacDonald
The great entertainer of our age, and a mesmerizing storyteller.”—Stephen King
“My favorite novelist of all time . . . All I ever wanted was to touch readers as powerfully as John D. MacDonald touched me. No price could be placed on the enormous pleasure that his books have given me. He captured the mood and the spirit of his times more accurately, more hauntingly, than any ‘literature’ writer—yet managed always to tell a thunderingly good, intensely suspenseful tale.”—Dean Koontz
“To diggers a thousand years from now, the works of John D. MacDonald would be a treasure on the order of the tomb of Tutankhamen.”—Kurt Vonnegut
“A master storyteller, a masterful suspense writer . . . John D. MacDonald is a shining example for all of us in the field. Talk about the best.”—Mary Higgins Clark
“The consummate pro, a master storyteller and witty observer . . . John D. MacDonald created a staggering quantity of wonderful books, each rich with characterization, suspense, and an almost intoxicating sense of place.”—Jonathan Kellerman
“There’s only one thing as good as reading a John D. MacDonald novel: reading it again. A writer way ahead of his time, he is the all-time master of the American mystery novel.”—John Saul

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Random House Publishing Group
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A city bus hissed at the corner and was silent, then snorted off through the milky dusk. She saw the light pattern through the elm leaves and saw the bus was headed downtown. Down where all the lights were. When she had come here the elm branches had been naked raw. And it had been harder then to stay in the small third-floor room in the vast shabby frame house and think of lights and people and movement and forgetting.

It was like the leaves were growing to cover the city sounds, the city lights. This slow change. The small room becoming more womb than prison. She sat Buddha fashion on the straight hard chair near the window in the dusk grayness, motionless. She sat in black corduroy slacks, hands resting on the sharply flexed knees, head tilted a bit so that the smoke from the cigarette in the corner of her mouth made a thin upward line past the smooth cheek and half-closed eyes. The cheap phonograph on the floor beside the chair was turned so low that the golden ovals of the horn sounds came faintly through the needle hiss. The record ended and she took the cigarette from her mouth and leaned down and lifted the arm and set it back at the beginning. The silken heaviness of the dark copper hair swung forward and when she straightened up she swung it back with a quickness of her head.

She thought of them down there, working in the stark white fluorescence, handling the late rush, and she thought carefully of how it would be to go down there now. She imagined just how it would be and she decided she could do it now. Gus had seemed to know just how the little man with the clown face had torn her apart, had opened up the neatly mended places, finding the fracture lines of old wounds. She had not broken in front of the little man. Gus had stepped in angrily.

“Lieutenant, you know you talk to my daughter. You don’t talk that way.”

“Daughter-in-law, Pop. Where the hell did Henry find her?”

“Lieutenant, you go chase thiefs. Don’t bother good people. Bonny, you go upstairs. Rest. You work a long time.”

She had left quickly, precariously, not looking at the grotesque clown face, stepping out from behind the cash register and crossing the store and going through the side door, through the narrow shed and up the steps into the big kitchen, managing even to smile and bob her head at the monolithic Anna standing by the stove, and through the rooms packed solidly with the massive furniture, and up the two flights of stairs, and down the hall, and into her own room, shutting the door behind her without a sound, and taking the three steps to the bed and lying there, moving over a bit so her forehead could be pressed against the wall, against the faded paper pattern of blue flowers.

It is meant, she thought, that I shall be always rescued by the Varaki family. But they started rescuing me too late. They came after all the other things had been stamped on my face and in my eyes, the things the lieutenant saw so quickly and so easily, and so contemptuously.

It isn’t true, she thought, that you go down like a rocket, like a dropped stone. It is, perhaps, more like a slow-motion picture of a bouncing ball. It starts, tritely enough, with a betrayal, with a heartbreak. It means so much then. Dev had meant too much back in the good years that were now like things on the other side of a wall. Dev with the Irish smile and the quick hands and the vanity. Dev, who did not like his hair mussed, and did not like to be touched, and at last was chased away by too much love, fearing that there was a stickiness in possession.

And so then, that first time, you let go and took the first long fast drop down to the absolute bottom. The first drop of the ball. At the bottom was death and the slow-falling ball touched it, felt the coldness and the hardness and rebounded, climbing back up—all the way, you thought. But not quite all the way. A time of being poised there, and then another drop. And another, so that the touch of death came more often, and became more familiar, and became less frightening. Then you could look up and see where you used to be. Each bounce was less. Each time there was less resilience.

Then deftly, miraculously, Henry Varaki had cushioned that last fall. She’d been in San Francisco then. The nights had been oddly merged, so that there seemed to be no days between them. She remembered being noisy in one place and being pushed out by someone whose face she tried to claw. Then, in the momentary sobriety of the drenching rain, the rain that caked her dress to her body, she thought they might phone the police, and that last thirty days had been a horror. She had run in the rain and fallen, and run some more. Then there was another place, and lights, and an alley fight between sailors, and more running. One high heel was gone and the running was a crooked, grotesque gallop. There was something hot and humming behind her eyes, something hot and roaring in her ears. She ran down a crooked street, tilted so that it swung her against the wall. . . .

Then there was a long time when everything was mixed up. Henry said later it was eleven days. It was like coming out of a long jumbled tunnel, full of noises and shoutings and crazy whistling lights, into a sudden calm place. She opened her eyes. A big-shouldered kid with a blond burr head in Army khaki with sergeant’s stripes sat by the narrow window, his chair tilted back against the wall. It was very quiet. Beyond the window was fog. Beyond the fog was a muffled heavy bleat, metronomic, as though some great animal were caught out there. Traffic whispered through the fog with muslin horn sounds. It was a strange room and she did not want to turn her head, as that seemed too great an effort. She closed her eyes for just a moment, and when she opened them again the window was dark and the sergeant was not there. She turned her head a bit toward the source of light, and saw him sitting by the lamp, still reading.

He seemed to sense her stare. He put the book aside and came over to her and stood frighteningly huge beside the bed and laid the back of his hand against her forehead with a miraculous gentleness.

“What happened?” she asked weakly.

“You mean who shoved you, Bonny? A pneumonia bug. You didn’t have any resistance.”

“Who are you?” Her voice felt trembly.

“Henry Varaki. Don’t try to ask questions. I’ll see if I can cover it. I was just walking around with one of the guys. You were out like a light. A guy was holding you up against a wall and beating hell out of you. We took care of him quick and took you to a hospital. For some damn reason they wouldn’t take you. You felt like you were burning up. My buddy had a friend who gave him the use of this place, so we brought you back here and rounded up a doctor. Malnutrition, alcoholism, pneumonia, anemia, and possible internal injuries from the beating you took. My, that doctor was real intrigued with you, Bonny. He said he could get you in a charity ward, but I couldn’t swing any special nurses or anything, so I figured I could take care of you myself. My friend went on east. It’s been . . . let me count, eleven days. You’ve had glucose and oxygen and all the antibiotics in the book, Bonny. The doc comes in every morning to check. You’ve been out of your head until day before yesterday. Since then you’ve been mostly sleeping. He said this morning you’d probably wake up clear as a bell today.”

He sponged her face with gentleness. He held her head up and held a glass to her lips. She was far too weak to sit up alone, much less stand. He took care of her needs with a calm deftness that was so matter-of-fact that she felt neither shame nor shyness. In the morning, before the doctor was due, he gave her a sponge bath. She looked down and was shocked at her pale wasted body, at the shrunken breasts, the spindle legs, the hipbones that looked sharp enough to pierce the pallid skin.

The doctor came. He was a gruff, bustling man. He addressed most of his questions to Henry, a few to her. He wrote out two prescriptions and said, “You’re a tough young woman. Keep this up and you’ll come back fast. Henry, go out in the other room and close the door.”

“Why, Doc?”

“Just do it, Henry.”

Henry left the room and closed the door gently. The doctor looked at her. His expression changed, became harder. “You are not only tough. You are lucky. You owe your life to him. He is a rare young man. I don’t know whether you can understand how rare. You people are always looking for angles. All you can do for him is get your strength back as fast as you can and get out of here. You’ll be doing him a favor. When he was a kid I bet he kept birds with broken wings in boxes, with homemade splints. He didn’t sleep for the first fifty hours you were here. He was on his way east. A thirty-day leave before shipping out. Don’t try any of your sleek angles on him, young lady. You barely escaped burial, courtesy of the city of San Francisco. Don’t try to say anything to me in explanation or apology. At this particular moment, I don’t particularly want to hear the sound of your voice. I heard enough of what you said in delirium. So did Sergeant Varaki. It wasn’t pretty. What made it particularly ugly was the very obvious fact that you started with education, background, decent breeding. Something was left out of you. Garden-variety guts, I’d imagine. Don’t go back to your alley-catting until the sergeant is over the horizon.”

She shut her eyes. She heard the doctor leave and heard him talking to Henry in the next room. The tears scalded out through her closed lids. After a time she wiped them away with a corner of the sheet.

Henry came in, grinning. “He says he doesn’t have to come back, Bonny. Congratulations. You can go in for a checkup after you’re on your feet.”

“That’s good.”

“Hey, don’t go gloomy on me. My God, I’m glad to have somebody to talk to. Somebody who makes sense, that is.”

Slowly at first, and then more rapidly, she began to gain weight and strength. He bought her pajamas and a robe. She leaned weakly on him while she took the first tottering steps. One circuit of the room exhausted her.

“How about my room?” she asked. “How about my clothes?”

He flushed. “I got the address out of you one day when you weren’t too bad. I went over there. She’d moved your stuff out of your room. You owed six bucks. I paid it and brought the stuff back here. I went through it. Maybe I shouldn’t have. Your clothes were pretty sad, Bonny. I gave the works to the Salvation Army. I got your personal stuff in a little box. Papers and letters and some photographs and stuff like that.”

Everything in the world in one small box. She closed her eyes. “Will you do something for me, Henry?”


“That’s a silly-sounding question, will you do something for me, after . . . everything. Go through the box, Henry. Take out my Social Security card. Take out my birth certificate. Take out the photostat of my college record. Throw everything else away.”



The next day he shamefacedly gave her an envelope. “All the things you wanted saved are in there. And I stuck in a few pictures. Your mother and father. I figured you ought to hang on to those too.”

“They were killed in—”

“You talked about that a lot. I know about that. You better save the pictures. You have kids someday, they’d like to know what your people looked like.”

“Kids someday.”

“Don’t say it like that, Bonny. Don’t ever say it like that.”

That was the day she sat on a stool in front of the kitchen sink of the apartment with a big towel around her shoulders while he washed her hair. It took four soapings, scrubbings, rinses to bring it back to life. And then, when it was dry and she brushed it, he admired the color of it, and in the midst of his admiration she saw him suddenly get the first increment of awareness of her. It was something she was well practiced in seeing. She was still slat thin, weighing less than a hundred pounds, and she was without make-up, and he had seen her body at its ugliest, and heard all the ugly bits of her history, and yet he could still have that sudden glow of interest and appreciation in his eyes. It made her want to cry.

She began to take over a small part of the cooking and cleaning on the twenty-second day of his thirty-day leave. On the bathroom scales she weighed an even one hundred. She was five-seven and considered her proper weight to be about one twenty-two or -three. She had not weighed that much in over a year.

“I’ve got to have clothes to get out of here, Henry.”

“I’ve been thinking about that. I’ll have to buy them. You’ll have to tell me about sizes.”

“I’ll give you the sizes. Get something cheap. Have you written it down for me? All the money you’ve spent so far? You can’t have much left.”

“I’ve got some. Doc took it easy on me.” He flushed brightly. “And I’m only telling you this so you won’t worry. Pop sent me two hundred bucks. I got it day before yesterday.”

“You’ve got to go home, Henry. You’ve got to see them.”

“There’ll be time.”

“There won’t be time. You keep saying that. They’ll never understand why you didn’t go home. Never.”

“They know me pretty well, Bonny. They know if I didn’t go home, there’s a damn good reason.”

“There’s no reason good enough.”

He had talked a lot about his family. The Varaki clan. “There’s us three kids. Me and Walter and Teena. Teena’s the baby. High-school gal. Walter’s older than I am. Dark coloring, like the old lady was. His wife is Doris. She gives old Walter a pretty hard time. She’s a pinwheeler, that gal. Then Jana is Pop’s second wife. He married her last year. It was like this. You see, Mom died three years ago. Some of Jana’s relatives, farm people, sent her to stay with us so she could go to business school. She’s two years younger than Walter, and two years older than me. Big husky farm girl. With her in the house, Anna, that’s Pop’s older sister, came to sort of keep house for us. Then Pop up and marries Jana. It made the whole family sore as hell. Especially Doris. Anna stayed on. Pop and Jana are happy. Well, hell, it’s a happy house. Great big old ruin of a place. The market used to be in the downstairs. Pop built a new market right next door right after the war. It’s run like a supermarket. Mostly the people that work there live in the house too. There’s three floors. Ten bedrooms. Always something going on. Usually something crazier than hell. Pop and his old cronies play card games in the kitchen and yell at each other in old-country talk. Everybody pitches in.”

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Meet the Author

John D. MacDonald was an American novelist and short-story writer. His works include the Travis McGee series and the novel The Executioners, which was adapted into the film Cape Fear. In 1962 MacDonald was named a Grand Master of the Mystery Writers of America; in 1980, he won a National Book Award. In print he delighted in smashing the bad guys, deflating the pompous, and exposing the venal. In life, he was a truly empathetic man; his friends, family, and colleagues found him to be loyal, generous, and practical. In business, he was fastidiously ethical. About being a writer, he once expressed with gleeful astonishment, “They pay me to do this! They don’t realize, I would pay them.” He spent the later part of his life in Florida with his wife and son. He died in 1986.

Brief Biography

Date of Birth:
July 24, 1916
Date of Death:
December 28, 1986
Place of Birth:
Sharon, PA
Place of Death:
Milwaukee, WI
Syracuse University 1938; M.B. A. Harvard University, 1939

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