A very late book review: John D. MacDonald's Condominium

Screen capture Condominium

While writing about the Porsche Design Tower tower nearing completion in Sunny Isle Beach, a post about real estate and climate in Florida, I remembered a great old book about real estate and climate in Florida, Condominium, by John D MacDonald, published in 1977.

John D booksLloyd Alter/ My John D. McDonald books/CC BY 2.0

John D. wrote some of the best page-turners, mostly set in Florida. My dad was a fan and I keep his collection in my cabin; they are perfect for a rainy day. Condominium is one of his later books; Dean Koontz writes in the intro to the iBook edition:

John D. McDonald© John D. McDonald

Over the years, I have read every novel by John D at least three times, some of them twice that often. His ability to evoke a time and place—mostly Florida but also the industrial Midwest, Las Vegas, and elsewhere—was wonderful, and he could get inside an occupation to give you the details and the feel of it like few other writers I’ve ever read. His pacing was superb, the flow of his prose irresistible, and his suspense watch-spring tight.

Reading Condominium for the second time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how relevant it was still, forty years after it was written. Real estate developers haven’t changed, their customers are pretty much the same, and just like today, hurricanes are still slamming into Florida and climate and everyone is still fighting both the weather and the climate. Everyone should read this book because it still matters.

Condominium is the story of a building on the west coast of Florida on Fiddlers Key, probably near Sarasota where MacDonald lived. It opens with a condo buyer arguing with the property manager about defects and unfinished work, and with the property manager telling him to get lost. Nothing unusual there, or different today. The building is full of retirees and old people moving down from the North, people who didn’t read the fine print in their contracts.

Our hero is an engineer, Gus Garver, who has built all over the world and understands how things are built. He is not impressed with the quality of the Golden Sands condominium.

The elements and components were of sufficient size and apparent sturdiness. And he knew that good engineering adds a sufficient safety factor to overcome the minor goofs and oversights during normal construction, the ones not caught by inspectors and specialists. But in genuinely sloppy concrete work, as this seemed to him to be, there comes a point where the accumulated goofs eat up all the safety factor, and then if there is enough stress on any portion, enough to crumble it or crack it, the deflection is transmitted to other portions of the structure. They in turn crack or twist or crumble, and the whole thing comes down.

The real estate developer of the Golden Sands, meanwhile, is planning another project right next door. Times are tough, but like every developer, Marty Liss is willing to roll the dice, thinking short term instead of long; there are enough fools out there to buy what he is building. This is the paragraph I was thinking of when I was writing about the Porsche Design Tower and its flamboyant and ridiculous developer, as Marty weighs whether to proceed or not:

Arguments in favor of going ahead: When things look the blackest, then is the time to make your move, because you get the jump on the ones holding back. The politicians can’t risk big unemployment. They’ll goose the economy. The government protects industrial pensions. Social Security will keep going up. They have to come to Florida. Where else can they go? They’ll keep coming down and all you are betting, Marty, is that one hundred and sixty-eight of them will be able to spring for an average eighty-thousand-dollar apartment, sixty for the cheapest, a hundred for the tops. They’ll be on the water with an easement to the beach. They’ll keep coming until there’s no more water to drink or air to breathe, and that is a long time off. Like five years? And I can be in and out in two—if I decide to go ahead. Jesus Christ, it is scary.

Meanwhile, Gus Garver continues wondering how he ended up in such a horrible place with such crowded and deteriorating roads. He has an interesting planning insight about how things used to be, also relevant today:

Backwards, he thought. Full speed ahead backwards. Things used to be delivered: milk, butter, eggs. Milkman made a hundred and fifty stops. Now a hundred and fifty cars have to chug to the convenience stores. Trouble with the engineering mind is an infatuation with simple logic.

And the evil developer is trying to get his project approved by corrupting officials, who sneak his approvals into a document with 140 other items so it won’t get noticed, particularly the environmentalists, but also confident that Florida politicians are on his side in bad times. Once he has the approval, he will move in on the weekend and clear the wetlands before anyone has any time to object. (Something that is still done everywhere.)

The big thing on our side is that construction is falling off so bad, nobody really wants to kill this kind of big new project.”
“The ecology freaks?” Kimber asked.
“They’ll be the loudest,” Traff said. “When does Herb move in?”

Back at the Golden Sands, residents are setting up a private security force, arming themselves and patrolling the property. A former diplomat tries to explain to his wife what these people are afraid of, which is apparently everything:

On the local level they are terrified of predatory tax increases, drunken drivers, purse snatchers, muggers, power failure, water shortages, inflation and the high cost of being sick. Nationally they are afraid of big government, welfare, crime in the streets, corruption, busing, and industrial, political and fiscal conspiracy. Internationally they are afraid of the Arabs, the blacks, the Cubans, the Communists, the Chinese, the multinational corporations, the oil cartels, pollution of the sea and the air, atomic bombs, pestilence, poisons and additives in food.  

So we have so far: a shoddy building, an evil developer, corrupt politicians, scared old residents, and now, some bad weather moving in. Is this normal, or are humans causing it? It is certainly hotter:

All over the big shopping plazas the air conditioning roared, sending out waves of heat which raised the ambient temperature of the areas, creating more work for the air conditioning.

Garver tries to explain to a friend why he is becoming concerned about environmental issues.

I live in the world. I’m a pragmatist. Do this, and that happens. Do that, and this happens. Complex equations and interrelationships. If we were doing things right, the seas wouldn’t be turning rancid, and the air would never get to a hundred thousand particles per cubic centimeter.

After all of this setup, the storm moves in, upgraded to hurricane force. Fiddlers Key is full of condos, sitting on a sandpit. Marty the developer, in his clearance of the site, has removed all the natural wetlands that usually absorb the forces of nature. Everyone is told to evacuate, but they cannot so they settle in for the storm. You can imagine how it turns out; some heroics, many dead, and Gus Garver had a good eye for construction.

Much has changed in forty years, but not human nature. You can read Condominium and see today’s politicians, real estate developers, builders and condo buyers. People determined to ignore weather and climate. Meanwhile, in Florida today as I write this:

UPDATE: In 1980 they made a terrible movie for TV out of it:

A very late book review: John D. MacDonald's Condominium
It was written 40 years ago, but reads like this afternoon.

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