Confess, Greg

For years, Fletch was out of print. Now, his father explains why.

Mar 13, 2002 at 4:00 am
One day, years ago, Gregory Mcdonald was playing tennis with a man he'd known since they were both 12 years old. It was hot, the middle of summer, and Mcdonald was playing a good game--doing that tricky shit, making with the kind of moves that get under an opponent's skin and leave a deep blister on a scorching afternoon. Mcdonald's old friend was not amused. He was losing, so he did what all losers do. He slammed his racket on the ground, looked up at his old pal Greg and hollered at him. What the man said stunned Mcdonald.

"Goddamnit, Fletch!"

Mcdonald stared at him, as one does when he cannot believe what he has heard. It wasn't the first time someone had confused the writer with his most famous creation--Irwin Maurice Fletcher, the investigative journalist with a Bronze Star and a smart mouth--but it was the first time an old friend, someone with whom the author had grown up, actually referred to him as the character. He was so stunned he could barely speak, but this is what he did say.

"End of game. Period." He wanted to know, because he had to know. "Do you think of me as Fletch?" The friend was embarrassed.

"Oh, shit," he muttered. "Did I say that?"

When recounting the story now, Mcdonald can say only this.

"It was frightening. It was very frightening."

You see, very much like Irwin Maurice Fletcher, Gregory Mcdonald does not want to be known--by his own name, some of the time, much less the name of someone who exists only on the printed page (or on the movie screen). He and his wife will often make reservations under a different name. When a fellow traveler on an airplane asks him what he does for a living, he will often say he's in the insurance business.

He will not announce himself as Dr. Rosenpenis or Mr. Poon or John Cocktoasten, because that is something Chevy Chase did in the movie Fletch, which bore only a slight resemblance to its predecessor and became a touchstone for a generation fond of watching the film and talking along. But, nonetheless, he will hide behind the scrim of inscrutability. That is why he lives on a cattle farm in Tennessee, not in a brownstone in New York. He prefers the sunrise to the spotlight, the milking of teats to the kissing of ass.

When he was a writer at The Boston Globe, from April 1966 to April 1973, he refused to allow the paper to run a picture alongside his column; he wanted to move anonymously among the people, just one more shadow eavesdropping and keeping tabs. As a result, he turned out some of the best journalism of that raucous, dispirited era, some of which was collected in 1985 for the book The Education of Gregory Mcdonald. He listened as Jack Kerouac drank himself into a blissful, fluent stupor; he shot the shit with John Wayne at a ranch outside Dallas; he bantered with Andy Warhol, the piebald prince of disposable art; mostly, he found the right people who said the right things and portrayed them all as righteous. He planted the seeds of the revolution and handed out his bounty to readers hip to civil rights and gay rights and the anti-Vietnam War movement; for his toil, he was once beaten bloody in The Globe parking lot by colleagues and forced to stay out of the newsroom.

"I've known authors who are bloody nuisances, you know, who can't go into a restaurant without their announcing who they are," he says. "Lots of people write, I think, because they want a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches, and they want to be known as a writer. I don't. It's part of the Fletch philosophy--which was true regarding me at The Boston Globe--that I could sneak around and have all kinds of conversations with all kinds of people because I never let the Globe run a picture of me in the column. As soon as you become an icon yourself, then you've put up a big wall between yourself and people. I'm not at all sorry that people know my works and don't know me."

So, yeah. He's Fletch. And he's Flynn. And he's David MacFarlane. And Dan Prescott and Robby Burnes and Mark Edwards and every other man to roam his margins. They exist so Greg Mcdonald doesn't have to. They crack his jokes, fight his causes, raise his stinks, even bed his women. And his novels take what seem like moments to read, perhaps because they're filled with pages of dialogue with little scene setting to get in the way. Mcdonald feels little need to impress or dazzle. To show off with language, to become the gymnast on the keyboard, would draw attention to the man who doesn't want any.

"Everything comes from somewhere, and you can't write about things without having a very wide experience and having touched these things," he says. "I am not sympathetic, I am empathic. Sympathy is patronizing, but being empathic is having been there, done that, felt that. I made up the statement a long time ago that, you know, one's self--physically, mentally, intellectually, spiritually--is the instrument that the author plays. You can't create a character if you haven't been, pretty much, into him or her and come to some understanding of this person and where they came from and why they're doing this, why they react in this way. Most authors--is that fair to say?--are sitting there writing great passages on their opinions on this, that and the other thing, and it is from their point of view. I try to break down that wall."

Mcdonald is perhaps less known now than at any point in his career: He and his manager have spent years taking every single one of his books--all 26, of which there are nine Fletch novels--off the shelves and out of print, which most writers would consider an act of suicide. He did so with good reason: His books, beginning with 1964's Running Scared, were published and purloined by so many companies they'd lost their meaning, their weight. Mcdonald always thought of them as a piece, but they were broken into a thousand tiny pieces; his words were scattered like ash spilled from an urn, and he had no interest in waiting till he died for someone to collect his works and words and give them their proper due. His mother, Mae, a portrait artist, used to say, "Give me my flowers before I die." Greg, a good son, listened.

"I'm a perfectly happy guy, anyway," Mcdonald says, "but I'll be even happier if I get the sense that people are seeing all these things that I've done over these years as being sort of in one pot--from one hand and one mind and one set of experiences."

On March 20, Vintage Books will begin doling out the roses: The Random House imprint is publishing the first three books in the Fletch series--Fletch, first published in 1974; Confess, Fletch and Fletch's Fortune--which will be followed over the next two years by the remaining six. The company will also re-release Mcdonald's Flynn mysteries, featuring police inspector F.X. Flynn; and in spring 2003, it will publish Flynn's World, a sequel to which Mcdonald has been clinging for several years, awaiting such a moment as this. At long last, all his children will be in the same playpen. To that end, he hopes Random House will likewise see fit to resurrect his other novels, among them Running Scared, Love Among the Mashed Potatoes (1978), Safekeeping (1985) and the four books that make up the so-called Time Squared Quartet, including 1988's Merely Players.

"Vintage are the first publishers in my life who treat me like a human being, rather than a piece of meat or an object," Mcdonald says. "It's really a whole new experience for me. There's just something about people who produce anything, whether it's film or books, they think that what they're doing is the key thing, and they forget they couldn't exist if the creative person didn't. When I first went to the William Morris agency, there was an old man there--a proprietor, a brilliant guy, a lawyer and so forth--whose name was Howard Houseman. He became a very good friend and mentor to me, and the first thing he ever said to me was, 'Greg, stop thinking of yourself as an author. You're not an author, you're a proprietor of rights. Got it?' I think as far as publishers and producers are concerned, you're somebody who's trying to sell your house, and if they want the bathroom to have a cathedral ceiling, they'll tell you. And I don't think bathrooms should have cathedral ceilings."

It is likely that within the next two years, there will be a third Fletch film adapted and directed by Clerks' Kevin Smith, who has hinted that Jason Lee will play the title character; do not hold your breath, as it's been a project Smith has talked about doing since 1997. Mcdonald does not mind the delay or discourage the film: Though 1989's Fletch Lives wasn't based on a Mcdonald novel, for reasons he still can't quite fathom, he actually likes the notion of being interpreted through someone else's eyes--though, as Fletch's director, the late Michael Ritchie, once counseled him, "You'll never be satisfied with anything made from your books." Mcdonald found it very helpful advice.

But the return of Fletch in bookstores and on screen will not signal the return of the character; Mcdonald is done with him, and he with his creator.

"I miss Fletch more than anybody else does," Mcdonald says. "They were enormous fun to do. But I realized that if I continued, they would become just mysteries, and I'd just be grinding them out. Believe it or not, many publishers have come along saying, 'Could we farm this out and have other people write your books?' I mean, seriously, to keep the franchise going! I have a good friend who is today's Ian Fleming--he's been writing the James Bond books for all these years--and I don't want anything like that ever to happen. I've told my family and so forth that if, after I kick the bucket, somebody takes over writing Fletches and Flynns under my name or in conjunction with my name or as a franchise, I will come back from the grave and twist their heads off. I just don't want that to happen. As Popeye says, 'I am what I am.' I've been able to get something down on paper, and that's it."