Off The Wall: How Did you Become Skeptical of Earnestness?

Mr. Rowe – Just finished your book. Damn delightful. Curious about the epigraphs you chose. In particular, “Be wary of all earnestness.” Why that one? And how did you become skeptical of earnestness?

Hi Thom – Mostly, because I’m a big fan of Travis McGee, who introduced me to that expression in The Deep Blue Good-bye. The exact quote went like this:

“I do not function too well on emotional motivations. I am wary of them. And I am wary of a lot of other things, such as plastic credit cards, payroll deductions, insurance programs, retirement benefits, savings accounts, Green Stamps, time clocks, newspapers, mortgages, sermons, miracle fabrics, check lists, time payments, political parties, lending libraries, television, actresses, junior chambers of commerce, pageants, progress, and manifest destiny. I am wary of the whole dreary deadening structured mess we have built into such a glittering top-heavy structure that there is nothing left to see but the glitter, and the brute routines of maintaining it. I am also wary of all earnestness.”

That was written by John D. MacDonald in 1964, but when I read it in the mid 1980’s, it summed up my feelings about the culture precisely.

To me, “earnestness” is dangerous because it’s often a symptom of true, absolute belief, and true believers, as a rule, make me uneasy. Their certainty gives me the creeps.

On the other hand, earnestness is also dangerous because it’s easy to fake. Most conmen appear earnest, and since McGee spent most of his time chasing down con artists, he was understandably suspicious of people who appeared trustworthy. Today, we find earnestness in newscasters, insurance salesmen, and politicians – all worthy of our skepticism.

I also chose that quote because it rhymed nicely with the other epigraph I chose, from another McGee – Sam McGee – brought to life by the great Robert Service. He said, “A promise made is a debt unpaid.” I liked the way the two felt together, so they appear in my book that way.

On the other hand, it possible I come by suspicion of earnestness honestly. I just found the attached text from my mother, who tried but failed to send me a birthday card earlier this month. It was her lack of earnestness, apparently, that doomed her efforts…

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