MacDonald’s 1953 novel, the Neon Jungle, like many of his early novels, is an ensemble piece with a variety of characters alternating in the starring role. It centers around the Varaki family, who live in a great building adjoining the Varaki Grocery where they all work and includes not just those vein into the family but those who married in – no matter how brief the marriage – and those found by the neighborhood parole officer. It is a family beset and defined by tragedies and those tragedies beget further tragedies.
The opening chapter, however, does not take place at the grocery, but a continent away. Henry Varaki, on thirty days leave before shipping out for Korea, comes across Bonny being beaten nearly to death in an alley and spends the rest of his leave nursing her back to health. Bonny has little left to live for and nothing to recommend her, but Henry has a peculiar kind if grace and marries her to provide for her and sends her off to the family at the grocery. Having no one else, Bonny goes and becomes part of the tribe even after word comes back from Korea that no further word will ever come from Henry. It is ultimately Bonny’s admission into the heart of the family that brings her redemption as she manages finally to look outside herself.
Between the tragedy of Henry’s death and the family matriarch’s death, the once proud family suddenly is old and worn even with Old Gus marrying young Jana. Slowly but surely the rest of the family begins to fail, beginning with Teena, who suddenly goes from a bright successful student to a junkie hungering for her next fix and whose so-called friends are ready to sell her down the hall so they can get theirs.
The two parolees the Varaki take in turn out to be Horrors with one involving the family business as a front for dope peddling and the other tricked into it. Throw in some adultery and monetary pilfering and things start to look tragic right up until the final explosive scenes.
As with several of his other novels, there is not one over-arching plot, but a series of vignettes and character studies.