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the barbarous coast

17 january 2011

Late in Ross Macdonald's great novel The Barbarous Coast, a trusting young character asks private eye Lew Archer if he's a good man.

"I like to think so," but her candor stopped me. "No," I said, "I'm not. I keep trying, when I remember to, but it keeps getting tougher every year. Like trying to chin yourself with one hand. You can practice off and on all your life, and never make it." (493)

When I was younger, I disliked stories of middle-aged male angst. Now that I am a middle-aged male, I read more and more of them. Yet I like to think that I read the ones that are rueful and self-aware, not the ones that are embittered and navel-gazing. There are thin lines between ruefulness and bitterness, between self-awareness and navel-gazing, I realize. Yet in addition to being a terrific American saga, a hard-boiled thriller, and a compendium of tough-guy dialogue, The Barbarous Coast is a meditation on manhood – not in the sense of beset manhood with its wounded prides and its inarticulateness, but in the sense of mortality, morality, and empathy with others. Lew Archer packs a solid right, can handle a gun, and is smarter than your average private dick. But he's all the more appealing because he realizes there's something more to existence, if he could only figure out what it is.

Private-eye novels tend to begin with a missing person. (Police novels tend to begin with a murder; obviously, police are too busy with murders to be interested in missing persons, and private eyes really should call the police if they run across a murder, though they often neglect this duty.)

When The Barbarous Coast begins, Hester Wall is missing. But does she even exist? She calls herself Hester Campbell, though she has married the impulsive young Canadian George Wall. Like so many Macdonald characters, Hester reinvents her identity continuously. She's gone from clean-cut Californian diver to bohemian Toronto housewife to Hollywood underworld moll in a few disjointed steps. And not many chapters into the novel, Lew Archer sees Hester dead by a fireplace, bleeding into a sumptuous carpet.

And then he sees her alive again, and she hovers between existence and nonexistence for a hundred pages more like some kind of Schrödinger's Cat of the detective novel. Meanwhile, scores of Theophrastian characters take form for a page or two as Lew Archer passes through their lives, one more desperate and grasping than the next. As in all the Archer novels, our hero enters a milieu that is just about to dissolve into murderous chaos in the day or two following his arrival. No wonder Lew Archer so often feels like everything he touches turns to ashes.

Macdonald, Ross. The Barbarous Coast. 1956. In Archer in Hollywood. New York: Knopf, 1967. 349-528.