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the underground man

25 april 2023

When private eye Lew Archer careens off into one of his this-person-leads-to-that-person investigations, uncovering decades of hideous secrets in the space of a day or two, he usually starts out approached by a client. In The Underground Man (1971), all it takes is a little boy coming out of the next apartment, wanting to feed some blue jays some of Archer's peanuts.

The little boy is the son of a woman who has taken refuge in Archer's neighbors' apartment. Almost at once, the woman's estranged husband appears, with a troubled young blonde woman in tow, and sets off with the child. Archer chivalrously accompanies the mother on a trek from West Los Angeles out to Santa Teresa, encountering wildfires, corpses buried in the woods, a drama-queen grandmother, a mentally troubled handyman, various young bourgeois on the hippie fringe, their martini-swilling elders, ex-lovers, cryptic parents … as usual you cannot keep the plot in your mind for any spell longer than the current conversation and as usual it doesn't matter much.

The Underground Man is one of the later Archer novels – 16th of an eventual 18 – though Macdonald was only about 55 when he wrote it and may not have expected the series would end only five years later (he would die of Alzheimer's at the age of 67). The prose of The Underground Man is sparer than that of some earlier Macdonald novels; his amazing stock of similes had run nearly empty, like the scrag end of an overpressed tube of toothpaste. The topicality of the novel – America in decline as baby-boomers grow into young adults – might seem facile or dated till you remember that young adults in Macdonald's fiction were always corrupted by their families' sinister secrets, right back to The Moving Target in 1947. Macdonald seems less to have jumped onto a bandwagon of generational angst than to have given the wagon its initial shove a generation earlier.

Lew Archer self-identifies as older and lonelier than he used to be, though there too, it is hard to recall an Archer who was young and significantly-othered and stable at any point in his career. Unattached women in The Underground Man are invariably drawn to Archer, and he sometimes responds, but more often his professional ethic steers him clear of the people he's working for and against. As so often, we get ephemeral glimpses of possible happinesses for Archer, but they vanish, or he is profligate with them. Or maybe life really doesn't offer such possibilities, and only Archer is wise to the fact.

Macdonald, Ross. The Underground Man. New York: Knopf, 1971.