THE THREE ROADS
THE THIRTY-YEAR-OLD VIRGIN
The central figure of the novel is Lt. Bret Taylor, a new style of protagonist for Macdonald. The first three books suffered from heroes who were implausibly talented, heroic, and constantly wisecracking. Taylor doesn’t have the restraint of Lew Archer, but he is a huge step forward. Well, perhaps a half-step. The silly banter and unnecessary skills are still there, along with a boldness that is reminiscent of Johnny Weather in Blue City, but Taylor comes with enough flaws to give him some humanity. More than enough.
- He graduated college with high honors and published a book on the role of reason in society, but he was restless at the prospect of a life in academia. He took a job with the State Department. When the war broke out he took a commission and has served on an escort carrier in the western Pacific.
- Taylor had a romance with a divorcee, Paula West, from the winter of 1943 through the fall of 1944, and they planned to marry. They had nineteen days together before he was shipped out, and they corresponded frequently while he was at sea. Their physical relationship was never consummated during those nineteen days. Reflecting on Taylor’s kisses, West remembers them as “pathetically arid.”
- Instead of marrying West in the fall of 1944 when he was on leave, he quarreled with her, got drunk, picked up a stranger named Lorraine in a bar, and married her instead the next morning. He confesses the marriage to West in a letter after he has shipped out again.
- When Taylor returns home in May 1945 he goes to his new home and finds that his wife Lorraine has been murdered. At that point he loses his memory and spends nine months in a Navy psychiatric hospital in San Diego because of his amnesia.
- Although Taylor had rejected West, she comes down regularly from her home in Los Angeles to visit him.
- After nine months of therapy Taylor does not know who West is, nor does he realize he was ever married.
- Taylor has anger management problems when he drinks. Fortunately this is a rare occurrence.
- Taylor had a terrible childhood. He was an only child. His father, a failed theologian who became a philosophy professor, was cold and unloving. He has vivid memories of seeing his mother dead when he was four. His father never remarried.
THE THIRTY-YEAR-OLD NOT-SO-MUCH A VIRGIN
The other main character is Paula West. Although the two of them spend a good part of the action apart, the story would be impossible without their relationship. West is in many respects the female version of the overdrawn heroes Macdonald was moving away from. Aside from her utterly incomprehensible attraction to Taylor, she is a person of accomplishment.
- She is a Hollywood screenwriter. After a rise from humble roots, she earns a very high salary–$750 a week, which is about $11,000 a week in 2021 dollars. She owns her home and a luxury sports car and has a maid who comes every day and prepares her meals.
- She is so desperate to marry Taylor that, early in the book, at a point when he doesn’t remember who she is, she says that she will marry him anyway.
- She visits him so frequently during his nine months of hospitalization in San Diego that his psychiatrist speaks with her freely, talking to her as if she really is his wife. When the time comes for Taylor to have his first furlough, he is released into her custody.
- She is a person with an appropriately active libido. Her brief marriage, firmly in the past, ended when she left her husband over his laziness and his drinking, not because of any sexual issues. Before the marriage there were relationships with several men, beginning in high school.
Note: Because of the structure of the book, the reader will not get all this information quickly or in the order I am summarizing it, but we must start somewhere.
A STRONG OPENING
We start with a view of a golf course from a hospital veranda. A one-armed golfer, viewed by Paula West, is working his way around the links. We quickly find that this is a military hospital and that the golfer lost his arm in the war. Inserting the mayhem of war into a quiet afternoon on a San Diego golf course is a strong opening, one that will be repeated several times. The amputee’s disability will be expressly compared to the amnesia of Taylor, and several times characters will remark on how the ocean connects California with the war raging further west in the Pacific. Macdonald is setting us up for a Faulkner-like respect for how distant events (distant in either space or time) impact the present.
Now that we have the two most important characters and the setting, let’s start looking at how the story develops.