THE BARBAROUS COAST
What The Critics Say
\“Rich in character, setting and style, Coast is a strong book, But its strength lacks coordination. Ross Macdonald’s marvelous material suffers from vagueness and lack of dramatic follow-through. Notably weak is dramatic selection. We don’t move close enough to the characters to imagine ourselves capable of their crimes. Instead of finding pieces of ourselves in the book, we examine the motives of strangers . . . Coast is a driving good novel. Had Ross Macdonald sharpened its motivation, he could have supplied the conviction to make it a memorable one.”
Peter Wolfe, in Dreamers Who Live Their Dreams, identifies this as the first of Macdonald’s “middle novels,” written between 1956 and 1960. Although I entirely agree with his comments about “sharpening motivation”, discussing this now would be a serious spoiler.
“The Barbarous Coast is not a pleasant novel . . . Macdonald sails an irregular course, maneuvering between massive influences in Chandler and Hammett . . . The Barbarous Coast is still far from solving the structural problem with the detective novel, for it concludes in a shower of murders.”
Michael Kreyling, in The Novels of Ross Macdonald, discusses the weak plotting of the book at length. He parts company with Wolfe on considering the four 1956-1960 novels (The Doomsters, The Galton Case, The Wycherly Woman, and The Zebra-Striped Hearse) as a unified middle period. His view, with which I agree, is that the 1956 disasters in his personal life involving his daughter, Linda, fundamentally changed the nature of his writing and ultimately led to his artistic (although not commercial) breakthrough book, The Galton Case. The “middle period” books were whatever Macdonald could throw together to pay his daughter’s legal and psychiatric bills. In themselves, they are not a coherent progression of his artistic development. But we will have a lot more to say about that when Linda Millar’s life goes off the rails—literally.
“The Barbarous Coast is Macdonald’s Hollywood novel . . . it demonstrates the limits of the American detective novel after Chandler.”
Bernard Schopen, in Ross Macdonald, does not discuss the book at length, but he offers a crucial corrective, one not noted by the other commentators. It’s a long quote but for serious readers of Macdonald, it’s worth it.
“The Barbarous Coast contains an observation by Lew Archer that is adduced in every extended discussion of Macdonald’s fiction: ‘The problem was to love people, try to serve them, without wanting anything from them. I was a long way from solving that one.’ . . . It is not so Christ-like musing . . . It comes after Archer flees a woman to whom he is so sexually attracted that ‘I caught myself doubting my premises, doubting that she could be any kind of a hustler. Besides, there was just enough truth in her accusation, enough cruelty in my will to justice, enough desire in my pity, to make the room uncomfortable for me.’ Hardly altruistic, Archer’s remarks rather express his inability to separate his personal and professional lives. He would love, but finally his will to love is not as strong as the ‘cruelty of my will to justice.’ Thus the absence of a real personal life. Thus the emotional; intensity of his professional life.” (Italics are mine)
“Arguably his best novel to date.”
Matthew Broccoli, in Ross Macdonald, does not elaborate this bald statement. Readers are free to make up their own minds. For myself, I thought The Ivory Grin and The Moving Target were superior and that The Way Some People Die was a work of greater subtlety and control.
Tom Nolan notes that the book received good reviews when released.
What The Publisher Thought
Seeing that the author had followed his advice in inserting plenty of violence and “detective in jeopardy” situations, Alfred Knopf did not change a single word. But after a decade of encouraging Macdonald to write detective novels, Knopf now wanted him to write a mainstream novel—advice that Macdonald wisely ignored.
For years, Kenneth Millar had published under variations of his preferred pseudonym, such as John Ross Macdonald, J.R. Macdonald, etc., in an unsuccessful effort to placate John D. MacDonald. With this book, he gave up and began simply using the name we now know him by—Ross Macdonald. John D. MacDonald’s threats of litigation were ignored.
A Bias Warning
I have read the book four or five times and have only slowly come to dislike it less. The attack on the character who is an obvious stand-in for Raymond Chandler is crude, unnecessary to the plot, and beneath Macdonald’s dignity. I like elegant stories told with economy; this is a sprawling shaggy dog story. As Wolfe pointed out, Macdonald’s talent for creating vivid minor characters often deserts him here. But, although I am not shy about injecting my own opinions, I will do my best to present the book fairly. If you got through my discussion of The Three Roads, a book that truly drove me crazy, you can handle this.
Ha, our opinions differ on this one! The Barbarous Coast may be my favorite Macdonald so far (though I’m currently reading The Chill which could displace it). I came to Macdonald from Chandler so I love the ’50’s Malibu/Hollywood/Vegas connection, along with the humor. The books that followed it seem much more defined and weighed down by their intergenerational darkness. And I’ll respectfully disagree with your assessment of the minor characters, I really thought their variety was one of the book’s strengths.
In fact this was the first Macdonald that I asked my wife to read – I was waiting for just the right one with plenty of “entertainment value” (I guess a measure of how engaging I found the novel’s world) along with clear plotting. I also recommended it to a filmmaker friend of mine who loves noir stuff and had read a Macdonald short story collection.
In my mind The Barbarous Coast is the apex of Chandleresque fiction. While we don’t get to bask in Marlowe’s attitude, we’re given a more coherent and balanced storyline than Chandler ever provided.
And as you’re well aware, this was the last novel Macdonald wrote before his daughter’s hit and run laid open his family’s pathology to start spilling out onto the pages of his books. So it may lack the psychological depth that became his calling card, but to me it’s the work of a master storyteller at the top of his game.
Your comment is exactly why I created this blog. Disagreement, when backed up, is more interesting than agreement. Looking back, I haven’t blogged one of his books where the critics were unanimous. Sometimes I wonder if they were reading the same book.
If your friend really likes the noir feel, I recommend The Far Side of the Dollar.
Yeah, it’s funny how we think our opinions are impartial precise measurements of “quality”. Of course they’re actually influenced by so many, mostly unknown factors. I just know that book really appealed to me – YMMV!
Thanks for the tip re: The Far Side of the Dollar. That happens to be the next one on my list after I finish The Chill.
I mentioned that my friend’s read a Macdonald short story anthology. Can I ask you about the short stories? Often for me when there’s a novelist I like, the short stories just don’t seem to measure up. In part it may be because my expectations are set high, and short stories can’t approach the development of a novel. Also typically the short stories were produced earlier in the writer’s career, when their skills weren’t fully developed. This was certainly my experience reading Chandler’s early stories – while it was kind of interesting seeing his development, I didn’t get a lot out of them.
So what can you tell me about Macdonald’s short stories? Weren’t most of them written earlier in his career? So do you feel there’s much value in reading them? And if so, is that because they’re really interesting from a developmental point of view, or because they’re great for similar reasons that his novels are great? How many of them did you feel are really good stories in their own right? Are there particular standouts you’d recommend, or is one of the collections superior to the others? Thanks for your input.
Macdonald’s short stories appeared twice, once in My Name is Archer and again in 2007 in an edition edited by Tom Nolan, The Archer Files. The 2007 is the one to get. It has two stories that did not appear in the original and it has a marvelous “biography” of Lew Archer that is worth the price of the book in itself. I wasn’t planning to address the short fiction in my blog, but I would recommend them. Only one of the stories has a gimmick ending and some of them are very thought-provoking and moving. Writing a mystery short story is hard work and he succeeded very well. Your point about the inherent superiority of the long form is my own view as well.
Our correspondence has made me realize it was worth the trouble to write the posts with spoiler alerts. I had a preconception that the readers would be people who were already familiar with the stories but I am pleased to learn that Macdonald is still finding new readers after all this time.
The attack on the character who is an obvious stand-in for Raymond Chandler is crude, unnecessary to the plot, and beneath Macdonald’s dignity.
What makes the connection with Chandler so obvious? I gather you mean the man who hired Archer (in the first place).
Thank you in advance, great blog!
Thank you for your comment. You ask a good question that I did not fully develop in the blog because of space and this is a good opportunity to correct that. AndI am gratified that my blog is reaching as far as Greece.
The insight about the attack on Chandler is not original to me. Peter Wolfe makes a passing reference to it, but the point is made more explicitly by Michael Kreyling, page 78:
“Archer’s discomfort with Bassett [manager of the Channel Club] plays out Macdonald’s discomfort with the enigma of Chandler. If Hammett was a fairly benign presence in The Way Some People Die, Chandler’s cameo results in a kind of exorcism. First, Bassett’s tweedy English affectations seem perversely out of touch with a beach paradise on the Pacific:
He sat down at the desk, opened a pigskin pouch, and began to stuff a big-pot briar with dark flakes of English tobacco. This and his Harris tweed jacket, his Oxford slacks, his thick-soled brown brogues, his Eastern-seaboard accent, were all of a piece. In spite of the neat dye job on his brown hair, and the unnatural youth which high color lent to his face, I placed his age at close to sixty.
“The shot across Chandler’s bow is obvious. Marlowe’s pipo rituals, his sharp eye for tailoring, his Anglophilia are clearly set up in the introductory appearance of Clarence Bassett. In the mid-1950s, Chanlder, born in 1888, was in his late sixties–the same decade but at the distant end.”
Thank you very much for your swift and thorough reply, and for claryfing this point for me – to set things straight: I didn’t doubt about its accuracy, just made me wonder what I had missed when I read the book. I think your blog is a “must-read” for all Macdonald’s fans!
Thank you for your very kind comment. This blog has been running for two years and I am very gratified to see that it’s finally generating comments. I am planning to do a special post about Chandler; stand by while I address this subject at greater length.