If you love crime novels set along the coast of Southern California, you’ll love South on Pacific Coast Highway. Think Chandler and Hammett and the great noir films from the thirties and forties. Sultry dames and unsolved murders, bad cops and even badder criminals. A crisp but measured pace, with the desert wind for a backdrop…
Or perhaps you’d like to read about Americans incarcerated in Mexican prisons during the sixties. My fact based, crime fiction novel, The Trip Into Milky Way, captures unforgettably those wild years, from the early days, when we were just kids growing up and were still young and foolish enough to believe there was magic in this world and the great counterculture adventure waited ahead of us…
For those unfamiliar with Mihail Lermontov’s brief, 19th century novel titled the same, the narrator and protagonist, Pechorin, while dashing about the wild and rugged Caucasus Mountains, quelling native uprisings on behalf of the tsar, woos the heart of a certain Princess Mary, Pechorin’s conquest of this young noble lady seemingly motivated by one thing and one thing only. He thought her foolish and took delight in breaking her heart.
The dirty, rotten scoundrel…
Ironically, or not so ironically, Lermontov died in a gun duel not long after writing the novel, at the age of 27, his death prophesied by a haunting poem he had written barely a month before his demise.
In noon’s heat, in a dale in Dagestan, With lead inside my breast, stirless I lay;
Lermontov’s novel came to mind the other day while discussing the nature of my hero, Michael Devlin, with an old friend. Given the title, A Hero of Our Time, Lermontov’s novel, naturally came to mind in the discussion. Indeed, what the hell was I intending with my hero, Michael Devlin?
Digressing for a moment, I would like to note that the discovery of Lermontov’s stark, spare prose was nothing less than stunning to me as a fledgling writer. I have no recollection of how I stumbled across this now crumbling paperback but I do remember reading the first page and thinking, wow, isn’t this different. I could easily picture Hemingway having stumbled across Lermontov too, though to my knowledge he never mentioned it.
Be that as it may, Pechorin certainly represented a seismic shift in the heroic model in Western literature. As Northrop Frye pointed out in his Anatomy of Criticism, European fiction had steadily descended down the heroic ladder over the course of fifteen centuries, from gods to godlike heroes and finally to men, like Pechorin, who were little different from you and me. From the mythic to the high mimetic to the low mimetic, we had arrived at last to a bald state of irony. Pechorin did not believe in anything. He did not stand for anything and clearly did not care what anyone thought of that fact. I mean, a guy could really feel ripped off here for having his ideals.
There is abundant evidence to suggest that we, as Americans, have a serious internal conflict when it comes to the nature of our heroes. Using Star Wars as an example, we readily cheered on the rebels as they battled the Empire, when in fact our real life heroes are more akin to Imperial Storm Troopers. Think Seal Team-6, James Bond and Tom Clancy tomes. On the other hand, we find ourselves increasingly uneasy with a monolithic government prying into our personal lives, never mind corporations, so when someone like Jason Bourne comes along, giving voice to those discomforts, we have no problem with cheering on these anti-heroes too. We like our neo-corporate heroes, like Ironman. We like our scraggly Hans Solos too. We love guys who save the girl. We love guys who save the world. I suspect we’ll side with anyone who wins.
In sitting down to write South on Pacific Coast Highway, I had started out with a modest premise, that of writing the first book in a series of good mystery novels. Good crime books? Good murder mystery books? Whatever. The hardboiled crime of Raymond Chandler was my point of departure, but for atmosphere only. Phillip Marlowe was never a hero of mine. I enjoyed his wry nature, certainly, but I always thought Chandler had cheated a bit there. We know Marlowe is wounded, but what are wounds if we never learn how they came into being? Perhaps Chandler let on with a vague reference now and again. I knew a woman once. That sort of thing. It was Pechorin with a fedora, a chessboard and a Packard coupe in place of a steed.
At least Lermontov was being honest. As a young man, he did seem to be something of a misogynist. Chandler was entirely dependent on the kindliness of women in his life. We could have expected him to say something honest to that effect.
In recently reading Guy Davenport’s essay, The Symbol of the Archaic, I was reminded how mankind is always looking backward for its inspiration. The Renaissance looked back to Greece and Rome. The Enlightenment, with the advent of archeological discovery, looked back even further to ancient ruins and 20,000-year-old cave paintings. As Davenport notes in the essay, while Breuil copied bulls painted onto the ceilings at Altamira, Picasso crawled in beside him and found the seeds of a transformative artistic career.
South on Pacific Coast Highway was originally envisioned as a love story, with a few dead bodies here and there, and in creating Michael Devlin, I was actually looking back to the Troubadours. The “rescuing a friend” angle came later on.
Everyone knows of the Troubadours. Few properly understand the historical context in which they existed. In Robert Briffault’s seminal tome on the subject, The Troubadours, he makes a case that the blossoming of 12th century Provençal culture was the true Renaissance, or at least the original one. Certainly, if not for the Albigenses Crusade (and boy, do you ever not want to run into an Albigenses Crusade) history might well have come to consider that 16th century explosion of art and culture along the Italian peninsula as a footnote.
In what I believe to be the proper sense of the word, I would argue that the blossoming of 12th century Provençal culture was not in fact a Renaissance at all. Those lyrical poets were not looking backwards with longing eyes to another era for inspiration. They borrowed a poetic template used by the Moors, applied it to an existing form of music but sang the songs of a new romantic idealism. Somewhat misguided, in my humble estimation, all this willing suffering at the feet of a lady, but the point is, love in that moment had been transformed from something generic to the individual. You no longer accepted your family and church giving your hand away in marriage. And if that did come to pass, and you found yourself chained to a loveless relationship, you had no qualms about keeping a lover. In short, a kindred spirit and soul mate, who gave voice to your most tender and inspired emotions.
So to my point, and I am getting to one here, in the same sense that the Troubadours had borrowed from Moorish poetry, I was borrowing from the Troubadours in creating Michael Devlin, yet without kowtowing to their one thousand year old formalized template, no more than I would kowtow to buckled shoes and powdered wigs. And here too I separate myself from the incomparable Joseph Campbell. He seemed to worship this suffering over love as the true romantic template, when for me it was simply one halting step along the road of our evolutionary destiny. My thinking is, once folks have been freed from the daily struggle to survive, they play at l’amour. The Troubadours did, and this has never been more true than it is today. Check the personal ads on the Internet. L’amour is our age’s Omaha Beach. The sand may be littered with our corpses, but we’re always preparing for another assault.
The irony for Michael Devlin in South on Pacific Coast Highway is that he has found spiritual bliss in the arms of a woman, yet comes up hard against the vagaries of our ephemeral and unpredictable existence. The woman he loves is caught in a web of insanity, i.e. clinical depression, leaving Michael to his unwitting fate—that of the long suffering troubadour, singing songs of purity and devotion, at the feet of the woman who can no longer hear him.
Heroic? Who can say? In South on Pacific Coast Highway, Michael forges on relentlessly, all his energy focused on freeing a wrongly accused friend. Per the words of St. Paul, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” Michael’s form of heroism is to remain valiant in the face of all odds, i.e., an increasingly screwed up world. Love whispers like the desert winds in the background, forever reminding Michael of what was lost, but also reminding him of what might yet come to be. He knew devotion once. He longs to feel it again. Amidst the many heartless distractions of modern existence, there are certainly far less heroic things that could happen to a human being.