Dale Maharidge begins Burn Coast with a history lesson of sorts—a one-page explainer to set the scene. “A region of California where three tectonic plates meet to form a Triple Junction Fault Zone,” he writes, describing the area in which his novel will unfold. Although he never identifies it as such, this is the Mendocino Triple Junction, about 270 miles north of San Francisco, among the most seismically active corners of the state. It’s near the site of the Mendocino War, in which, between July 1859 and January 1860, white settlers massacred hundreds of Yuki people and stole their land.
“In one account,” Maharidge writes, “they were driven by white pursuers into the sea and drowned. In the other, they were buried or tied down in the sand amid the rocks and then the tide came in. In both versions a woman about to die issued a curse: ‘The white man is doomed to never prosper here.’”
Regardless of which version is most accurate, it adds up to a haunted landscape, which is what Burn Coast is about.
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It makes sense that Maharidge would start by giving context; a former staff writer for the Cleveland Plain Dealer and the Sacramento Bee, he has taught journalism at Stanford and Columbia and won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction for And Their Children After Them, a collaboration with photographer Michael Williamson. Burn Coast is his first novel, but it echoes something of his biography. The main character, after all, is an ex–Los Angeles Times reporter and Stanford adjunct named Will Specter (the last name is telling) who fled to the Lost Coast area in the 1990s.
“If you were involved with some dark news event, be it economic, criminal, or ecologically destructive in nature—fires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes—there was a very good chance that Will Specter showed up at your door,” he admits early in the novel. “…Yet it was much more than simply the demons I’d collected in those years of reporting for the Times.… It was the change in newsroom culture. There was a new top editor, a bald man who wore suspenders—a corporate clone in over his head whose insecurity made our lives miserable. I couldn’t take it any longer.”
What Specter finds in Northern California is a group of people who feel the same. “Not America,” they call their off-the-grid community, where roads can be impassable and weed is the main—or only—income source. It’s the last refuge of both the Wild West and the counterculture, of dropouts and growers and hippies who moved north in the 1970s, looking for space or liberation. These include Likowski, a grower with a hidden past; Zoë Vanderlip, an Upper East Side blue blood turned north-country freak; and Zoë’s son, Klaus, who, now in his mid-50s, aspires to take his cannabis enterprise to new heights. “I’ve got a vision,” he tells Specter, showing him a vape pen. “I’m thinking of the next phase.… This is the future.” It’s a situation ripe for conflict, with old-timers like Likowski desperate to fend off change—or, more accurately, to hold on to what they’ve got.
Maharidge sets all this in motion with Zoë’s disappearance, which kicks off the main action of the book. That this is a red herring should go without saying, for Burn Coast is built on secrets and misdirections—a noir, in other words. Specter turns out to be a desultory detective, and Zoë rapidly becomes a phantom herself. Maharidge highlights this with occasional asides: “It was two weeks after the one-year anniversary of Zoë’s disappearance,” Specter informs us in the middle of the book. But that’s OK because he (not unlike Maharidge) has other rivers to cross. In that sense, Burn Coast is something of an inside-out noir, a novel that appears to be about a missing person case but instead becomes an excavation of missing people: the outcasts and the misfits who have reached the end of the road. “It is like that here—we are at the edge of infinity,” a character named Lara says.
The comment takes on additional resonance when we remember that 50 years have passed since the first homesteaders came to claim the territory. “Canes were used by some, and one person was in a wheelchair,” Specter observes of an annual July 4 gathering. “…So many of the OG hippies were dead or had moved away.”
What this means is that Burn Coast is ultimately more a novel of manners than a piece of crime fiction, despite the presence of a lot of crime. There are murders and robberies and assaults, drug dealing and bad behavior; a key plot point turns on a rape trial. Everyone carries a gun, and many characters fall prey to madness, their own or something more elemental, having to do with the specters who linger in this tormented place. But there is common sense also, or perhaps decency, a recognition of—or a grieving for—community and place. “Our way of life is gone,” an old-timer named Doc Anderson laments. “Maybe we were our own worst enemy. Where did we fail? What went wrong?” He is mourning the loss of time, yes, but also the collapse of a way of being, a way of believing, the breaching of a peculiarly Californian sort of freedom, the desolation of the soul.
In part, this has to do with cannabis, which has gone from a hippie fantasy of transcendence (“Use, don’t abuse,” read the cards my grower friends used to slip into the bags they sold in the 1980s) to big business in the most soulless way. But more, I think, Maharidge is writing about the deadening of the culture, of the species, of any kind of hope or expectation we might share. We are alone, Burn Coast insists, which means we must prepare for whatever happens. We must prepare to be betrayed. “When you’re in the shit you can’t fall apart,” Specter cautions, “or you end up one of the corpses at the side of the road.”•