I am not without hope of delighting to find the essential Coast Road novel. Expectations defined in a previous post on two Coast Road-titled books ended with a request that, at the very least, when a book is titled, “The Coast Road,” then the reader better find plenty of setting along the Coast Road.
Elizabeth C. Ward’s 1983, Coast Highway 1, has it all: A pissy, Stanford alum, University of Irvine comparative literature professor who translates nineteenth-century Spanish novelists, and intentionally grades his best student’s extraordinary paper a B+. Jake Martin finds the extraordinary student lying dead one foggy morning, under the bougainvillea of his Spanish stucco courtyard.
“It was too late to go home, even for a change of clothes. I bought a map of the coast highway and headed south.” Jake Martin exits his next locations (Balboa Bay Club, San Juan Capistrano, Encinitas, even Ensenada), always in the nick-of-time. Bullets prod his every departure.
A twist in the plot turns Jake northward, and soon he is north of Santa Monica, above Malibu, “Point Magu [sic]. One last strange rock, alone and seaward, like some forgotten giant or a period at the end of a sentence. Beyond that are the flats of the Ventura Valley, the firing range, the naval base, the Pacific missile range, pale fields with only the tips of the summer crop greening the land. Highway 1 hurries across it as though to get to the other side quickly, before the sea sweeps in again and wipes it clean.”
The reader finds plenty of setting along the Coast Road. In Pismo Beach, Jake races through Oceano Dunes to evade a dune-buggying pursuer. To reach some inland locales, such as Jake’s side-trip to Stanford campus, Elizabeth Ward writes, “I left the sea at Pescadero and turned inland through the artichokes and up into the redwood canyons that wind up to Skyline Drive.” At Fort Point, Jake exchanges words under the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge with the sergeant assigned to the case.
Penciled edits in the copy that I read, made me laugh out loud. The first edit is found when Jake Martin carries his investigation to Pacific Heights in San Francisco. Elizabeth C. Ward describes the streets of his location as, “…on California, between Jackson and Clay.” A savvy reader before me penciled in three parallel lines next to this paragraph, and named each: California, Clay, Jackson. To the right of the paragraph, this editor/reader wrote, “BETWEEN?” and then, for good measure on the page, a deeply-leaded “!”
Later, the same scribe slashed an “r” in “Monterrey,” with an admonishment, “One “ARE” in our Monterey!”
Elizabeth C. Ward includes the environmental movement and Robinson Jeffers in her Coast Highway 1. In the victim’s photography book on estuaries of the California coast, “Jennifer had used Jeffer’s words as the only text in her book and the photographs were worthy of a poet. The eye that had looked through the lens had lingered on the detail of wing and seed and ripple of water. Had recorded the reflection of insect and reed and marsh grass. It had gloried in the sweep of sky and the boundless still-spaces of the estuary.”
The gnarliest chase scene occurs, briefly, as a coast road run through the Big Sur coastscape. “No backwoods roads lead to the safety of highway arteries further inland. There is no escape except by foot into terrain where only the wildcat and the red-tailed hawk survive. Once committed, there is no way out. Set a roadblock, one at each end, and a man is trapped here forever. Fugitive, he is defeated, finally, not by the men at either end, but by the mountains themselves and the sea swirling below.”
Elizabeth C. Ward’s Coast Highway 1, is fairly essential as a Coast Road Read. It is certainly a bunch of fun to vicariously romp along its settings up and down the California coast. Elizabeth wrote two other books, both published in the 1980s, A Nice Little Beach Town and The Lost Day. Ms. Ward has lived in Newport Beach for most of her life.
A little article on Ms. Ward.