Warner, 1990, 626 pages, C$8.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-446-36085-6
As I slowly make my way through Nelson DeMille’s oeuvre, two things strike me about his books: The first one is that they all succeed to a degree or another. Some of his books are less interesting than other, but they’re still well worth reading even with the skimming and the speed-reading. But the second thing about DeMille is the most fascinating: His books work even when they shouldn’t.
Even though we could point at Word of Honor and Spencerville as other books that shouldn’t be as gripping as they are, The Gold Coast is the clearest example so far of a story that simply shouldn’t be as preposterously readable. A bare plot description is trite beyond belief: it’s about a rich middle-aged man who starts doubting his life and finds uneasy comfort with a new friend. I shudder to imagine how many awful novels have been written about mid-life crises, especially once you start looking at literary novels written by middle-aged academics. To imagine DeMille, master of the contemporary thriller, tackle such a subject is almost beyond description. Where are the guns? Where are the thrills?
As it turns out, you may not need any of the above –though they do make an appearance at some point. No, the big surprise is that The Gold Coast is a middle-age crisis novel written by a writer who’s a pro at holding his readers’ attention. Protagonist John Sutter is like every other DeMille narrator so far: self-deprecating, smart-alecky, perhaps a bit too smart for his own good. He’s living in a curious situation, having married well above his class: he makes a decent living as a Wall Street lawyer, enjoys his boat and drives nice cars, but his wife is the one with the real class, being the latest in an old-money family living on a Long Island estate that dates back to an earlier and more glorious time. For Sutter, trouble starts once his new neighbour moves in: Frank Belladonna, an old-style Mafia don who starts taking a bigger and bigger portion of Sutter’s life.
Belladonna, of course, is a magnet for danger. When guns finally make their appearance in The Gold Coast, they come courtesy of the Mafia. But that happens relatively late in the book: what really makes up the meat of the novel is DeMille’s description of the last remnants of old-style American aristocracy, compared and contrasted by the similarly dying nobility of the New York Mafia. Sutter see this through the troubled eyes of a besieged man, with a wife that grows more distant and tax troubles that are not coincidental to the tug-of-war between his neighbour and the federal government. Sutter lives at the edge between the world of the super-rich and the rest of us: an outsider to all, he makes a rich narrator who notices everything.
And indeed, the interest of The Gold Coast comes not from the late-book thrills, but in the vivid study of a way of life, of characters living down an era. DeMille’s characterization is impeccable: don’t be surprised if you’re seduced by the rough-hewn charm of Belladonna even as he’s clearly more trouble than Sutter can handle. The Gold Coast is a trial by fire for Sutter, and part of the fun is seeing him harvest the just deserts of his life so far. Scenes after scenes of delicious characterization make this novel a lot more fun to read that you’d expect from a 600-page novel about some rich guy undergoing a mid-life crisis.
And so I remain astonished at DeMille’s capacity to wring interest from an unpromising premise. Unlike some of his novels (The Lion’s Game being the worst offender), he also maintains our interest through the entire duration of the book: It’s hard to look at any 600-pages book and not think that it should be cut by a hundred pages, but trying to guess where to cut in The Gold Coast would be an exercise in futility. Suffice to say that it’s a book that will never be too far away once you start reading it. DeMille’s prose here is like popcorn, with a very real “just one more chapter” quality.
In short, The Gold Coast makes an unexpected entry at the top of DeMille’s oeuvre: Well-written, endlessly fascinating and surprisingly engaging, it shows what happens when genre writers turn their sight to more prosaic literature: perfect pacing and sharp characterization in the service of a story for the ages. It shouldn’t work, but it certainly does.