Contemporary literature rarely touches on the topic of cannabis, mostly because, like other industries, they’re frightened. By “they” I mean publishers, authors, readers. After all, it is still federally illegal (which you’d think would give it more publicity, like bank robbery). However, earlier this year, the folks over at Unnamed Press published a book by Dale Maharidge, and I would recommend that anyone else with a weed novel hold off for at least a year or two, because I can quite confidently say that it won’t be as thorough, thrilling, and true to the cannabis space as Burn Coast.
The book takes place in the Emerald Triangle, on a fictional ridge nestled behind the Redwood Curtain. It jumps back and forth in time between the 1960s, when a group of outlaws settled there to grow weed and live in/ooze peace, and the present, after their hippie daydream has been invaded by the dark cloud of big money.
The story follows Will Specter, a middle-aged journalist who built himself a cabin there in the ‘90s, as he searches for a missing woman named Zoë Vanderlip, one of the original pioneers of this community. We also meet Will’s closest thing to a neighbor and friend, Daniel Likowski, who is a cross between the Marlboro Man and Jay Gatsby, with an onionesque identity. Zoë’s son, Klaus, is worth mentioning too, “his expansive greenhouses having made him the largest employer in the valley”; Klaus has also been accused of raping or assaulting three women, most notably, a Bulgarian trimmer by the name of Tammie.
We do a deep dive into each of these characters’ histories, all equally exciting and unexpected. Zoë, for instance, grows up on the East Coast, then runs off to Germany as an act of rebellion after discovering that her father, a general in the U.S. military, helped sneak Nazis into America. She has Klaus with a West German draft resister; the three of them move to the States in order for the child to receive a “proper education,” and for him to be “closer to the natural world, removed from the society that was collapsing”; soon thereafter, their relationship falls apart and Zoë becomes a single parent. Likowski, a purist who believes in the incontestable beauty of sun-grown cannabis, mentors Klaus and teaches him how to grow.
“Depping” (i.e. light deprivation) plays a major role in the novel. It is the distinguishing factor between old versus new world cannabis, similar to winemaking. And speaking of alcohol—this is semi-unrelated to the book, but—I find it interesting that we exist in a moment when the next Jim Beam or Jack Daniels is out there somewhere, growing weed.
There are many cultural references throughout Burn Coast, including Abbie Hoffman, Dick Gregory, and Joan Didion; Timothy Leary even makes a cameo, discussing the “heightened state of ‘aesthetic receptivity’ that acid gave him.”
Burn Coast is a how-to guide to storytelling (so those of you who want to write fiction, I would definitely say check this one out, because as the old saying goes: you can’t write unless you read). Through the eyes and mind of Will Specter, we see how—and how not—to report. We learn how to grow—mind you, it is a novel so you won’t become a legacy grower just by reading this book, but you may learn something useful, for example: “Rent a big house, at least three bedrooms, so you can go full throttle. Put white window shades in the front, then gaffer-tape black plastic behind them so from the outside nothing looks wrong … You’re gonna burn through juice; they say they don’t, but they look for big spikes in bills. Suddenly the electric bill goes to like eighteen hundred bucks a month. I never rent more than twelve months.”
On top of that, the book is overflowing with beautiful language—occasionally, it’s too good to the point that it makes me upset: “Deaths from sudden violence are often preceded by the exquisitely ordinary. Teeth are brushed. Clothes to be worn are chosen from a closet. Shoes are tied. In an overseas nation riven by war, you wake up each day expecting to die, and these small things are appreciated as they are accomplished, if only for the fact that you are alive to do them. Americans are robbed of this joy because of the illusion that the United States is not a conflict zone. No victim of a mass shooting expects to die going to school to learn, a club or outdoor concert to dance, a cinema complex to watch a film, a church to worship, a small newsroom to report on local events. It’s the same for individual victims of violence: The convenience store clerk shot dead by the robber. The unarmed black motorist stopped by the cop for a broken taillight. The inner-city mother watching television in her house, in the path of an errant bullet fired two blocks distant…”
Burn Coast is an off-the-grid mystery, and like all the best mysteries, it continues to unravel and bloom with each conversation, each clue, until the very last, smoke-filled paragraph.