In his famous cross-cultural study of world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell outlined what he called “the hero’s journey.” He argued that its basic premise can be boiled down to the following:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are then encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.
Campbell maintained that this single narrative is the basis for many of the world’s most important and enduring myths, legends, and stories. Also known as the monomyth, he argued that it serves as the foundation, either in part or in whole, for everything from the epic tales of Gilgamesh, Hercules, and Beowulf to the travails of religious figures such as Buddha, Mohammed, and Jesus. Elements of the monomyth can even be seen in many famous modern novels and films, from the journeys of James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus and Jack Kerouac’s Sal Paradise to the Star Wars films, among others.
In our postmodern world, however, we like to think of ourselves as more sophisticated than those that came before us. We like to think of ourselves as more subtle, more complex, and certainly less naïve than our forebears. And as writers we believe that simplicity – in any form – is the kiss of death. It is no surprise, then, that many modern novelists reject the monomyth as too restrictive, outmoded, generic, and simply banal. In fact, some writers have blamed the monomyth for injecting cliché and a lack of originality into stories – whether novels or films – that should be relevant and complex. In our quest for “relevance” and “complexity,” however, we tend to ignore – and even denigrate – anything that smacks of this simple thematic structure. In doing so, unfortunately, we often overlook the power of these old, enduring narratives to move, challenge, inspire, and motivate.
Happily, writer and novelist Tom Mahony isn’t burdened by this conceit. In his latest novel, Pacific Offering, he isn’t afraid to incorporate elements of the monomyth to create a story that is, on one level, about a young man’s quest to find a lost love, and on another, about a man confronting that human universal: inevitable change.
Like the central element of the monomyth, Pacific Offering begins with a journey. In the first chapter, two roommates and lifelong friends, Beck Richards and Parry Simms, are already well into a journey that has become a mainstay – even a rite of passage – for many young southern California surfers over the past several decades: the Baja surf trip. It soon becomes clear, however, that the novel’s protagonist, Beck Richards, hasn’t undertaken the trip solely for the purpose of surfing, drinking beer, and eating fish tacos. During a previous Baja sojourn he met and fell in love with a pretty Mexican girl, Elena. When he returned home they stayed in touch for a while – via telephone and letters – but eventually drifted apart, the relationship collapsing for a number of complicated reasons, not the least of which being the hostility directed at Beck from Elena’s father, Luis. Then one day, seemingly out of the blue, Beck receives a letter from Elena, the mere appearance of which rekindles much of his old desire for her. Unfortunately the letter never gets opened; Parry unwittingly throws it out with the garbage. But the fact that she has written him after a long hiatus not only intrigues him but motivates him to undertake a trip southward – that and rumors of a big south swell.
So it is on this premise that the two friends take to Beck’s battered pickup, Ginger, and tool down the long Baja peninsula. Things, however, turn sour quickly. In place of “fabulous forces” the duo encounters bandits, corrupt cops, dangerous surf, dank prison cells, and other hazards. In fact, as the book opens, Beck and Parry are robbed one night by a truckload of bandits who steal most of the boys’ money. A gun is held to Beck’s head while a man with a snake tattoo steals something that is especially dear to him – a pocket watch Elena had once given him. Although this item holds a lot of sentimental value, there is nothing he can do to get it back; instead, he simply cowers in his sleeping bag, petrified by fear.
The next morning Beck berates himself for his cowardice and inaction. This episode sets the tone for the rest of the trip, where seemingly everything that can go wrong does. All this stress places a strain on the friends’ relationship, a strain that grows ever larger and more damaging as the narrative moves along.
There is, of course, another reason for the widening gulf between the two friends, one that has nothing to do with the stresses of the trip and everything to do with differing philosophical outlooks toward life. As the journey progresses, Beck finds himself increasingly asking questions of an existential nature. He begins to question his view of himself, where his life is headed, and how he envisions his future. In fact, everything around him – from the people he meets to the landscape itself – seemingly urges him to seek out such questions. At one point when Ginger bogs down in the sand, Beck and Parry are given a lift by an old Mexican rancher. Recalling the former glories of his ranch, and lamenting its present, more impecunious circumstances, the old man describes life (“vida”) with a sweeping hand gesture and the exhalation, “poof!” It seems clear to the reader that Beck has an inherent understanding of what the old man means – even if it is visceral more than intellectual. This understanding on Beck’s part is a harbinger of deeper insights to come.
Parry, by contrast, is a completely different animal. While Beck is in the process of questioning old motivations and seeking new answers and directions, Parry remains caught up in old patterns and behaviors, fearful of the future and the changes it will undoubtedly bring. His is a psyche that runs from responsibility, gives in to whatever urges overtake him at the moment, and cruises from one outrageous situation to the next, without dwelling on the possible wreckage left behind. It is no surprise, then, that unlike Beck, he has trouble understanding the old rancher’s emphatic description of life and accompanying hand gesture. This is made clear later in the novel when, during a rare moment of reflection, Parry asks Beck, “I’ve been thinking about what he said: ‘Vida’…poof.’ What did he mean by that?” His failure to understand seems perfectly in keeping with his mindset.