In 1944, Miller settled in what he called “my first real home in America,” a cabin on Partington Ridge, located in the rugged beauty of the Big Sur region of the California coast. He lived there for the following twelve years, and in Big Sur and the Oranges of Hieronymus Bosch, he tried to combine his vision of an ideal community with the somewhat less perfect situation of his life. In a painfully honest and often mundane report of his day-to-day life as a writer, parent, counselor, and local explorer, Miller produced what Norman Mailer calls a “wise record” of psychic survival. Still dedicated to his work (this is the time when Miller wrote Sexus, the heart of the triad that covers his life in the 1920’s), Miller was not as animated by the fire of wrath that drove his earlier work, and much of what he covers is amusing but not widely significant.
For readers familiar with Miller’s life and work, the book is like visiting an old friend, and Miller’s sense of style and language is still impressive enough to make his descriptions of the landscape and his observations about the world captivating. Except for the last hundred pages, though, there is little narrative suspense, and Miller’s occasional pronouncements as the sage of Big Sur, the center of an artistic gathering of serious and talented writers, are dissipated by frequent homilies and banal commentary. Too often, the genial ironist becomes the coy famous writer (as in references to “my quaint biographical romances”), but in the last part of the book, originally published separately as “The Devil in Paradise,” Miller provides the only real portrait of evil in his work.
A visit from an old acquaintance from his Paris days, the astrologer Conrad Moricand, brings an infusion of Old World decadence into this New World of semi-innocence. Moricand is a monster of self-obsession, vain, supercilious, and haughty, and Miller presents him as a parasitical creature controlled totally by an icy egotism. The contrast between the two men is an effective demonstration of how far Miller himself is now from the cancerous world of the 1930’s when he began his “song” and how much more he is capable of creating than the erotica which made him notorious.