The Mercury News
California’s lush and lean landscapes loom large in some classic works of lit
California has been a stage for celebrated works of fiction, its lyrical landscapes the proscenium and often the star. And the state’s urban rivals, Los Angeles and San Francisco, elbow each other for attention, whether you take your words hard-boiled or gussied up with some literary lather.
As I page through books where California was the context, writ large or small, nine truly great volumes grab my attention — beginning with a wrenching drama. (Note: no definitive spoilers here, just a dipperful of flavor.)
Andre Dubus III’S “House of Sand and Fog” is a book to make you scream aloud, “No! Wait! Don’t do that!” The story is set in fictitious Corona, California — a stand-in for the actual sandy and foggy Pacifica, the real model for the town. It opens with a real-estate mistake between a recovering drug addict and an Iranian immigrant that spirals into a snake pit of misunderstanding, undue pride, misplaced bravado and emotional error. As tensions breathtakingly escalate, Dubus gives you reasons to care for all the characters. Be forewarned: Their grievous mistakes will gut you.
San Francisco’s dense, entangled Chinatown is the setting for Amy Tan’s classic “The Joy Luck Club.” Through its intricate, well-integrated structure, the book works eight perspectives: four mothers, four daughters telling their stories, which mingle and distinguish the daughters’ American perspectives and traditions with those of their native Chinese mothers. There’s humor, sorrow and surprise in discovering how well — or not — we know our parents and how well they know us.
Despite the promise of palms and endless summer, my L.A. collection shows a world gone south. Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” set in 1930s L.A. and Hollywood, offers many bouquets — all of them dirty and corrupt. People are bought and discarded, trust is
scarce, meanness abounds. Except you also get the crusty detective Marlowe — played in the 1946 movie by the crusty, though captivating Humphrey Bogart — who, despite his rough edges, has a code of honor. Crazy and perhaps inexplicable twists abound.
“Ask the Dust,” by John Fante, is set a few years later than “The Big Sleep” but has some parallels in depicting people of busted dreams. The lead character, Arturo, has come to L.A. from
Colorado to become a writer. His girlfriend is Camilla, a Mexican waitress, and let’s say their relationship isn’t ideal. There’s Depression-era grime and exhaustion, and — how Californian — an earthquake disaster. And in the end, the dreamers in the book are left with only their dreams.
Hollywood is the setting, too, for “The Day of the Locust” by Nathanael West. The lead character is another transplant looking to make his way in the film industry. There, he falls in with a motley crew of people from elsewhere (among them an ungainly fellow named Homer Simpson). Expect furtive attempts at relationships, thwarted lust, mangled dreams and a crazed mob scene at story’s end. And lots of vivid language that limns the contradictions of California’s promise — with deeper attention on film industry toxicity — and Socal’s darker realities.
Up in the Bay Area, everything isn’t all avocado toast, either. Dave Eggers’ “The Circle” is a winsome slice of dystopia, a bit like the frog in the pot brought to a slow boil: The idealism and camaraderie in tech innovation out to change the world turns into a chilling revocation of personal rights and responsibilities. The reader’s thoughts of “Ugh, that couldn’t happen, could it?” are followed by some “Wait, it’s already happening!” creeping in. Eggers has done a fine job of showing the lead character descending from bright optimism to — you’ll have to read it.
Sail across the San Francisco Bay to Oakland for Tommy Orange’s complex “There There,” which presents an intricate, woven fabric of urban Native Americans, some with startling and at-first unknown relationships that converge at story’s end in a heavy, somber finale at the Big Oakland Pow Wow. Orange does nice work separating and distinguishing the individual perspectives and thoughts of a varied cast and bringing in the power, pain and interdependence of memory, history and generational burden.
Nevada City, the New Almaden mining camp and a dash of Santa Cruz provide settings for Wallace Stegner’s story-within-a-story. “Angle of Repose” opens with its lead character, Lyman Ward, writing a history of his grandparents, who came out West chasing that ever-elusive California dream.
Lyman’s own marriage has fallen apart, as did that of his grandparents, and Lyman’s explorations of both falls direct the tale. Maybe you just can’t go far enough west to actually get away.
But who wants to leave on a sour note? Celebrate, instead, the humor and humanity of John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row,” set when Monterey was a sleepier place. The goofy and sometimes bumbling camaraderie of Mack and the other characters setting up a giant party to celebrate Doc — modeled on Doc Ricketts, the real-life marine biologist pal of
Steinbeck — and his goodness comes to a mad, sad end. But the second party — it’s a humdinger.
That’s nine. But we can’t leave without mentioning Joan Didion, especially her essays about L.A. and California in general. The collections “Slouching Towards Bethlehem” and “Where I Was From” have sterling examples of her unusual, crisp prose. And Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book,” about the checkered history of the Los Angeles main library, a great conflagration and library history in general, is excellent. That’s 12. Read on.