California Myths in Literature

Urs Durmuller

The West Coast is a territory of the earth and of the mind. As a literary region it has its roots in that much larger realm called the American West. But during the past fifty years a body of fiction has taken shape that deals more directly with the life and landscape and mystique of this farthest reach of the continent never entirely separate from the vast "western" world, yet clearly a world of fiction that has mapped its own geography.

"The West" may be said to begin with James Fenimore Cooper. Its stories and legends can occur anywhere between Appalachia and Puget Sound, between Saskatchewan and Mexico. It is peopled by cowhands, miners, trappers, pioneer mothers, Union soldiers, Sioux warriors, sheriffs, and sharpshooters. The West Coast as a literary region begins with Mark Twain, then heads rather quickly towards modern times. The fiction does reach back into history, but even in doing so, it tends to deal more with contemporary events. Its heroes fight City traffic as well as blizzards. The physical territory includes, with a little flexibility at the borders, the Pacific States of California, Oregon and Washington, that side of America that faces the Far East. Among the characters you will find some of those same cowhands and miners and pioneers, but you will also find migrant Okies, zany Armenians, scab lumberjacks, Zen Poets, hot-tubbing wine-drinkers, talking trout streams, existentialist private eyes, second-rate filmstars and undocumented aliens recently smuggled in from Nogales on their way to work in the Central Valley. Among the three Pacific States, California is the West Coast land. This is where the myth of the West concentrates today. Ten million tourists annually prove it: the myth of California endures much as it did more than a century ago when companies began luring easterners to Lotus Land. Some came after tangible objectives, such as gold; others came to escape hated obligations like shoveling snow. But for most it has simply been the conviction that the grass really is greener west of Nevada, the acerage more fertile, the sunshine more abundant, and the natives more friendly. This belief springs not from objective criteria, but rather from the blind faith in the mystical image of the Golden State. Early promoters insisted people could solve all their problems simply by stepping inside the state's boundaries. Physicians in the late 19th century spread the mistaken idea that Southern California's climate could help cure tuberculosis patients. Anxious to sell off some of its holdings, the Southern Pacific Railroad hired writers to churn out all manner of articles, stories, and books, touting California. Ads promoted the vast potential of California agriculture by suggesting that squash and melons grow so large they had to be picked on horseback. The fruitgrowers' exchange joined Southern Pacific in plastering Iowa with billboards crying "Oranges for Health, California for Wealth". One of the most boastful was former Stanford University president David Starr Jordan who said: "California girls of the same age are larger by almost every dimension than are the girls of Massachusetts. They are taller, broadershouldered, thicker-chested (with ten cubic inches more lung capacity), have larger biceps and calves and a superiority of tested strength." These early campaigns were a dramatic success. Millions poured in, not only to enjoy the golden opportunities and the golden climate, but also to dam up, pave over, chop down, bash in, or dig out much of what gave California its magical aura. And these two aspects of California - Self-made-man's fairground and paradise lost - this is what contemporary California fiction is about.


The Far West was dreamed about before anyone really knew it was there. It was foreshadowed in a Spanish novel of the 16th century called The Adventures of Esplandian, a romance - that era's equivalent of science fiction - by Garcia Ordonez de Montalvo. In that novel, published in Madrid in 1510, 32 years before the Cabrillo expedition first sighted and identified the West Coast, 25 years before Hernando Cortez named what is now the tip of lower California, Montalvo sent his hero and his readers on a fantastic journey: "Know then that on the riqht hand of the Indies, there is an island called California, very close to the side of the Terrestrial Paradise, and it was peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they lived in the fashion of Amazons. They were of strong and hardy bodies, of ardent courage and great force. Their island was the strongest in all the world, with its steep cliffs and rocky shores. Their arms were all of gold, and so was the harness of the wild beasts which they tamed and rode. For, in the whole island, there was no metal but gold." ( Edward Everett Hale, for the Atlantic Monthly, 1872) This island of Montalvo's was an invention, a fantasy, a dream that actually influenced the expectations of the earliest Spanish adventurers. There were, of course, no Amazons to be found in the new land. But its name stuck, as did the illusion that somehow everything grows bigger and better in the California sunshine. The Montalvo sequence, with the dream running well ahead of the reality, has affected, one is tempted to say, the life and the literature of the region from the outset. Such expectations can move people to try things they might not otherwise achieve. They can also lead to particularly sharp, often crippling disappointment. Experiences that might be viewed elsewhere as reality are cited out West as a failure of the dream. This dream, it should be pointed out, has seldom been promoted by the serious fiction. Other media have promoted it - word of mouth, popular songs, chambers of commerce, real estate campaigns. What modern fiction has provided, time and time again, is counterpoint, Plaving under or around or against the legends, as Bret Harte did, prophetically, in The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1869), as Frank Norris did in The Octopus, as Steinbeck did in In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath, and Joan Didion in Play It As it Lays (1970).


A good part of the power and the appeal of such fiction derives from the fact that, in the foreground, or lurking in the background, the dream is always there, somewhere, if only to be betrayed - the ongoing Western promise of the Big Romance, the Second Chance, which is a given in the environment, as potent and as insistent as the coastline. From the earliest days of settlement, this has been a region of abundance, of excess, of high energy. It has also been a region of tremendous variety in ethnic origins and religious beliefs as well as in terrain and resources, that kind of uncontainable variety that resists all patterns. Like the life out West, literature nowadays is moving in all directions at once. This is due partly to the so-called open society the Far West is notorious for, and partly to the multitude of writers. It happens that more writers live along the West Coast than in any other part of the United States outside the Boston-Washington megalopolis. Thus a lot of fiction is produced there. Not all of it deals with the region. Many writers choose to live near the Pacific Coast, drawn by the climate or the movies or a campus job or the available space, but write about other climes, other cultures, sometimes other Planets and other galaxies. In the midst of this literary abundance, a sizable body of work has emerged from the experience of the West Coast, from the terrain, from the legends, from the dreams dreamed and the lives lived, some of it from writers native to the coastal states, some of it from writers who have lived there a while and have also in some way incorporated this experience into their fiction. Alice Adams, for example, is a Southerner by birth, from Virginia by way of North Carolina. She has explored the South in her writing, but since the early 1950s she has lived in San Francisco, and some of her strongest work, such as the novel Listening to Billie (1978) and stories in Beautiful Girl (1979), deals with Southerners, or Easterners, who for one reason or another find themselves out West, and whose destinies are fulfilled or concluded there.

In Southern fiction, a frequent theme is the play between present time and some resonant moment in history, such as the Civil War. In the Far West, the more frequent situation is a character's present played against a past from another region, like the South, or the East, or Mexico, or the China Maxine Hong Kingston reaches back to in Woman Warrior (1976). It is a feature of the Pacific Coast that people arrive continually from somewhere else, with high hopes, to start over, or to play the final card. Because the coastline is both a physical and psycho-spiritual boundary, the interplay between the Far West and the realms left behind is among recurring themes.


A recent example of the type of fiction in which a West-Coast author reaches back to talk about his past and tells his experiences through his newly acquired California filter is Richard Grossinger's Out of Babylon. The Berkeley publisher and writer ("Planet Medecine", "New Moon") has good reasons to see his life in grandiose terms and himself as the star of a magnicifent melodrama, the center of cosmic riddles. Trained as an anthroplogist, practiced in the esoteric arts, Grossinger comes from a family with a history of madness, suicide, betrayal and convoluted questions of paternity. Add to this their almost archetypal story of poor Jewish immigrants who came to New York, made good and then lost it all. The story of Gossinger's is at first glance an "epic, a Jewish-American original," as Grossinger writes. "At second glance it is banal, pure advertising copy. It is also a sphynx..." So woven with his reminiscences of his unhappy childhood and questing adulthood are stories of a teeming New York in the early days of the century, with celebrities trooping in and out of the family hotel in its heyday and the sopa opera of family greed and rivalry that sealed their fate. Grossinger writes of growing up in the Manhattan apartment of his mother, Martha, and her husband, Bob Towers. Richard believed his was Tower's son until his adolescence, but he was never accepted part of the family. He was the black sheep to his younger brother Jon, the golden boy. Finally his real father stepped in, and swept Richard off for visits to the enchanted world of the Grossinger Catskill Resort and a therapist who helped the boy make sens of his family life. Typically for many present-day West-Coasters it was the shrink who set the tone for the rest of Richard's life. He began to carve out a life for himself, as a writer and anthropolgist, studying "tarot, astrology, alchemy as individuation, and philosophers of the Sufis and Jains", but he couldn't really escape his family until he met his future wife. Grossinger shamelessly drops names, mixes metaphors ("Apache shamans wander through the Druid forest"), and relentlessly piles on mundane details of his life (this t'ai chi class, that baseball game). Even his wife loses patience with his obsessive self-involvement. "It's almways one more tour de force with you, one more great thing about Richard and his mythology. Sometimes I just don't have the strength to deal with it," she complains, a sentiment with which the reader can sympathize. But Grossinger's story is fascinating and his vision grand. For all his false starts and overwrought musings, Grossinger's quest is a noble one - to shed the trappings of "imaginary profundity" and discover "a true wonder in my heart". Facing the big dark place, "bigger than the whole universe" into which his mother finally threw herself, he can only dig deep within and "find enough love inside me to slavage" himself and those he loves. A healing process brought about the spirituality cultivated and the esoteric lifestyle practiced in California, where the adult Richard found a new home.


West Coast writers have not practiced any one form as consistently as writers from the South, for instance, have practiced and excelled at the short story. Though many fine stories have emerged from the region, this cannot be dwelled on for long, the way one can dwell on the notion of "the Southern story". In the South, with its own rich oral tradition and much closer ties to Europe and England, the short story seems an authentic mode, built into the region's history. Out West a more characteristic impulse has been toward expansiveness and large works stirred to life by the landscape: The Octopus (1901) by Frank Norris, The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck, Sometimes a Great Notion (1964) by Ken Kesey, Angle of Repose 0971) by Wallace Stegner, Another Roadside Attraction (1971) by Tom Robbins.

The impulse to expand sometimes shows up as a renegade Western refusal to be penned in by anyone's expectation of what a narrative would or should not look like, a habit that has been called "the repudiation of received forms". We see examples in the chronic digressions of William Saroyan, in Ken Kesey's layer cake of voices and timezones, in Richard Brautigan's short, surreal, unclassifiable takes on trout fishing and in the runaway prose of Jack Kerouac, who found a landscape to suit his tastes when he finally reached the same coastal ranges that had inspired Robinson Jeffers to extend his poetic line far past what most publishers had come to accept as the tolerable width of a printed page.

Repudiation of received forms, of course, has long been an American pastime. This may be typical of life and literature in the Far West, but not exclusively so. If anything gives definition to this fiction, it is not the forms so much as it is the available material writers have had access to, such elements as the unique history and geography, with its resulting role in the imagery and mythology of the Western world and thus that endless fund of dreams and aspirations funnelled toward the Far West from every direction, some of them fulfilled, some of them demolished, some of them twisted beyond recognition; all of them related to that famous grand-daddy of all these hopes and aspirations: The Great American Dream.


A typical mirror of the American Dream as a California Dream can be found in Niven Busch's 1980 novel Continent's Edge. It is one of those full-bodied, robust novels of the West which an old-fashioned publicist would have been sorely tempted to describe as "a book as big as all outdoors". That may be too small a compliment to pay a novel whose bigger-than-life characters also manage to be true to life, and whose indoor nuances matter as much as its open air extravaganzas. Busch's new novel chronicles the fortunes of the Kinsales, an extraordinary California family that makes the leap in one generation from provincial cattle-raising to international oil. What happens to the California dreams of the Kinsales - and what happens to the Kinsales themselves in pursuit of those dreams - is the subject of this unfailingly interesting book. The central focus is on the rivalry of two Kinsale brothers Kyle, the corrupt man of the world, and Troy, the efficient man of the earth. As they fight the world (and one another) for control of the Kinsale corporate dynasty and family destiny, the two brothers shape clear definitions of what it means to be a Californian. Along the way, there are the glamorous women, merchant princes, power plays, and scandalous intrigues no novel of high financial and political aspirations can do without. But this is no ordinary novel. Experience tells in novels as well as in life, and Busch is an old pro who knows how to make his fictional men and women matter to the reader, how to make them perform in ways consistent with his reader's own expectations of California character and conduct. The Kinsales and their cohorts emerg e as more than onedimensional characters. They move with an energy and conviction of their own, and they quickly manage to involve us in their various quarrels, romances, and ambitions. After that, it is merely a matter of taking sides in the contest. Busch's ability to entertain extends into the area of actual social and political history, capturing portraits of life at the top in California between two world wars. A variety of familiar moguls (Hearst, Howard Hughes, Samuel Goldwyn, A.P. Giannini, Louis B. Mayer) have roles in the novel and come off better than cameo characters because Busch has an eye for the human element. In fact, one of the great satisfactions of the book is its ability to offer an epic adventure from which none of the little things that matter about people, money and power aside, seem to have been omitted. Continent's Edge is another example of the many good novels which have been devoted to an examination of the California myth. From the moment the reader saddles up to gallop with the hard-riding Kinsale clan to the moment he crosses the narrative finishing line, he is caught in the firm grip of an accomplished story teller who can make over 500 pages of fiction read like a tightly constructed tale. This is the West as we once liked to imagine it was, or might be, a landscape as big as the imagination, with room for men who dreamed on the grand scale.


While Continent's Edge testifies to the fact that the traditional California myth as a continuing success story is still around, much other literature produced in present-day California is not devoted to power and progress, but to much simpler and more basic values. A first pointer towards the re-definition of the California Dream which has been taking place in the last quarter century, is California Heartland, the first anthology to showcase writers and writing from the Great Central Valley, an agricultural empire of spacious landscapes, provincial towns, and robustly poetic storytellers. The valley is the last bastion in California of an older West. Its earthy, vital inhabitants - pickers, drifters, boxers, truckers, cash register evangelists, threadbare migrants, corporate farmers, and gaudy rodeo riders - seem to walk out of life into the pages of this book. Arranged in chronological sequence, California Heartland records the visions of valley Indians, literary pioneers, and modern social realists. By devoting most of its space to contemporary interpreters, the book gives us a truly representative cross section of the new regional writing, pointing out those writers of promise who bear watching. There are many to watch, among them novelist Thomas Sanchez, short story writers Richard Dokey and William Rintoul, and poets George Keithley, Bill Hotchkiss, and Lawson Inada. But the diverse talents and voices of these valley writers serve an even more valuable purpose. "They remind us," the editors say, "that there are still tales and verses about distinct groups of people inhabiting specific parts of the country, whom we are not likely to see on network television, where other taletellers conspire with the fast-food chains to absorb all our differences into one homogenous coast-to-coast mythology." What we have in this volume are storytellers and poets of the soil whose genuinely offbeat heroes and deeply rooted myths reunite us with that sense of self and place which each of us has lost or is in danger of losing. The illuminations of the Heartland's writers remind us that there is indeed another California, another America, and that it exists in a world apart from the prepacked images served up for mindless consumption by the mesmerizing tube. By the paradox of art, the well-defined literature of the Central Valley gives us a glimpse into the mysterious hinterland of ourselves, a vision of our own interior nature. Here is a country worth exploration. Here is regionalism that is more than local color. Here is the heartland in which each of us dwells. More of the same regionalism and the same intimacy can be found in David Rains Wallace's The Dark Range. It was as a graduate student that Wallace wrote the text of the book while prowling the Yolla Bolly mountains of northwest California. He has written a book of the most extraordinary power and sensitivity. Five years of intensive observation, research, and reflection are compressed within its pages. As an explorer in the night, Wallace has been up in the Yolla Bolly's foothills, forests, and mountaintips every sense attuned, and he has brought back an absorbing report on what is, after all, "half of life on earth". He is the kind of writer whose account of what is happening in a swampy meadow, a rotting stump, or a gully can literally send shivers up and down your spine. It is a regional book, but it will offer flashes of understanding to readers almost anywhere. All of Thoreau's books were, in this sense, "regional". Just as Walden is treasured by nature freaks all over the world, The Dark Range will come to occupy a special place in the affections of those for whom hills and mountains are a nurturing resource that help us, as Wallace writes, "to open up the still largely unexplored human mind."Here it is again, the magic of the West, of California, the primeval land, which, for some, went with Ishi, the last of the native Yahi Indians (cp. Theodora Kroeber's famous account Ishi), and which, for others, has long vanished under the blight of freeway culture, subdivision culture and pizza-to-go progress. It is a California which you may recapture if you leave the modern cities and immerse yourselves into that part of the land which has been left untouched, into the forgotten places of the Central Valley praised in California Heartland, into the mountain forests described in Wallace's notebook, or into the mysterious stillness of the desert as captured by Carlos Castaneda under the guidance of Don Juan on his Journey to Ixtlan.

There is today, then, much nostalgia regarding the California that was, regarding the legendary country of Bret Harte's Mother Lode and Muir's Yosemite, Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco and Jack London's Sonoma, Leonard Gardner's Stockton and William Saroyan's Fresno, John Steinbeck's Salinas, Jeffer's Big Sur and Raymond Chandler's Big Orange. This is literary California, now a territory of the heart, a region of the mind.


Gold Fever is again in the air. Local museums, public television stations, and publishers have rushed back to the mother lode to celebrate the 150th anniversary of gold in California - and they are finding gold where others had given up looking. Among those lucky enough to strike a vein is Michael Kowalewski in his Gold Rush: A Literary Exploration (Heydey Books, 1998). He proves to be an apt guide on his journey, leading us on a path that includes visits with more than 100 writers in sections titled "Before the Rush", "Getting There", "Gold Rush Life" and "Legacies". Kowalewski's opening essay is itself an inviting piece of literature that captures the spirit of the times - and what came afterward. His goal in editing the book, he writes, is "to sample that panoply of anecdote, observation, and artistic expression as a way of deepening our understanding of this complex historiucal phenomenon (and) illuminate our sense of how and why the gold rush opened a magic casement in the middle of the 19th century." Over the course of nearly 500,pages of text and accompanying illustrations, he succeeds admirably and, through his choices of text, exposes the hearts of the people who arrived in California before, during, and after the gold rush. The result is a no-holds-barred view of what happened in California beginning in 1848. The achievements o the new arrivals are on display next to descriptions of the impact their nactions had on others. John Marshall's and John Sutter's firsthand accounts provide a ground-zero view of the maelstrom that quickly engulfed the lumber business at Sutter's Mill when Marshall found his first pea-sizze piece of gold. Other accounts, in cleverly juxtaposed excerpts, speak volumes about the depth of racial tension and misunderstanding present at the time. A former slave's letter to Frederick Douglass in 1852 describes the deeply rooted segregation that already existed in this new, wild frontier; his letter is followed by a letter from a German Jewish woman who is fascinated by the sight of "ten Negro boys (who) come swimming to the boat. The passengers throw small silver coins to them and they dive for them .... and bring them back up, show them quickly, put them in their mouths, and the game starts all over again." It's difficult to choose specific sections for praise, since so much of the book is consistently compelling. One partcularly striking combination is the succession of three well-known post-gold-rush stories - Mark Twain's "The Celebrated Jumping-Frog of Calaveras County", Bret Harte's "The Luck of Roaring Camp", and a selection from Twain's Roughing It. The editor's presence is trong in this section at several levels. First, and foremost, the selections are equally entertaining. Secondly, a common motif - betting - appears in all three: Jim Smiley, in "Jumping Frog", would bet on anything "if he could get anybody to get on the other side"; Harte's characters bet n the outcome of an impending birth in a mining camp ("Three to five that Sal would get through with it, even that the child would survive; sidebets as to the sex and complexion of the coming stranger."); and gambling halls are briefly mentioned in the final excerpt from Twain's work. At a third level the editor pits Twain against Harte (giving Twain the final word) by including an introductory paragraph recalling Twain's boast that Roughing It was an attempt to "top Bret Harte again or bust." If this friendly rivalry between the writers doesn't capture the braggadocio of the period, nothing will. Whether Twain tops Harte is a question best answered by each reader, but Twain gives it his playful best. Portraying the sexual tension among men who "would flock in crowds to catch a glimpse of that rare and blessed spectacle, a woman," he tells of a woman who is travelling by wagon with her husband. As the couple approaches one of the many camps along their route, the men shout "Fetch her out!" and refuse to take no for an answer. Twain's denouement: He fetched her out, and they swung their hats and sent up three rousing cheers and a tiger; and they crowded around and gazed at her, and touched her dress, and listened to her voice with the look of men wholistened to a memory rather than a present reality - and then they collected twenty-five hundred dollars in gold and gave it to the man, and swang their hats again and gave three more cheers, and went home satisfied


Ever since the gold rush days, when shiploads of men arrived at the Golden Gate, the city of San Francisco has created it own myth. San Franciscans take great pride inntheir city, from its picture-perfect landscape to the gaudy tales of its wide-open, rip-roaring past. But ina city that's constantly being transformed, how much do people really know about the past? What - and who - has been left out of the romantic narratives of fortunes won and lost in an instanty, of earthquake and firesand the city that rose from thje ashes? A new anthologyReclaiming San Francico: History, Politics, Culture (City Lights, 1998) aims to answer some of those questions in a thought-provoking reexamination of the city' past, present, and future as seen through the eyes of a diverse group of artists, histroians, activists, and others. The books essays cover a great deal of territory. It opens with "An Appetite for the City" by Richard A. Walker, an overview of the city's post-World War II building boom and redevelopment, and the opposition that arose to both among the city's residents. It is a great (if whirwind) introduction to a topic that comes up again and again in the book, because growth and redevelopment have had an enormous impact on San Francisco, particularly on the marginalized communities that have been decimated by it. Aong these are the Tenderloin and Western Addition neighborhoods, the Filipino community, and South of Market's gay leather culture, all of which are discussed in essays here. Several authors reexamine popular mythologies of the gold rush era; both Gray Brechin ("Pecuniary Emulation: The Role of Tycoons in Imperial City Building") and Joh nChsitensen ("The Silver Legacy: San Francisco and the Comstock Loide") note that the most profitable mining that took place in those days was of sucker's wallets. Brechin focuses on the myth of the self-made man, noting that the vast fortiunes of the ra were created by plundering the public treasury with the cooperation of corrupt public officials. Brechin points out that we never seem to learn the lesson about supposedly "free" enterprise and public-private partnerships, which, he argues, rely on "popular amnesia of how oftne the public gets snookered in such deals." Other essays use studies of artists and artistic movements to illuminate events and trends in the city's - and country's - history. In "Another View of Chinatown: Yun Gee and the Chinese revolutionar Artists' Club", Anthony W. Lee takes a look at a group of young immigrant Chinese painters in San Francisco in the '20s and '30s and their attempt to forge a new identity and social movement through their art. Tommy l. lott debunks the myth of racial tolerance in san francisco in his "Black Consciousness in the Art of Sargent Johnson". Lott also argues that Johnson, despite his goal of bringing about social equality by expressing black consciousness through art, had little impact on the institutionalized racism of the time because he refused to advocate social change in his work. Other essays - such as Timothy W. Drescher's excellent piece on murals, graffiti, and billboard alterations - focus on themes related to San Francisco's artistic tradition of dissent and contrarianism. Then there are the essays that deal with the nature of perception and experience - how pwople relate to a landscape, and the cultural constructs that come between us and our surroundings. These include a description of a sort of "anti-tour" bus tour of the city by a group of artists in "You Are Here (You Think)," and a look at how movies have helped create a collectrive mental image of San Francisco that can be difficult to penetrate, especially when the city seems intent on turning itself into a series of props ("On Location: San Francisco"). Some of San Francisco's weirder side also makes it into Reclaiming - for example the fact that a group of foodie revolutionaries once bombed a Doggie Diner. In the book's final essay, "Seeing the Trees Through the Forest: Oaks and History in the Presidio," Pete Holloran talks about the utter transformation of San Francisco's natural environmenst since the arrival of European settlers, and argues convincingly that that it's time to reassess our ideas of what is valuable - what is worthy of being "preserved" - in a landscape that is constanly evolving. Many of these essays have as much to do with San Francisco's future as they do with its past: more than one points out that the city is in danger of becoming an enclave of the wealthy. Ads the editors state in the preface: "A city of mostly 'middle-class professionals' loses vitality and authenticity, and the skyrocketing price of housing contributes to a homogenous population .... It's as if San Francisco were becoming a shopping mall with an urban theme." The writers in this volume, by excavating the histories of communities and individuals who have battled these trends in the past - and won some important victories - give hope that there might be another path.


California of the 1800s wasn't just populated with nugget-hungry gold rushers -- in fact, it was home to many intrepid pioneers of a more spiritual sort. Drawn to California by inflated legends -- the state was praised for its eternal summers, expansive landscapes and "healing" waters -- a cadre of truth-seekers, invalids, quacks and just plain crazies forged new lives under the searing sun. Not surprisingly, the California of today is still a mecca of off-center religion and free-thinking -- the state has played host to the Moonies, the headquarters of Scientology and even saw the rise of San Diego's suicide cult, Heaven's Gate.

Tim Farrington's The California Book of the Dead certainly seems informed by California's strange spiritual history, if not consciously in tune. The novel follows a motley group of New Age types through the motions of their spirituality, offering a glimpse of the search that is at the heart of the "California experience" -- each character is on a quest, be it for the meaning of life, true love, or a roommate who will pay the rent on time.

At the heart of the book are Marlowe and Daa (nee Sheila Swensen), a lesbian couple in San Francisco who are trying to fill the space in their Mission district house left open by the death of their friend, and former roommate, Jackson. Along with their other housemate, an odd masseur who calls himself Jack Soft Hands, they search in vain; that is, until Marlowe's cousin Sheba arrives from Virginia with no place to live and a whole lotta family values to destroy.

Sheba, who retains her Southern graces and naive wonder, is a shock to these veteran California residents who, despite their peaceful veneer, have been hardened by years of shady religions, shallow friendships and lackluster love-lives. Needless to say, Sheba charms everyone but her relation -- Marlowe can't help seeing reflections of herself (and the conservative ethic she once personified) in her cousin. Not that Sheba is all that concerned; rather, she is busy immersing herself in healing light, the teachings of the Institute for Health and Immortality and Jack Soft Hands.

Of course, nothing is ever really as perfect as it seems; soon, Farrington's portraits of Pacific pulchritude begin to experience trouble in Paradise. Some find their religions crumbling all around them -- devotees are left with bruised belief systems and empty wallets after their leaders stumble upon a debaucherous demise or simply run off with the loot entirely. Others, notably Marlowe and Daa, experience a less esoteric demise -- their relationship begins to decay in a sea of self-doubt and sexual politics. Rather than being depressing, though, these small catastrophes are enlightening; as the characters experience doses of real-world trauma, they are allowed to drop some of their forced religiosity.

Happily, these events also bring out the cynic in Marlowe, Farrington's most developed character. Throughout the book, her confusion is refreshing -- with her wry observations and constant second guessing, she adds a refreshingly doubtful element to the tale. Persistently wary of turning into a stereotype, Marlowe also turns out to have the fewest burdens; although her beliefs aren't as strong as the others', she doesn't have to wade through unending cliches on her way to becoming a real person.

In a sense, The California Book of the Dead pokes fun at the strained numinousness of Golden State existence, though not oppressively. Farrington's humor is far too subtle for outright parody, and one gets the feeling -- from his loving prose and hippy-dippy photo on the back cover -- that he can't completely deride a New Age movement with which he feels fairly connected. At the same time, he tackles an idiosyncratic cast of characters with a keen eye and vibrant details; he knows his Shivadharma American Tantro Buddhist Community from his cabalists, and has enough sense to throw in some true nuts -- Dante (an itinerant musician who is making a rock opera of his namesake's Inferno) and Shakti (a flirty, flighty believer in past lives) -- for sheer amusement value.

As a result of Farrington's down-to-earth sensibilities, The California Book of the Dead neither descends into preachiness or pedantry. Whether you read it as a love story, a quest novel, or a document of popular culture, it is equally delicious --and might even teach you a thing or two about finding your own Zen.


One who seemed to think that the true spirit of California is embodied somehere in the past is San Francisco writer Herb Caen. Called "the most literate daily columnist in America", Caen's writing in the San Francisco Chronicle was required reading for the Bay Area. With one mention, he could make or break plays, films, and restaurants. Most famous were his hymns to San Francisco. He liked the city in its present-day shape; but if one rereads his daily column and if one reads his books there is no doubt that he loved Old San Francisco even more, The City That Was.


One of the great California novels of the last years was Kevin Starr's Land's End - a typical West Coast title like Busch's Continent's Edge -, a novel that centers on San Francisco, both the present-day city and Herb Caen's City That Was. Starr's panoramic story unfolds on two levels - one the 19th century, the other present-day 20th century. In the one narrative, Starr, who is also a historian, sketches the life of Sebastian Collins, Bohemian, winemaker, architect. Collins is seen to join a group of visionary Californians who are determined to make San Francisco a neoclassical world city. His life-story stretches back to the Gold Rush days (1849) and forward to the great Panama-Pacific Exposition of 1915. The reader is also introduced to some of Collins' friends and contemporaries, among which Jack London and Robert Louis Stevenson. Starr recreates in a highly detailed way the drama of California as a new outpost of the American dream at the far reaches of the Western world - at Land's End. Parallel with the history of Sebastian Collins there is the story of James Norton, scholar and librarian who, like his author,tries to capture the historic life of Sebastian Collins, and eventually to write his biography. With Norton we are introduced to present-day San Francisco - its rich and varied culture, its ethnic politics, its business and social life and its unfulfilled last hope dreams. As one reads the cleverly constructed book, the life of Sebastian Collins becomes a gloss on the life of James Norton, and vice versa. Land's End appears to me to be a sum total of what California literature is about, the fascination with the past, the hope to realise a beautiful future, the care for nature, and the urge to use its resources, the dream to keep and transform America at the same time. The flirt with Old-World customs and the desire to create a space for uninhibited human relationships.

In Malcom Margolin's The Ohlone Wayt he American Dream appears much more radically back-oriented than in Herb Caen's City That Was, or in Sebastian Collin's San Francisco of the time before the Great Quake, or in the heartland of California which seems to have escape the curse of modern civilization. A hundred and fifty years after the gold rush days, fifty years after the mogul times of Randolph Hearst and his likes, the California dream does not look forward towards a capitalist technocracy, but backwards to the paradise that was. It is the Indian past of the Bay Area which is evoked in anthropologist Malcolm Margolin's The Ohlone Way, Indian life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. Margolin started out from a rather simple question: "What was life like in the Bay Area before the coming of the Europeans? A mere 200 years ago an Indian people lived on the very land now occupied by modern-day San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Jose, Santa Cruz, and Monterey a people who with terrible rapidity have almost completely dropped out of the modern consciousness. Who were these people? What did they look like, how did they act, and what did they think about?" Margolin distrusted the old stereotype of the "Diggers" - a dirty, impoverished people who ate mainly insects and roots and who lived without "culture". On the other hand he also distrusted the modern (and as he thinks equally dehumanizing) image of "noble savages", a faultless people who lived lives of idyllic peace and prosperity. What he found in his research and presented in an account that reads like back-oriented science fiction was that the Ohlones can provide present-day mankind with a vision "a vision of how a Stone-Age people, a people whom we have so long belittled, has in fact sustained a life of great beauty and wisdom." What Margolin presented and what made his book required reading for so many Californians was the fact that the Ohlones, on the whole, "seem to have achieved a humane and merciful way of life, one which was capable of perpetuating itself for century after century without the people destroying each other or their natural environment." "A balanced (rather than exploitative) relationship with the environment; a strong sense of family and community; social moderation and restraint; the opportunity for widespread artistic creativity; a way of governing that serves without oppressing; a deeply spiritual sense of the world. These are the very things many Californians are currently striving to attain in their own culture.


And this brings up the utopistic novel written by Ernest Callenbach: Ecotopia in the seventies. Obviously, as the title suggests, this work again looks forward, not backward. But what it envisages in the future in many ways is a recreation of values Californians have discovered in their past. There is a small band of people, people with their heads screwed on right, who take a good look at the materialistic, wasteful, defence-oriented, environment destroying, nuclear-andforeign-oil-addicted, soul-mangling direction toward which America is galloping headlong, and then decide to bail out. The old American Dream of making it big for them has been turned into a maddening nightmare. They have a new dream, the New California Dream, the Dream of Ecotopia. Through nuclear blackmail, they force the rest of the nation to allow them to secede and set up their own independent country, which they name Ecotopia, for Ecological Utopia. They seal the borders to all influence from the outside world and completely redesign their society. Finally, the first official visitor is admitted. He is Will Weston, investigative reporter for TIME-POST. Coming from an America that has developed along the modern technological and commercial lines, he is overwhelmed by the seemingly underdeveloped life he finds. This is what he notices: The state has a federal structure. Women, not men seem to be in power. The economy is primitive capitalism, its motto being: small is beautiful. The whole of California agriculture has been turned organic. Restaurants don't serve any junk food anymore. People look trim and healthy. Public transportation has replaced individual traffic; streets are absolutely safe. San Francisco has been transformed into a garden city for pedestrians and cyclists. There are no more deaths from air and chemical pollution. Buildings are of timber. There are no billboards along the streets, no gas-stations. Synthetic fibres are no longer in use. The Plastic Age has come to an end. Materials used in daily life are recycled, the variety of consumer goods restricted. There is still television in Ecotopia; but people appear to use the tube, rather than letting it use them. If there are ads, they are very bland. People's opinions, on the other hand, are highly personal. Indeed, people appear to be very emotional. They are loose, playful with each other. They practice group living, they share their goods and themselves. They like the outdoors, the redwood forests in particular. From a state of initial shock, Will Weston, this modern Gulliver, is gradually brought to an understanding for and acceptance of Ecotopian civilization. Values changed, California is once again the land of infinite possibilities, the Golden State, where modern man may find the realization of his dreams.


The culture of San Francisco is more varied than Land's End might make us suspect. In the 1960s, especially, the city by the Bay enjoyed near-mythological status. Three books that were published only 30 years later appear to reflect the unique convergence of ime, place, and drugs that fermented a cultural revolution. They are not work of fiction, but show the background against which much of California fiction ought to be read. The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book chronicles the work of the popular and seemingly demented cartoonist who emerged from the '60s San Franciso underground comics scene. His Zap Comix and indelible characters such as Mr. Natural and Fritz the Cat were welcomed as mirrors of the drug experimentation and free-wheeling sexuality permeating the counter-culture of San Franciso and beyond. But as one sees more clearly now, Crumb was simply recording his own experiences and his perplexed, sometimes tortured reactions to them. Who can forget his cartoon titled "Stoned Again!" in which a man holds his head in his hands in panel after panel until his face melts? This beautifully designed, large-format anthology of Crumb's art is a profound work of autobiography. Like Terry Zwigoff's acclaimed 1996 documentary film "Crumb", it shows the artist's progression technically and historically - from the childhood comic books he created with his brother Charles to the hippy heyday when he became a cultural phenomenon. The book also brings us into the present, in which Crumb continues to reflect on the forces and events that shaped him and his career. It's hard to say which are more revealing - his strips or the short essays that introduce each chapter of the book. Crumb's trademark self-deprecating humor enlivens both. His explicit strips show his preoccupations, perversions and anxieties ("I've been trying to resolve the sex obsession with the art thing for my whole life", he explains in a chapter headlined "My Personal Obsession for Big Women Interferes With Some People's Enjoyment of My Work!"). Crumb's essays confront the controversy surrounding his art, such as the inclusion of raciual stereotypes and arguably sexist images of women, and contain the thoughful, measured refelctions of a man at 50 looking back and evaluating his personal evolution. "Hey, in my own defence I am not a racist!" he writes. "But all of this stuff is deeply embedded in our culture and our collective subconscious, and you have to deal with it. It's in me, It's in everybody. ... Some people say that the way I play around with it is too rough.It hurts people's feelings. ... A perverse part of me likes to take the heat for all that stuff. The people can hate me an feel righteously indignant about it, but meanwhile I have brought it out into the open." English opo music Writer ("Waiting for the Sun") Barney Hoskyns offers a concise history of the bands and the hippy culture of the Haight disctrict in San Francisco. His book, Beneath the Diamond Sky: Haight-Ashbury 1965-1970, covers all the lanmark events - the Human Be-In, the Tripps Festival, the Monetery Pop Festival - as well as the rise of bad drugs and the overwhelming influx of ousiders and runaways that killed the scene. Hoskyns is no insider and he tells the story without a clear point of view and without much insight. But what he says is accurate and even-handed. Interesting also the graphic illustrations of the era offered in The Art of The Fillmore: The Poster Series 1966-1971, written by Gayle Lemke. It is a comprehensive, gorgeously reproduced and chronologically arranged collection of the posters that were commissioned to advertise shows at San Francisco's famed Fillmore Auditorium and New York's Fillmore East. All the classic '60s San Francisco psychedelic poster artists are represented here. Readers can pour over Res Wilson's vibrating color juxtapositions and luscious organic forms; Victor Moscoso's illegible, fun-to-decipher lettering; Rick Griffin's flying e organic forms; Victor Moscoso's illegible, fun-to-decipher lettering; Rick Griffin's flying eyeballs; and David Singer's surreal colagges, to name a few. Rare handbills and even concert tickets take their place among the art of the era. The fourth new book is Peter Coyote's Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle (Counterpoint Press, 1998). It covers a decade of this writer-actor-director's life as one of the catalysts within San Francisco's 60's counterculture movement. Coyote, a great storyteller, has stripped away the "peace, love, and rock and roll" image one usually associates with the era, giving way to a straightforward and at times raw account of everyday life on San Francisco's cutting edge. Based on Coyote's experiences from the mid-'60s to the early '70s, the book elucidates his early involvement with such groups as the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the Diggers, and the Free Family -- a network of communes extending throughout western America -- as well as encounters and friendships with the likes of Gary Snyder, Janis Joplin, and Dennis Hopper. Though far from his first published work, Sleeping Where I Fall is Coyote's first book. But as the recipient of several Obie awards for playwriting and the 1994 Pushcart Prize for a short piece titled "Carla's Story," Coyote should not be dismissed as an actor writing for a hobby. He is unrepentant about his political stance. "The book is really important to me for correcting the way the '60s have deliberately been misrepresented to young people as a failure, as proof not to get involved in politics ... that we were just a bunch of people in bell-bottom pants and peace symbols, when that was so far from what was going on. As Coyote notes in Sleeping Where I Fall, "In the charged social climate of the '60s, many anxious for critical social change felt that the lines between what was inside and outside the values of majority culture needed to be clearly drawn. For those of us who rejected the specter of armed revolution and what would certainly be its ghastly consequences, drawing such lines required new forms of creative expression." Though present at a number of defining or "great" moments in his generation's cultural history, Coyote shrugs this synchronicity off as coincidence. "I think that we all vibrate at a certain frequency range, and that we don't move through the whole world, we actually move through that range -- so when you go to India you're not meeting everyone in India, you're moving within a certain bandwidth of frequencies, and within that bandwidth you'll meet people like yourself, interested in certain ideas and literature. There is no better or worse about this. I think that I move within a bandwidth where a lot of artists and thinkers move.... It cuts down on the level of coincidence.... The rest is just luck." Coyote is quick to point out that he's not quite moving in the same bandwidth he used to. "From the time I was 14 years old till I was 45, I was always at the right place at the right time. I was on the cutting edge of folk music, antiwar activism, and, you know, all of a sudden I wasn't. Time had changed and I'm at a different place and I don't care." The late '80s were a turning point for Coyote. As he puts it, "I was right at the point where I was changing my life from being in the wind to coming in from the wind." It was then that Howard Junker, editor of Zyzzyva, a West Coast literary magazine, encouraged Coyote to write a piece. He wrote a story called "Sleeping Where I Fall" based on a seven-day retreat at the Zen Center in San Francisco. "The piece was a kind of free association moving back and forth through my past into the present, the way your mind wanders when you meditate. It touched on a lot of things that came to be in the book: the caravans, the communes, the overdoses, and everything else." Publisher Jack Shoemaker, a friend of Coyote's through the Zen Center, read the piece, then approached him with a potential book project for Counterpoint Press. "So I sat down and started to write, and eight years later I gave birth to this thing." The counterculture nation Coyote and his companions had envisioned in the '60s no longer seems feasible to him. "The idea of simply creating a culture that you would prefer and going off and living and gradually converting people to it -- I don't think it's workable. I think we are creating an antigovernment counterculture. All of these Army of God bombings, the Waco incident ... are [evidence of] a large counterculture which is growing in response to the hard-heartedness of the government, the cruelty of its economic practices and policies. They are an armed and dangerous counterculture, and it remains to be seen what havoc they are going to wreak on America." Though Coyote has been back to the Haight, he no longer feels connected to the neighborhood. "I'm not particularly interested in the counterculture anymore. Remaining in the counterculture condemns you to marginality. I'm interested in changing the majority culture. I'm not saying there is no utility for a counterculture; a lot of ideas get germinated there, but it does tend to get a little bit like an Indian reservation -- kind of cut off from effect, and powerless. Powerlessness and poverty breeds its own problems. Poor people everywhere have certain problems, and at a certain point I got tired of spending all day in an automobile junkyard digging out a part for my truck to fix it so I could go look for a job. It just seemed like not a very good use of my time. So, I look at the Haight and I see it as a refuge for people who don't want to or can't face the challenge of what's going on in the last five years of the 20th century. It's something I tried exhaustively and abandoned as unworkable, so there's not much point of me looking back." "I did my best; it's taken me eight years and I can't do it better. If you take exception or think I've misrepresented history -- you do it, and that's really what culture is. It's very important to me that our West Coast culture be documented -- not just the hippies but the beats and the transcendentalists and the labor unions. We have a wonderful West Coast culture out here, and it needs to be documented. This book is just one tile in the mosaic of our history."

References: BROOKS, James, Chris Crarlsson and Nacy Peter (eds.), Reclaiming San Francisco: History, Politics, Culture. City Lights, 1998 BUSCH, Niven. Continent's Edge. Simon + Schuster. 1980. CAEN, Herb. One Man's San Francisco. Comstock, 1976. CALLENBACH, Ernest. Ecotopia. Bantam Books. 1977. COYOTE, Peter. Sleeping Where I Fall: A Chronicle .Counterpoint Press, 1998 GROSSINGER,Richard. Out of Babylon. Frog Ltd, 1998 FARRINGTON, Tim. The California Book of the Dead. Washington Square Press, 1998 HASLAM, G. + J. HOUSTON (edd.). California Heartland. Capra. 1979. HOSKYNS Barney. Beneath the Diamond Sky: Haight-Ashbury 1965-1970. Simon & Schuster, 1998 KOWALEWSKI, Michael (ed). Gold Rush: A Literary Exploration. Heyday Books, 1998 LEMKE, Gayle, The Art of The Fillmore: The Poster Series 1966-1971. Acid Test Production, 1998 MARGOLIN, Malcolm. The Ohlone Way. Heyday Books. 1978. ORDONEZ DE MONTALVO, Garcia. The adventures of Esplandian. Translated by Edward E. Hale. The Atlantic Monthly. 1872. POPLASKI, Peter. 1998.The R. Crumb Coffee Table Art Book. Little, Brown, 1998 STARR, Kevin. Land's End. McGraw-Hill. 1979. WALLACE, D.R. The Dark Range. Sierra Club. 1978.

Authors mentioned additionally:

Bret Harte (The Outcasts of Poker Flat) Frank Norris (The Octopus) John Steinbeck (In Dubious Battle, The Grapes of Wrath) Joan Didion (Play It As It Lays, 1970) Alice Adams (Listeninq to Billie, 1978; Beautiful Girl, 1979) Maxine Hong Kingston (Woman Warrior, 1976) Ken Kesey (Sometimes a Great Notion, 1964) Wallace Stegner (Angle of Repose, 1971) Carlos Castaneda (Journey to Ixtlan) Tom Robbins (Another Roadside Attraction, 1971) Theodora Kroeber (Ishi) William Saroyan Richard Brautigan Jack Kerouac Robinson Jeffers Thomas Sanchez Richard Dokey George Keithley William Rintoul Lawson Inada John Muir Dashiell Hammett Leonard Garner William Saroyan Raymond Chandler