The New Generation of Classic Short Stories

Vol. 8, No. 1

The Lure of California: An Introduction

by John King

The Lure of CA

California defies generalization not just because of its wondrous geographic variety, but because so much of its lure exists in our minds. The Golden State is tarnished and it glows triumphant and no two views are the same: the landscape yields mountains and tule-fogged marshes, pristine coastlines and ravaged hillsides. Earthquake faults hide waiting. There are spiked urban towers that want to be Chicago, and bits of Humboldt County still happy with 1967.
          For each pair of eyes that sees what was lost, another takes in the glory that remains. That’s what beckons writers to try and pin down the place on paper—and why writers most often fail. The obvious touchstones are visual—Lake Tahoe, Coit Tower, the Hollywood sign—but how does one define and portray a place that continually reinvents itself, where the possibility of reinvention is perhaps the strongest magnet of all?
          Carey McWilliams, the prolific mid-twentieth-century American author who headed east in 1950 to edit The Nation but considered himself a Californian to the end, wrote the most perceptive book about the Pacific Coast domain. In his 1949 study, California: The Great Exception, he argued: “The culture of California has two striking characteristics: the willingness of the people to abandon the old ways, and . . . the inventiveness, the quickness with which something new is devised.” McWilliams was neither the first nor the last writer to marvel at the strange effect California has on the people it attracts, but he may still be the best at describing the state’s constant rush toward change, its boom after boom, each one convincing the inhabitants of a particular era that they live in a time of unique peril and promise.
          “California is no ordinary state; it is an anomaly, a freak,” he wrote a century after the first of many subsequent Gold Rushes and before Jack Kerouac or Charles Manson or the state’s robust new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. “In California you learn to wait for the next explosion and, when it comes, you run as far and as fast as you can and then dig in until the next explosion splits the air.”
          These explosions are a mixed blessing, of course; they leave scars on the psyche and on the terrain, from mountains hollowed out in search of gold to the fertile farmland now buried beneath tract homes. When you see the transformation and remember what existed before, the pain is visceral—as if California is slipping away, lost finally beyond redemption.
          And if that sense of rootless slipping is true of the physical terrain, it’s even more true of the culture, which has morphed through the decades in ways that baffled longtime inhabitants (longtime in California being defined as long enough to see changes you dislike). Imagine the trauma for good Iowans transplanted to Los Angeles, earnestly recreating their settled Midwest, when hedonistic Hollywood (de)flowered in the 1920s. California has been on the frontier of cultural and social trends ever since, which is great if you’re the explorer but traumatizing if the new trends clash with your existing values.
          What John Steinbeck wrote of droughts in his Salinas Valley applies just as well to the state’s mood swings between a belief that this is the Promised Land and a conviction that the promise is broken once and for all: “it never failed that during the dry years the people forgot about the rich years, and during the wet years they lost all memory of the dry years. It was always that way.”
          Always was and still is. In the 1960s, that now-hallowed age of wonder, the double whammy of growth and social disruption led to publications with such names as Cry California and The Destruction of California. Thirty years later, people inculcated with ’60s values looked at the frenzied reverberations of the dot-com boom and saw their own version of the end times. This was true of the Bay Area in particular. “San Francisco has been for most of its 150-year existence both a refuge and an anomaly. Soon it will be neither,” Rebecca Solnit intoned solemnly in 2000’s Hollow City. She warned that “bohemia may well go away altogether” and that “all of San Francisco is being delivered vacant to the brave new technology economy, and altruism and idealism are two of the tenants facing homelessness.”
          Fast forward to the present: in November 47 percent of San Francisco’s voters wanted Green Party member Matt Gonzalez to be mayor, suggesting that at least a few bohos and idealists remain. Yet the same San Franciscans who embrace progressive politics vote to ban panhandling; statewide, meanwhile, in the past decade voters have tried to crack down on illegal immigrants and rein in university affirmative action policies, but they also gave their blessing to marijuana use with a doctor’s consent. As for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s election, it is nothing so much as confirmation of the cherished California belief that things would be great—again—if they would just get out of the way. Whoever they are.
          All of which is fertile ground for writers, and the soil gets richer with each new element added to what is perhaps the most multicultural society the world has ever seen. But what doesn’t change is the motivation of the migrants. They are drawn not simply by wealth or a good job but because they are seduced—seduced by their own dreams. They imagine this place, their California, will give them a chance to have it all as they define all. “Who can be surprised that the world came to California and still wants to come here?” Richard Rodriguez asked in 1991. “Restless lives are the point of life here . . . the newcomer’s gift to California has always been the audacity of optimism and the assurance that one can forget the past.” Every newcomer who puts down roots keeps that restless spirit alive—and extends it into the future.
          Wallace Stegner put it a different way twenty-five years before. “Bigots, we’ve got ’em. Rebellious and intransigent students, we’ve got ’em. Communists, fascists, Birchites, American Nazis, religious cranks, crooks, drunks, junkies, we’ve got ’em . . . California is a place where you find whatever you came looking for, and right next to it that which you most hoped to avoid.”
          California’s ultimate lure. Here, anything is possible—except the assurance that other people are like you. Or that you, or anyone else, truly know what might loom next.

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