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Radioactive Beagles Here? Sure!

Usually when OC turned up in my reading, it was in the context of: "Suburbia: Has Something Gone Terribly Wrong?" William Fulton tries to be balanced in his The Reluctant Metropolis: The Politics of Urban Growth in Los Angeles; still, his brilliant chapter on Orange County inspired me to write "a mind too small, an appetite too large" in the margin. (It's a line from Szymborska's poem "Dinosaur Bones.")

That summed up Orange County for me—before OC Weekly.

The more I read, the more I wanted to read. The quote from Szymborska isn't exactly wrong, but thanks to the Weekly, I've come to realize that the dinosaur lives among some interesting flora and fauna. And I also realized that Orange County is what I need. It is the perfect place for my radioactive beagles.

A word of explanation: I'm a writer, and the beagles play an important role in a novel I'm working on. I probably shouldn't call them my radioactive beagles, because they are not products of my imagination. They are from the imagination of the folks who brought us the Cold War.

In the late '40s, it was decided that the country needed a large-scale program to determine the effects of massive doses of radiation on dogs.

Turns out they die.

After years of research, when it was certain we were safe from . . . from . . . oh, I don't know, say, the Russians attacking with atomic-powered borzois, the scientists discovered a problem. Although thoroughly dead, the beagles now had a half-life; the dog bodies were too radioactive for bacteria and other agents of decay. The program left a small mountain of perfectly preserved, somewhat lethal beagle bodies. Like many radioactive relics of the age, they are stored in a tank at the Department of Energy facility in Hanford, Washington. If you're wondering whether those are the same storage tanks that were recently threatened by wildfires, they are.

The very real potential of becoming a raging, egotistical bore makes a writer with an unfinished novel (especially a first novel) a greater threat than any tank full of nuked beagles. George Orwell writes that Paris in the '30s was crawling with insufferable people talking—always talking—about how their novels, never finished, will make everyone forget Proust. There are bars and coffeehouses in New Orleans I avoid for the same reason. I don't know how you feel about Proust (I'm pro, myself), but he's in no danger from me. I'd rather vote for George W. Bush than discuss my writing. The Telecommunications Decency Act prevents me from expressing myself any more vigorously. I'll tell you enough to explain my interest in Orange County and how I came to be your admirer, and then not another word about the novel.

It's a satire, hopefully. Four young men who want to make a great statement (about what exactly is a matter of disagreement) decide to engage in "the propaganda of the deed." One has a connection that offers them radioactive material from a government lab. Thinking a little plutonium will go a long way in creating a panic and, more important, a great spasm of news coverage, they pay without inspecting the goods. They end up with a U-Haul trailer filled with radioactive ex-beagles.

They decide to press on. LA is ground zero, or it would be if the blustery, jingoistic TV shows they have targeted were actually made there instead of Canada.

Here's where I ran into a wall. I needed public spaces, places that attract a lot of people into a confined but not closed area. Aside from the freeways, LA is a little short on great communal spaces. The parks? I wanted something more man-made. Olvera Street? Close, but no. Westwood Village? Third Street Promenade? Nothing appealed.

Luckily, I had already started reading OC Weekly. Orange County has everything I need. It provides the public spaces—and in the best possible way for my purposes: privatized and theme-parked. And such a variety of theme park-like locations: traditional (Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm); religious (Crystal Cathedral); historical (Nixon library); artistic (Sawdust, Pageant of the Masters and Art-a-Fair); purely commercial (OC's highly advanced mall culture); yea, even unto death (Westminster Memorial Park, a gem I found listed as Best Graveyard in the archived "Best of '98"). It also nicely fulfills my need for a place where "The American Dream" would be invoked a lot, usually in reference to something you can buy. And I needed the local government to be small-minded and venal enough to put business' profits ahead of public health without a second thought. Bingo.

It was not as obvious that Orange County could provide the final element I need. My four characters realize the place that embodies so much of what they hate is also a nice place to live. I don't mean they aspire to own condos with sweeping views of the Pacific or join the Bahia Corinthian Yacht Club. They get a feeling for the life that exists beyond the lifestyles that the Chambers of Commerce market and cultural critics denounce.

I know that all decent people who are concerned with the Decline of Western Civilization are duty-bound to deplore Southern California, but I don't. Sure, "Los Angeles is unique in its bright horror" (Gore Vidal's phrase), but I still like it. That's the result of many visits and being fairly well read in the literature of LA, from Horace Bell to Mike Davis.

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