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Radioactive Beagles Here? Sure!

Photo by: Clayton NewbillPaul Brennan is a writer in a small town outside New Orleans, Louisiana. He entered—and won!—our fabulous most-expenses-paid "Win a Date with Commie Girl" contest. What follows is his winning submission.

What can I offer you that others can't? The one thing that all women want, at least according to what they say in public: a date who actually wants to listen to you, who is even looking forward to an evening of you talking about your life.

Too strange to be true? An empty promise? No and no. Before you dismiss this as a transparent ploy designed to improve my chances against the knock-knock jokesmiths of Orange County, consider this: I am willing to travel 2,000 miles to spend the evening with you. Can any of the others say this?

To be perfectly honest, I may have phrased that a little too dramatically. I have been planning since early June to be in Los Angeles from Aug. 16 to 26. It is a trip of 2,000 miles, plus whatever the distance is going from my rather basic accommodations near LAX down to Orange County. But if I explain the main reason for the trip, you'll find that you were one of the inspirations for it—long before this contest.

So please indulge me while I tell you the story. It's a story of you, Bob Dornan and radioactive beagles—though not in that order.

I live at the far end of the 2,000 miles in a place called Slidell, Louisiana. The city is named in honor of the only man ever to be a complete failure in the diplomatic service of both the United States and the Confederacy. It's located in St. Tammany Parish (if you have a Lives of the Saints close at hand, you'll discover there is no St. Tammany, but that has never worried anyone here) on the opposite shore of Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans. St. Tammany serves many of the same functions that Orange County does: it's a haven for white flight, a playground for developers and a repository for many of the scarier elements of the state's right-wing politics. How scary? Until he stepped down this past February, the chairman of the parish's Republican party was David Duke.

Yes, that David Duke.

As for what I'm doing here, I won't bother you with that story beyond saying that at the root of the matter, as the first cause in a chain of events stretching back into the depths of my early childhood, Richard Nixon is to blame.

As for why someone living in this corner of the world is reading OC Weekly, Bob Dornan is to blame.

I'm not really a devotee of the Internet—I find digital dancing hamsters no more appealing than plastic singing bass—but it is useful for reading the alternative press. OC Weekly, however, was not on my reading list when I noticed its link at the bottom of the homepage of LA Weekly, but I couldn't imagine finding anything worth my while by using it.

Until, that is, LA Weekly reprinted an OC Weeklystory.

It was easily the most interesting thing in the issue, so I used the link. Then I saw the magic words: "Dornan Confidential." I double-clicked. I couldn't believe my good fortune.

If I weren't agnostic, I'd say, "God bless R. Scott Moxley." I read all his articles on Dornan. Printed out most of them. Thrust them on unsuspecting family and friends. I was delighted.

I've long been fascinated by Bob. At first, he just appalled me, but soon I was looking forward to every Weekly report of his obnoxious antics. Flashy and venomous but clumsy and limited, he is like one of those very elaborate reptiles found in the tropics. He seems to me an important symbol of his political era—he is what you get when you try to run a government without adult supervision.

So, I'd known for years Bob isn't Wagner; he's opera buffa. But it wasn't until I read "Dornan Confidential" that I knew just how buffa the opera is. I couldn't believe all this had escaped the notice of the national press or, at least, The Nation. Clearly, OC Weekly was worth reading.

I came for the Dornan and stayed for the political corruption, environmental degradation and many other pleasures offered each week (not the least of which is the art column, offering intelligent criticism presented after the style of a Viking raid on a monastery—snatch up the treasure and smash the rest, slaughtering whoever gets in the way and occasionally just putting the torch to everything in sight).

Initially, I was an interested but not weekly reader. Shockingly, I was even slow to recognize the value of Commie Girl—the column, not the writer. Sharply written and witty, it was about clubs I wouldn't be drinking in and nightlife I was much too far away to live. Mostly, I was picking articles that reflected what I already knew about Orange County. And that wasn't much.

To me, Orange County was its voting record—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Pete Wilson, etc. It was a place so right-wing and detached from reality that it sent Bob Dornan to Congress and named its airport for John Wayne (the fierce celluloid patriot who, during World War II, fought long and hard to avoid military service). Of course, I knew there was also the beach, bankruptcy, Disneyland, all-powerful developers and a strong distaste for Los Angeles.

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.

Orange County is a different matter. I've never set foot in Orange County. This might sound odd, but, at first, I thought this was a plus. Walter Abish—for my money, the finest one-eyed contemporary American novelist —made a point of not visiting Germany while writing How German Is It. A great novel. Even the German critics swooned, unable to believe he had never visited Deutschland. I'm not Abish, but I thought I could do something similar with Orange County. It was a challenge and might save me from getting bogged down in too much minutiae. It has proved harder than I anticipated.

As you know, there is not a vast body of work on Orange County; a problem, but not insurmountable. Maps were consulted and Nixon biographies browsed. I made the rounds of suburbanization studies and rummaged through histories of California. The timing of grunion runs was noted and the problems of the California Least Tern considered. I read what OC fiction there is, even making a forced march through the work of T. Jefferson Parker, and I learned that life is too short to ever read that many detective novels back to back again. (Have you noticed that T. Jeff really, really does not like women?) Newspapers were helpful, sometimes. Above all, I became OC Weekly's closest reader.

I suppose I should say, OC Weekly Worldwide, a cute, if rather grandiose, addition. Each week, I read the new issue, and I make frequent use of the archives. The archives have been very useful, both for looking up particular topics ("water pollution," "John Birch Society") and for reading through past columns. I think I've read almost all available entries for A Clockwork Orange and Commie Girl. I suspect that only Commie Mom has read more of your work. I further suspect that your local readers have no idea how lucky they are to have you on a beat that is usually covered by a writer whose only talent is cadging free drinks.

After six months of trying to build a fictional Orange County, I welcomed a flimsy excuse to go to LA. I resolved to maintain an Abish-like purity and not cross the county line. Soon, my resolve began to weaken, but only a little. I felt I should go and see the Nixon memorial brick pile in front of the La Habra Community Center. And it would probably be helpful to walk through a mall, maybe the Irvine Spectrum, which you named "the malliest of all God's malls." But that's all. I would maintain an Abish-like semipurity. Then I read about this contest. Purity is overrated anyway.

This brings us back to the beginning. I hope I've convinced you that I am looking forward to listening to you, and even more important, I hope you didn't stop reading this 1,000 words ago. I also hope you didn't get the impression that I'm only looking for a dragoman to show me the local points of interest. If that were the case, I could try Matt Coker, who, according to a recent restaurant review, can be had for the price of two fish tacos and a side of beans at Wahoo's.

As for my charms, I'm afraid I can't describe them quite as well. Whether—as some claim—it is the result of my Catholic boyhood, I seem constitutionally incapable of describing myself in any terms more glowing than "not un-." Not unattractive. Not unintelligent. You get the idea. Instead of continuing the list of qualified negatives, let me point out some of the practical advantages of choosing as your date someone from far-off St. Tammany Parish. I will try to appeal to you (1) as a writer, (2) as a person who falls down unexpectedly, and (3) as a veteran of bad dates.

(1) I assume the date will furnish material for a column or a feature. That is one of the reasons this entry is so late in arriving. I normally don't like to draw attention to myself (see mention of Catholic boyhood above), but this time, I think it will be worth it. Consider how selecting a stranger to OC makes your job much easier. Show the rube the sights, note the reactions, and ask a few questions for some quick-and-easy comparing and contrasting. The article almost writes itself. Choosing me is like getting a week off with pay.

(2) Although I don't have any hard numbers to prove it, I feel safe in asserting that the Deep South is still the Fainting-Spell Capital of the Nation. Over the years, I have caught three women who were "overcome by the vapors" (a 19th-century term for drinking too much on a hot day). These opportunities present themselves if you regularly attend Mardi Gras and Jazzfest. Imagine the feeling of confidence that comes from knowing you are with someone who stands a better-than-average chance of catching you before you hit the floor.

(3) Allowing that you probably exaggerate for effect the degree to which your love life resembles a moonscape, it still seems reasonable to assume you've had your share of bad dates. If you choose a local and the date sours, there could be unpleasant aftereffects. Some possibilities:

• The date goes a little too well from his perspective. He is dazzled by you. You tell him you just want him for a friend. All he can hear is you just want him. Now, every night at midnight, he is outside your window shouting, "Rebecca, I know you love me! Forget that restraining order and follow your heart!" That can't happen with me. The commute would be too brutal.

• The date goes badly from his perspective. "All I said was, 'Ralphs has grapes on sale,' and she goes off! She's nuts. And I'm pretty sure she's a lesbian." It could happen. The next thing you know, he's wandering the length and breadth of Orange County telling horror stories, and they become more elaborate with each telling. No danger of that with me. First, I've already contributed to a UFW fund-raiser this year. Second, I'll be two time zones away. Who am I going to tell?

• The date dies a slow and painful death. You know what I mean. Now you are haunted by the specter of an awkward, unexpected meeting. You two could bump into each other any time, any place. If you want to avoid me, all you have to do is skip Bayou Bonfuca if you decide to spend your next vacation touring EPA Superfund sites.

On a positive note, my disappearing on the morning of Aug. 26 doesn't just guard against bad-date fallout, but it can also improve an already good date. If the recovered-memory movement has taught us anything (besides how easy it is to send innocent people to prison), it's that the mind can do strange and wonderful things with only the slightest coaxing. Absence not only makes the heart grow fonder, but it also can open the door for your memory to transform me into a twin of the mountie from Due South. I believe the actor who played him and I share the same first name. It's not much, but its something to start the confabulation.

By way of concluding, let me say that until now, I have always believed that Dashiell Hammett was probably right when he advised against meeting writers whose work you enjoy. He said they always disappoint, and that just taints your reading. This case, I'm certain, is an exception. After all, the great exception to the rule in Hammett's own life was a commie girl. (Okay, okay . . . that last line was a bit much, but it's been a long time since I've had a date who would get a Lillian Hellman reference. Have a heart, and don't count it against me.)

And even if you don't choose me, thanks for all the help you didn't know you've given me.

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