Imagining Orange County

Its not the O.C., not Disneyland, not Newport. Eight writers imagine the real place you call home

Which maybe is why Jay Gummerman wants nothing to do with the Disney ethos, even though he sets his first novel, Chez Chance, right next door to it, among the ramshackle motels and apartment buildings that line Beach Boulevard in the park's shadow.

Rereading the novel recently, I got the feeling Gummerman was trying to show how you could write a novel about OC without capitulating to Disney's seductions or, for that matter, without genuflecting to received wisdom about suburban bonhomie, or the county's official optimism or any value that might bring comfort to OC complacencies. It's an anti-Orange County novel, relentlessly (impressively) cynical and unwavering in its rejection of good humor or humanism as the grease most novelists use to slide their readers through their narratives.

Chez Chance could have been called Samuel Beckett Comes to Anaheim and comes complete with grim existential epithets, a wandering (if engrossing) narrative and a paraplegic antihero bound to a wheelchair who in the end loses everything, including the wheelchair.

At the book's beginning, Frank Eastman returns to Southern California to revisit the scene of his downfall. During a previous attempt to live out his American dream, this East Man came out to California but succeeded only in getting a job with the telephone company trimming palm trees. But he discovered—Major Metaphor coming—that rats lived up there in the pretty palms, and one time they spooked him so much he fell to the earth and forever lost the use of his lower body.

Since then, both of his parents have died, he's lost any sense of purpose, and so, having arrived in Anaheim, he drifts. The book spends exactly two and a half pages describing Disneyland itself— "Eastman grew tired of it all" in the third sentence—but it's clear the homeless people, drug addicts, whores and crazies that Eastman encounters around the park's perimeter are exactly the kind of people Disneyland won't allow inside—they're the social offal rejected by the Disney machine because they're unable to be good sports, good soldiers, compliant citizens. By extension, and this is made explicit in the novel, these Disneyland rejects are American rejects, continually pushed to the edge of culture and history.

For Gummerman, Disneyland symbolizes everything that's wrong with America: the appropriation and manipulation of history for commercial ends, the smiling cruelty that marginalizes everything that doesn't conform to its bizarre optimism, the entire Manifest Destiny bullshit ushered into the Consumer Era. It's the rat hiding in the pretty palm.

For most readers, though, the problem with Chez Chance will be that it offers no alternative vision: OC sucks—America sucks—because the choice has been reduced to Disneyland phoniness or the horizonless existential drift of the permanent outsider. Doctorow's suburb of dissent at least had Marx's critique behind its complaint, a promise of a better world; Gummerman's complaint, as arresting as it can be, leads to a dead end and therefore can seem indistinguishable from depressive grousing. Still, it's dissent, uncomfortable and bracing, a loud concussive "No" to the creeping Disneyism that more and more passes for normal in the county.



Another way for a novelist to say "No" to the county's proclivities—to Disney; to the county's monstrous development; to its unabashedly conspicuous consumption and promiscuous love of "progress," media and technology—is to sort of pretend they're not really there, to create vivid little enclaves of anachronistic charm where contemporary denizens of the county walk, talk, and drink like cowboys and cowgals, clinging to a past that's gone but who through pluck, fundamental decency and a love of the natural—good, honest, working people's values—prevail even in a county as corrupt as this one supposedly is.

Jo-Ann Mapson's Hank & Chloe may be the best example of this, and though its story and values are a little too Lifetime Network for my taste, her novel captures, I think, something compelling about the fears and desires of a significant slice of the county's population.

The novel is centered on Chloe Morgan, a sinewy, hardscrabble woman with a history of abandonment and abuse—there's nothing in her past she wants to hold on to—who lives with her dog in a shack without plumbing or electricity in one of those inland canyon communities that gets regularly busted by the OC Sheriff's Department for not being up to code. She likes living this way: unfettered by the complexities of modernity (and its men), she can be as stubborn and uncompromising as she pleases, hanging out with a dwindling number of other anachronists who, though they live in the consumer capital of America, speak in folk-wisdom clichťs and hang on by the fingernails to the old idea of the West. She's a self-reliant Willa Cather woman popping up in Costa Mesa who cranks out a living working two jobs (waitress in an old-fashioned diner, horse trainer at the county fairgrounds), fixes her own truck when it breaks down, and can deliver a foal as well as any vet with his newfangled techniques. (Chloe is the type of person who might use a phrase like "newfangled.") Her heart's sealed shut as a bank vault, of course (the novel is about a man who finds the key and opens her up, thus the Lifetime connection), and we're frequently apprised of the fact that Chloe loves her horse and dog more than she can a man. Hank, her wary boyfriend, thinks as he watches Chloe hug her horse, "Right here was intimacy, history, relationship. Nothing he'd done in the nine weeks of their relationship came close to this. Not pay her bail, buy her tennis shoes or bring her to climax."

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