Imagining Orange County

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

Gaslin is as attuned as Coupland or Palahniuk to the runaway logic of consumer capitalism and mass media, and he is a funny, very out-there satirist of OC. (His Costa Mesa has a development called Sunset South that is an exact duplicate of a stretch of Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, "part of a developer's plan to franchise out the best parts of Southern California to other cities.") One of the problems with the book, however, is that its strategy of absurd exaggeration is being outdone by actual events: terrorist bombings, for instance, aren't nutty comic devices anymore, and Gaslin doesn't seem sufficiently aware of this. Which points to a larger problem: while Gaslin has the talent to exploit OC's commodity/media culture, there's not much in the way of sensitivity toward the human beings who get alienated and dehumanized by it. Gaslin might recall Thomas Pynchon's V, with its famous motto "Keep Cool But Care." There's plenty of cool in Beemer, but hardly any caring.

What's marvelous about Kem Nunn's Tapping the Source, about the Huntington Beach surf-and-drug culture of the early 1980s, is that Nunn satisfies Pynchon's formula so beautifully. Nunn isn't interested in OC as a cultural manifestation of American obsession with consumption, or media, or the packaging of experience—he leaves that to Gummerman and Gaslin. Nunn is a hardcore traditional naturalist, skilled in evoking a sense of place and caring about how that place affects his characters. His Huntington Beach is indelible. It's the early '80s, before the developments around PCH and Main rolled in, and I'm astonished, since I lived there for a few months at the time, how well he's captured it. The boxy storefronts of surf and bikini and record shops; the sleepy fast-food drive-throughs that get suddenly invaded by surfers on their Harleys; the alleyways where drugs are passed; the late-night parties that build from pot smoking to coke snorting to awful, violent orgies captured on film; the stiflingly hot studio apartments where desperate young runaways, struck dumb by loneliness, sun and sex, make sad bewildered love after a long day of surfing. The mystical bullshit purveyed by aging surfers coming on to young girls; the true mysticism of a boy who finds in learning to surf the source of whatever beauty is available in his limited world.

Nunn gets it all—the physical elementalism of beach culture; the sense of entrapment at being young and poor and emotionally lost; and the dangerous lure of sex, drugs and waves when there's nothing else to keep you grounded. Nunn's style is cool and exacting—he's amazingly restrained, even when his material gets sensational—but he always cares: what happens to his teenage-runaway hero, what the boy learns about himself, comes directly from his encounters with his environment, with H.B. and its end-of-its-tether hedonism, and therefore makes Tapping the Source a powerful OC novel, but not merely that. It's a novel that should have a long afterlife, and not just in the county.



Better bring your own redemption when you come
To the barricades of heaven where I'm from

—Jackson Browne, "The Barricades of Heaven"

Where Jackson Browne is from, in case you don't know, is Orange County—the song he's singing is about growing up here—and though he didn't stick around past adolescence, he's as qualified as anybody to characterize the place, if only because he's simultaneously got the heaven of the county's promise in his bones and knows the barricades it throws up against fulfillment. Orange County—like Hawaii, like Vegas—is a magnet for meretricious dreaming: it's got weather, money, beautiful men and women, talent everywhere, it's got infinite possibility, and it makes you feel like a fool if you're unhappy here. But if the cautionary tales I've been talking about add up to anything whole, it's that the more promising the place, the more it requires of you. The more redemption a place seems to offer, the more you better bring when you come. The Orange County novel is in its infancy—it's where LA was 40 years ago, before Pynchon, Joan Didion and Steve Erickson showed up—but the themes it explores are as old as Exodus: How do we live in the Promised Land? Is it promise, after all, or mirage? And what happens when we realize that no matter how honeyed, moneyed or sunny our world is, ultimately, we have to face ourselves, that wherever you go, there you are—and heaven's still way over there, past the barricades.

An OC Lit Syllabus/Bibliography (or Stuff Mentioned in this Article)

Michael Chabon. "Ocean Avenue." In A Model World and Other Stories. 1991.
E.L. Doctorow. The Book of Daniel. 1971.
Glenn Gaslin. Beemer. 2003.
Jay Gummerman. Chez Chance. 1995.
Jo-Ann Mapson. Hank and Chloe. 1993.
Kem Nunn. Tapping the Source 1984.
David Foster Wallace. "Girl With Curious Hair." In Girl With Curious Hair and Other Stories. 1989.
Joseph Wambaugh. The Golden Orange. 1990.

*This thing could run 20,000 words if I'd let it. I'm only going to talk about eight writers, and among those I'm not going to discuss are OC genre writers T. Jefferson Parker, Tim Powers and Dean Koontz (because I just can't get through their prose to see if they even have a sense of OC as a place, and I'm willing to accept that that's entirely my own fault); Kate Philips, who wrote the sweet-but-slight White Rabbit; literary lioness Susan Sontag, whose In America has a whole section about the settling of 19th century Anaheim but which doesn't quite fit here; and Philip K. Dick, the visionary writer who spent some of his most productive, drug-addled, insane years in and around Fullerton, but whose fat oeuvre's complexity got its own treatment in Chris Ziegler's June 28, 2002, article, "A Very Phil Dickian Existence."

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