The Ruins of California, the new novel by Martha Sherrill, has the best cover I've seen in ages. Composed of a set of iconic snapshots of '70s-era California—a palm tree against an azure sky, an orange lifeguard tower, a dusty VW bus, a backyard pool, a smoggy cityscape—which are developed either to look bleached-out fuzzy (as if the photo had been left in the sun) or to evoke those brilliant otherworldly Kodachrome colors that Paul Simon once told us "make all the world a sunny day," the cover jacket recalls, in a tenderly nostalgic and melancholy way, that period of '60s hangover, false gaiety and exhausted "malaise" (as Jimmy Carter infamously termed it in a presidential address) that have made the 1970s almost an embarrassment to America's cultural memory. That elegant cover sets up high expectations—that maybe we'll get the kind of thoughtful re-creation of the decade's atmosphere that we got in Rick Moody's novel The Ice Storm or Paul Thomas Anderson's film Boogie Nights.
And, strictly in terms of atmospherics, The Ruins of California does evoke the woozy aimlessness of a time and place when people smoked way too much dope ("In those days you weren't just stoned, you were wasted") while listening to James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, when psychobabble first began to pollute our conversation, and when parents—caught up in the sex-and-drug experiments that had sifted down to the middle class from the '60s counterculture—seemed pitifully unprepared to guide their children through the tortures of adolescence. Sherrill's novel is full of impressively rendered (I want to say remembered) detail, and not just of the earth shoes, the pre-video world of LA retrospective theaters or the hey-no-big-deal affectation of a 16-year-old girl getting high with her father. The novel, in places, penetrates some of the upper strata of a time that was "laid-back," when "the goal . . . was not to make a big deal out of anything," no matter how confused you really were.
But a novel can't get by on a cool dust jacket or on carefully laid-in atmosphere, and The Ruins of California ends up being a frustrating, puzzling novel, a coming-of-age story so shapeless and undirected that it's as if the very aimlessness of the era infected the novel's form. The novel is rendered in the first person, told retrospectively from the point of view of one Inez Ruin, whose life we follow from the age of 8 or 9, beginning in 1969, till 1980, when she reaches the perilous gates of adulthood. Inez is the product of a broken home, the daughter of a former flamenco dancer who, after being abandoned by her husband, becomes obsessed with tennis, real estate and est (a '70s California trinity if I ever heard one). Her father is a brilliant Berkeley mathematician who, after leaving home, sets himself up in a Telegraph Avenue bachelor's pad in San Francisco, where he entertains a steady stream of beautiful young women (all big-breasted, all with the overbite he likes), makes piles of cash in the emerging semiconductor industry, buys good grass for his children so they don't have to buy it on the streets, and starts affecting not just a fussy, annoying Epicureanism but an embarrassing "philosophical" style that the novel never quite has the nerve to satirize as the narcissistic horseshit it is. ("Experience is worthwhile if you know what to do with it." "Fair or unfair. It's an illusion—things only seem fair or unfair, but you can't know the truth.") Inez ping-pongs all over the place—from the home where she lives with her mother and maternal grandmother in Van Dale (which seems to be Glendale), to her paternal grandmother's house in San Benito (San Marino), to a family vacation house in Laguna Beach, to her father's place in the Bay Area, and finally to a post-high-school year wasting away in the Margaritaville of Hawaii. While she's ping-ponging, she's growing up, of course, making friends, going horseback riding, meeting her father's women, getting her period, getting high, making out with boys, falling in love, etc.
And there's nothing wrong with the material. It's just that the novel reads like a not particularly reflective memoir: a this-happened-and-then-that-happened narrative that doesn't seem guided by any discernible idea. Retrospective coming-of-age novels told in the first person usually have a sort of, I don't know, point, a gathering illumination of the general meaning of the experience that's been narrated, or, lacking that, at least a governing sense of what's important and what's not. The Ruins of California doesn't seem guided by anything except Sherrill's conviction that Inez's life and mind are interesting in themselves—and, frankly, they're not. Over and over again, I wondered why she was telling me things—why the pages on learning how to drive a stick-shift MG; why an entire chapter detailing an afternoon tea with her grandmother? The book is long on interesting observations and way short on insights. For me, a cognitive boredom set in: I didn't mind the sights she was pointing out, but I sure could have used a more interesting guide.
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The book's technical flaws don't help. There are plain mistakes (people didn't say "Bring it on" in the 1970s; Apocalypse Now came out in 1979, not 1977; D.H. Lawrence never wrote a book called Men in Love). There are also much more serious errors of craft. Sherrill's not a talented dialogue writer—the characters don't have distinctive voices. And the first rule of the realistic novel—show, not tell—gets violated constantly and egregiously. Speaking of her mother, Inez says, "After taking the est training, she'd become talkative and almost strident. She was openly reflective, too, but she was bad at it. Introspection was new to her, she exploded with revelations—some of them totally stupid—and being around her felt like a demolition derby." How was she bad at reflection? What kinds of stupid revelations did she come up with? Give us a scene where these things are dramatized rather than simply relayed to the reader. These are Creative Writing 101 questions, and it's amazing that Sherrill, or her editor, didn't ask them.
Worse is the fact that, in this strung-together narrative where everything seems more or less as important as everything else, the two major incidents that do stand out—the day that Inez's grandmother dies in a horseback riding accident while Inez follows behind (high on marijuana) and the night Inez finally loses her virginity—are both told after the fact, rather than rendered in present-tense dramatic scenes. The immediacy of the events gets lost amidst the banal meditation on the events.
I can see why the book got published. There's the '70s detail, Sherrill is a clear sentence writer, and the novel has a well-mannered, good heart. Inez's grandmother at one point tells her that "you have the best manners anybody can have. Because they aren't manners—that's why. It's just who you are." Inez, and her creator, have very good writerly manners—delicate, inoffensive, not too thoughtful—qualities that may make for a nice little tea party in San Marino, but novel writing ain't no tea party, particularly not when you're trying to sum up a messy, messy decade.
THE RUINS OF CALIFORNIA BY MARTHA SHERRILL; PENGUIN. HARDCOVER, 315 PAGES, $24.95.