Imagining Orange County
Illustration by Mark DancyA FEW QUESTIONS
I've lived in Orange County for nine years now, and I have a few questions:
1. Why do so many video clerks and other people in retail offer zero resistance to their bosses' demands they spout corporate chatter to their customers? The other day, a Vons employee who was opening his check stand cheerfully announced to me, "At Vons, there's never a line!" and I had to double check his lips because I could've sworn what I heard was advertising babble drifting down at me from a store intercom in the ceiling. Why was he talking like that? Why do so many of these employees embrace corporate-speak with an unironic zeal that suggests not so much that they believe this shit but that they relish the opportunity to give up being human beings for however long their shifts last? And how much of this is an OC thing?
2. Why do so many white guys in their 30s and 40s who've lived in Fountain Valley or Tustin all their lives suddenly start acquiring what sounds like a Western twang to their voices, sometimes even a sort of late-period-John-Wayne hitch to their walks? Why this appeal to a tradition that's not even theirs? These are the same men who suffer from that painful inner conflict sociologists have been noting in suburban males since the '50s, the one that pits their genetic Manhood (which tells them to fight, fornicate, dominate) against their learned desire to be domesticated Dads and Hubbies (some of them even call themselves Hubbies). These are also guys who get slightly drunk at their kids' birthday parties, and while they explain to you how well the remodeling is going ("I'm just a-waitin' on the linoleum now"), you can sometimes catch a flash of crash-dive bewilderment on their faces as they realize for just a second they're living not in a John Wayne movie but in a Talking Heads song.
Orange County Soccer Club v Real Monarchs SLC
TicketsSat., Jun. 3, 5:00pm
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v. New York Yankees
TicketsMon., Jun. 12, 7:07pm
Los Angeles Angels vs. New York Yankees
TicketsMon., Jun. 12, 7:07pm
Premium Seating: Los Angeles Angels v. Kansas City Royals
TicketsThu., Jun. 15, 7:07pm
3. Why have so many OC "moms" (often identified as such on the personalized-license-plate frames of their SUVs) narrowed their interests so much that, though they're educated and very nice people when you talk to them—heartbreakingly committed to their children and their neighborhood schools, with sufficient sympathy to feel really terrible when your kids, say, fall off their bikes and have to get stitches—they nonetheless sort of pretend the larger world (of accelerated environmental havoc, of dead Iraqi children, of a 12.5 percent children's poverty rate in their own country) doesn't exist, from which one can only conclude that either they're absolutely terrified of that world, or they truly and deeply don't care, or they've made a pact with themselves—at who knows what psychic cost—not to think about the bad things because if they do, they won't be able to enjoy the good things—the SUV, South Coast Plaza, the goal their kid scores at soccer—and life is to be enjoyed, isn't it? Isn't it?
4.Why is it that so many bright, well-groomed, extremely well-behaved men and women raised in Calvary Chapel Schools end up bright, well-groomed, extremely well-behaved corporate hacks in Laguna Niguel? Santa Ana? Why, when I see them at Starbucks smoothing their ties or pulling their skirts to their knees while dutifully examining their day planners, do they sometimes get that same look of crash-dive bewilderment as the slightly drunk suburban Hubby?
5. And, really, how did all this fucking money get here?
This all sounds negative, I know, but you cut through the insistent blare of OC boosterism however you can.
Listen, Orange County is a very interesting and very, very strange place, where rampant Disneyfication, Christian fundamentalism, suburban complacency and late-model consumer capitalism all sleep in the same bed (and whoa, what dreams may come when those four are spooning). Where earnestness, innocence, crazy ambition and ignorance still thrive together in classic American Dream style, and where the results are, all at once, beautiful, beguiling and ruinous. Where widespread evidence of bewildered disappointment seems to do nothing to quash the hopes of those who think they're on their way up. And for a place that's so postmodern—so Edge City, so tech- and money-adoring, so future-minded, so past-bereft—it's remarkably free of postmodernism's emotional ground tone, which is irony. This is one serious place: God, Mammon, entertainment—there are major shrines here to them all, and sometimes they're the same shrine (Crystal Cathedral).
And so if I were a sociologist bent on discovering where the American future lies, I think I could do worse than spend my Sunday morning at Calvary Chapel or Rock Harbor, my happy hours at Newport Beach zinc bars with young entrepreneurs wearing their Mercedes-logo cufflinks, and the rest of the time darting between Disneyland and its prodigious progeny: Knott's, the Block, every theme restaurant in the county, and every store where employees are called "team members" and customers "guests."
But this isn't really a job for a sociologist; this is a job for a fiction writer, the novelist who, as D.H. Lawrence put it, writes "the bright book of life," who represents the inner life of consciousness and the outer life of society and imagines how they work together. And Orange County does have its chroniclers in fiction.
Admittedly, OC hasn't exactly been Greenwich Village—though this is changing, this is changing—and so some of the best writing about the county is by people who aren't from here, literary tourists who came, saw, held their noses (generally), wrote and split. Other works have been written by pop writers who tend to embroider the clichs about the county in sociologically instructive, if not aesthetically interesting, ways. And then there are the writers I'm most interested in, those who have lived and breathed the county, who care about a sense of place, who to greater or lesser degrees have tried to imagine the county both macrocosmically—as a place depleted of history and nature by out-of-control development, as surging economic juggernaut, as new template for the American Dream, as consumer paradise/nightmare—and microcosmically, as a place where OC happens to particular people, to characters who feel joy, pain, bewilderment and hope in the peculiar way we do in this very interesting and very weird place. What we're going to be trying to get at here is what OC is according to the people who have most deeply imagined it.*
Maybe we can get a few of these questions answered.
When the sun shines, things'll get moving
You feel close to the stars.
There are good times walking in Laguna
But it rains in my heart.
—Pete Townsend, "Exquisitely Bored in California"
Not counting Disneyland, or The O.C., or ads in Vogue advertising high-end stores at South Coast Plaza, the rest of the world knows about Orange County chiefly from stories such as Michael Chabon's "Ocean Avenue," a tenderly satiric compendium of hilarious clichs about Laguna Beach residents that's so spot-on observant you forgive Chabon for mocking South County's yuppie class (circa the mid-1980s) so brutally.
In it, Bobby Logan is having a sunny lunch with his physicist friend Albert and Albert's new 22-year-old wife at a fashionable seaside Laguna Beach caf when Bobby's ex-girlfriend, Suzette, unexpectedly glides in. Suzette, sporting "one of those glittering, opalescent, Intergalactic Amazon leotard-and-tight combinations that seem to be made of cavorite or adamantium and do not so much cling to a woman's body as seal her off from gamma rays and lethal stardust," looks like "she weighs about 75 pounds," with "a face hollowed and somehow muted, as do the faces of most women who get too much exercise, but there was a sheen on her brow and a mad, aerobic glitter in her eye." Bobby feels compelled to say hello to Suzette, however, because "a certain tyranny of in-touchness holds sway in that part of the world—a compulsion to behave always as though one is still in therapy but making real progress, and the rules of enlightened behavior seemed to dictate that he not sneak away from the table with his head under a newspaper—as he might have done if alone—and go home to watch the Weather Channel or Home Shopping Network for three hours with a 12-pack of Mexican beer."
Bobby and Suzette broke up because the Balearic restaurant they had started in San Clemente went belly-up after a really mean review in the Los Angeles Times. As a result, Suzette "went a little nuts," disappearing "into the haunts of physical culture. She worked out at the gym, went to Zahava's class, had her body waxed, and then, to top it off, rode her bicycle all the way to El Toro and back. When she finally came home, she was in a mighty hormonal rage and suffered under the delusion that she could lift a thousand pounds and chew her way through vanadium steel."
A business failure is all South County superficial couples need to break up, of course, so they do, but with a twist: Suzette moves out and takes with her only Bobby's belongings, including his beloved "collection of William Powelliana," for which Bobby retaliates by taking and selling (for $4,000) Suzette's prized collection of 1958 and 1959 Barbie dolls. Rancorous lawsuits and countersuits follow, the relationship devolving—not that it had ever really evolved in the first place—into gargantuan pettiness. But Bobby can't put it behind him—it's probably that touch-me-don't-touch-me outfit of hers—and even though Suzette throws a cup of coffee in his face and leaves the caf (she likes scenes), Bobby follows her out, catches her and plants a kiss on her "hollow cheek," thus starting a new chapter in their sick/childish little union.
The story's a perfect one of its kind, as deft an ironic commentary on laid-back OC yupsters as Woody Allen's take on Hollywood in Annie Hall and no doubt was all New Yorker readers (it was originally published there) thought they needed to know about the county. But exquisitely bored Californians come in more shapes and sizes than Bobby and Suzette, so let's expand the syllabus.
Another satire about the county, this one much more biting—an entirely bizarre, hilarious and horrific story—comes from another outsider, David Foster Wallace, whose "Girl With Curious Hair" taps into the South County spoiled-rich-kid sex-and-drug-nihilism that's familiar to anyone who's heard rumors of the Newport Beach party scene and knows the Haidl rape case isn't entirely atypical.
The story, on one level, is a parody of Bret Easton Ellis' tales of soulless young punks fucking and drugging their way to oblivion; on another, it's a triumph of voice. The story's told from the point of view of a guy called Sick Puppy, a Yale-trained Young Republican lawyer who writes like an insufferably sycophantic college sophomore, something I had a hard time believing until I realized that George W. Bush is Yale-trained, too, and speaks even worse than Sick Puppy writes. Anyway, when Sick Puppy's not hauling in his annual hundred G's from his job as a "corporate-liability troubleshooter" (he defends corporations from the complaints of the little people), he's dealing acid to OC punks, who return the favor by giving him lots of head and accompanying him to Keith Jarrett concerts in Irvine, where this story takes place.
All this oral sex is something he appreciates because he can't climax any other way, normal sex being out of the question as a result of a, well, childhood incest incident with his sister, during which he was caught by his Marine Corps officer father, who punished him by burning his penis with the flame from a gold cigarette lighter, thus turning his son into a sadistic pyromaniac (about his girlfriend, he says, "She fellates me and lets me burn her sometimes") with a blazing desire to kill his father. All the backstory emerges during the course of the concert by "the talented Negro performer Keith Jarrett," during which Sick Puppy and his crew of punk rockers are flying on LSD.
The title comes from a deeply weird obsession Sick Puppy's girlfriend, Gimlet, starts developing about a little girl a couple of rows down toward the stage. (You almost have to be on acid to appreciate this, but here goes: Gimlet wants to cut off a lock of the girl's "curious" and evidently black-magic hair, stick it in her [Gimlet's] vagina, then find Sick Puppy's father, "commit the sexual act with him, and when he had his orgasm, he would catch on fire from Gimlet and immolate while she cut open his warrior's throat and allowed me to bathe in his blood." Gimlet, you see, sympathizes with Sick Puppy's father problem.)
The story ends violently, as you might imagine—a tale of ultra-decadence, the kind that tends to infect people for whom all forms of restraint drop away and kicks are king. Who knows how it came to Wallace, who hadn't spent much time in the county when he wrote it but touched on some silver nerve of moral exhaustion and a lust of the sex/death nexus that seems to be the common destination of the rudderless rich at this edge of the American continent.
THE SUBURBS OF DISSENT
All sane affirmative speech,
Had been soiled, profaned, debased
To a horrid, mechanical screech:
No civil style survived
But the wry, the sotto voce,
Ironic and monochrome.
And where should we find shelter
For joy or mere content
When little was left standing
But the suburb of dissent.
—W.H. Auden, "To Reinhold and Ursula Neibuhr"
Okay, Disneyland. As a fictional subject, it's getting more and more difficult for writers to capture it because it's like trying to write about smog in LA or gambling in Vegas—it's too pervasive, too consuming a symbolic presence, for most novels to labor under. Unless, that is, you're E.L. Doctorow, who saved Disneyland for a quick six-page analysis in the penultimate section of his great novel, The Book of Daniel, and San Clemente writer Jay Gummerman, who in Chez Chance has written a small classic of anti-Disneyism, a book set in the literal shadow of the Matterhorn but rejects everything—everything—Disney. Both Doctorow and Gummerman find themselves trapped by Disney's pandemonium and withdraw to the suburbs of dissent to clear their heads of the noise.
Doctorow's little discourse on Disneyland in The Book of Daniel reads like a New Left essay of cultural theory and, published in 1971, is probably the model for the countless academic treatises that have tried to theory-up the theme park ever since. Not many in the academy have improved on Doctorow, though, who through the "wry . . . ironic and monochrome" style of his hippie-grad-student narrator, Daniel Isaacson, talks about the park as an infantilized, sanitized, corporate-sponsored journey into the guiding myths of American culture and history, a journey whose purpose is less about acquiring experience and knowledge than it is about, well, buying stuff: "The ideal Disneyland patron may be said to be one who responds to the process of symbolic manipulation that offers him his culminating and quintessential sentiment at the moment of purchase."
And then there are what Doctorow calls the "political implications."
"What Disneyland proposes is a technique of abbreviated shorthand culture for the masses, a mindless thrill, like an electric shock, that insists at the same time on the recipient's rich psychic relation to his country's history and language and literature. In a forthcoming time of highly governed masses in an overpopulated world, this technique may be extremely useful both as a substitute for education and, eventually, as a substitute for experience." This "forthcoming time" is now with us, of course: our "education" about the world, especially in tech-happy OC, is now filtered mostly through a mass media that substitutes ingratiating mythologies for facts and analysis, and the idea that "experience" itself has become Disneyfied is by now hardly a matter you can argue, again especially in OC—Disneyland is the model for everything from our theme restaurants to civic planning (housing developments as "resorts," malls as carefully designed crowd funnels leading to points of purchase) to corporate management (again, employees as "team members," customers as "guests," etc.). And the insidious happiest-place-on-earth lure of it all—soul manipulation via "fun" and commodity pleasure that has spread far beyond Disneyland's borders to infect the county, our whole country—Doctorow calls "totalitarian."
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.
TRUE AND FALSE
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 clichs 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."
Chloe, bitter at what the world has done to her, lives small, in a tight circle she can control. It's a strategy of withdrawal characterized by a refusal of almost everything modern (she won't even take aspirin for pain), so when her canyon camp gets raided again by cops (urged on by land developers who want to turn Chloe's beloved community into housing subdivisions), she strikes out instinctively at the police—Chloe is all primitive instinct—and gets tossed in jail for resisting arrest.
Since the novel is midcult romance (well-written romance, with some very good sex scenes, incidentally), written to satisfy an atavistic desire in middle-class women for a simpler time and place, Mapson shies away from the potentially illuminating conflict between a highly individualistic woman and the creepy developers in favor of merely exploring the relationship between Chloe and Hank. The novel ends as one might expect, with Chloe leaving Orange County for the northern Arizona desert—maybe here's a place where people will leave her the fuck alone—soon followed by the man who's learned to appreciate her gumption, so the theme of withdrawal into a time and space remote from what OC has come to mean gets reiterated. One imagines Chloe will keeping saying "No" until the last bit of the West gets developed—a plucky little goddess of a dwindling landscape, staking her claim to an American legacy of freedom ("Don't tread on me," essentially) that nearly everyone else has forgotten.
Winnie Farlowe, the hero of Joseph Wambaugh's Newport Beach/Balboa Island novel The Golden Orange, is a kind of male counterpart to Mapson's Chloe Morgan, though Wambaugh, a crafty pop phony, isn't in her league as a novelist. Winnie says "No," too, though since he's a depressed ex-cop and Newport Bay tour-boat guide, his rebellion takes a more passive form, which is to drink himself silly at a Newport Beach dive called Spooner's Landing, whose regulars, with names like Bilge and Guppy, speak the same cowboy patois that Mapson's characters speak, as if to connect themselves to something lasting and traditional, even if they only know it through the movies.
Winnie and his hearty drinking brethren are contrasted with the bejeweled citizens of the Golden Orange—Wambaugh's term for the South County slice of real estate inhabited by millionaires with yachts and the rumor-mongering women who assiduously dig for the yachtsmen's gold. The story—TV movie all the way—concerns one of the gold diggers, the beautiful and incredibly clichd Tess Binder, who we're asked to believe falls in love with the down-and-out Winnie—the biggest credulity stretch in a novel full of them—only to use him in a plot to kill off a rival and inherit millions. The plot is too complicated, but the moral isn't: Orange County people with money are bad; Orange County people without are good.
Wambaugh's a real pro at being a con: he has us rooting for the underdog's "No" just so he can exploit his readers' sympathies, hike up the best-sellers list where the cash is, and say a big fat "Yes" to the Golden Orange himself. (Success with novels like The Golden Orange allow him to live here.) Now there's an Orange County story.
KEEP COOL BUT CARE
Glenn Gaslin's novel Beemer, published in 2003, has the ambition, the array of impressively whacked ideas and the satiric invention to excite anybody interested in how a novel can explore Orange County's cultural meaning. Gaslin writes in the antic/absurdist tradition of Thomas Pynchon (The Crying of Lot 49), Douglas Coupland (Generation X) and Chuck Palahniuk (Fight Club), and if he hasn't quite reached Palahniuk's level yet (not to mention Pynchon's), Beemer's a first novel, and Gaslin is young. If Gaslin's promising talent doesn't sell itself out to other media, he might someday come up with a great OC novel.
Almost all the ingredients are already present in Beemer. The book's like a primer of late capitalist culture. It's about Beemer Minutia, a 23-year-old consultant who sells his knowledge about Gen Y's consumer desires to any corporation that'll hire him. At the same time, he's got his own dream in development: to become, himself, a brand name—Beemer™—that will make him rich and famous; in the contemporary marketplace, brand supercedes product, the sizzle before the steak.
He's got an Irvine girlfriend named Paul E. Klein who does PR for a boy band called Eunuch Town, whose gimmick is they literally have no balls. Beemer and Paul like to have sex atop her SUV at all the "edge" places they can find: places just on the verge of being developed, the ends of freeways where they're laying down more asphalt, empty lots where malls or housing tracts are being graded. Development itself is sexy to them.
Beemer moves into Paul's parents' gated McMansion (Paul's mother carries a shotgun to keep out anybody who doesn't look like they belong to the homeowner's association) and starts working for an OC advertising firm that wants him, among other things, to see if there's any way he can figure out a way to sell Death. CNN, meanwhile, is showing terrorists blowing up McDonalds and assassins offing the CEO of the Gap. All of which gives Beemer's girlfriend the idea to stage the ultimate PR coup for Eunuch Town: while they're playing a mall gig, she has terrorists blow up a nearby Home Depot, which is all captured live on TV.
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.
THE BARRICADES OF HEAVEN
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."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Orange County, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.