My two favorite quotes about Orange County, California—34 cities holding more than 3 million souls in 989 square miles of beaches, mountains, antebellum-esque gated communities and some of the worst poverty in America—come from those peas in a pod, Ronald Reagan and R. Crumb. It was the Gipper who emblazoned "the OC" (don't call it that) into the American consciousness as the area "where all the good Republicans go to die," uttering that line to a delighted national press corps just before he launched his 1984 re-election campaign here (although he had been throwing that catnip to us since 1981).
Crumb, on the other hand, wasn't as magnanimous. "Orange County is a vortex of evil. I really believe that—the place is an evil place," he said in 1996 to the late, great Buddy Seigal, as printed in the pages of this infernal rag. "If this is the future of the planet—oh, man, how depressing."
The truth, of course, is somewhere in between. But both Crumb's and Reagan's thoughts share one overriding trait that no one can contest: Orange County is something. Something horrible. Something beautiful. Something that deserves praise. Something that deserves a nuke. Something irresistible that demands and eventually earns everyone's attention. OC has drawn tourists and settlers, holy men and serial killers, the rich and the poor and the middle class and everyone in between for nearly 200 years, all heeding the siren call of . . . something.
Chroniclers have documented this strange, bizarre, overachieving vortex of paradise that I know so well. As someone who has lived in OC my entire life, covered it for 15 years and even written a book about this infernal land, I've read hundreds of books and thousands of articles on the subject. And so believe me when I say that the anthology is the finest attempt to try to lasso together the Orange County that sits between Reagan's heaven and Crumb's hell.
Orange County: A Literary Field Guide is a fantastic book, one that collects the OC observations and experiences of everyone from literary legends to local cranks, Pulitzer Prize winners to alt-weekly hacks, poets to novelists to essayists, whether homegrown or not. It's the best creative distillation of the Orange County story this side of a No Doubt or Social Distortion song. And it's not just the writing that sings, although you've already got an operetta whenever you put Didion, Chabon, Isherwood, Philip K. Dick and M. F. K. Fisher together in the same volume.
And it's not even in the diversity of voices—Mexicans, Vietnamese, African-Americans, Persians, surfers, mountaineers, suburbanites and gang members, all finding common ground in marveling at this weirdness we call home. No, this book excels by paying attention to all the quirks that define this place—including Disneyland, toll roads, endangered gnatcatchers, bikinied goddesses, killer cops, acid-loving hippies, and everything in between and beyond—and finding the best writing to give each of our flaws and virtues its proper justice or evisceration.
One of the overriding themes within the book, though, goes back to Crumb and Reagan: Orange County as Paradise Lost or Found. Whether the subject is 19th-century Belle Epoque Polish artists looking to establish a utopia in canyon country, the killing of the last grizzly bear in California, the eradication of orange groves by bulldozer or by disease (aptly called la tristeza—the sadness), or actor Steve Martin wistfully recalling his days moonlighting at Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm, the authors here draw attention to Orange County as a special place. Whatever that allure is, it stays with us and deserves a romp on the written page.
Is this a perfect collection? Of course not. It would've, for instance, been great to include a voice that had experienced one of Orange County's many Christian megachurches; the Baffler trashing the infamous Crystal Cathedral, even if just for a few paragraphs, is literary perfection. (While the building still exists, it's now called Christ Cathedral and serves as the headquarters of the Catholic Diocese of Orange; the former tenant, the Reverend Robert Schuller, led his ministry into bankruptcy and died loathed and estranged from family members. Paradise Lost.) Also underrepresented is the vibrant music subcultures—the rockabillies and skankers, punks and rockeros—that make OC an ever-replenishing source of youth culture for the rest of the country.
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While our notorious conservatism and avarice is ever present throughout this anthology (and masterfully destroyed in Jon Wiener's account of a visit to the Nixon Library shortly after its opening), it would've been great to read a bit more about the contemporary scene. (Nixon, after all, was a state and national figure, only falling back on OC for refuge—Paradise Found.) And really, the best serialized treatment about Orange County remains the original run of Arrested Development, the cult FOX comedy that captured our classes, ethnicities, races and geographic divisions with the eye of Edith Wharton and the anarchic glee of Mad magazine.
But I digress. Anthologies are meant to be incomplete, meant to pique the readers' interest about the stories omitted, the authors to come. So view this literary field guide as your starter pack to learning more about Orange County, California. And just remember, cabrones: Don't call it "the OC." No one does that.
Adapted from the forward to Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, edited by Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich; Heyday Books. Hardcover, 368 pages, $22. A group reading happens at Laguna College of Art and Design, 2222 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 376-6000. Feb. 24, 6:30 p.m. Free.