This photograph of retired stacked-up Pacific Electric "red cars" makes me sad, as it should you, especially if you are a native Southern Californian. Yet its arrangement offers a kind of visual poetry, so much resembling the mission of Peggy Hesketh's debut novel Telling the Bees and at the same time, serindipitously, a honeycomb, that I will make this intro short so that you can move to the next page of this morning's blog review and see the close-up photograph of an actual honeycomb, that perfect arrangement of arithmetic harmony that is the default totem of the book and a metaphor for the difficult and sweet place of the mystery of memory, and of local history, self-deception, love and loss.
See? The red cars, once the most efficient and arguably democratic intercity rail system devised, covering so much of the Southland once, including all the way to Newport Beach, stacked here, dead, one on top of another in weird, beautiful imitation of the architecture of nature. It hurts to look at, yet who can resist? Such is the attraction and urgency of reading about what we have lost, what haunts us, our regrets. Where we have been. The language of place is evoked so very carefully, so calmly and elegantly in Hesketh's novel, right down to the syntax and idiom of octogenarian beekeeper Mr. Albert Honig ("honey" in German, get it?) as to smell the Fels-Naptha soap, recognize old-fashioned turns of phrase with joy (the "sugar diabetes"), hear the click-click of the doomed red cars and the buzzing of the bees, dance along to the music from the now-demolished Harmony Park Ballroom, smell the orange blossoms, and note with chagrin and longing the place names of old OC: The Pickwick Hotel and the ballroom, not to mention the Sears and Roebuck Co. pre-fab mail order catalog home–"The Sherbourne"–purchased by old man Honig's transplanted parents and built on a tract of land in Anaheim before his birth. Old timers (as Albert) and history buffs will remember this, but also a former OC beat journalist, Ms. Hesketh, who teaches at UC Irvine and is herself a native Anaheimer, and did the research after years of meeting people, seeing their backyards, their lives, their gardens and hives.
Indeed, there exist plots of land at the end of cul de sacs, hidden tracts in our county which survive, even thrive, simultaneously, in both reality and in memory. A farm house or bungalow at a dead end, lost behind an old grove, on the other side of a hedgerow or behind a stand of eucalyptus or a cinder block or red brick wall. Here resides the anti-hero of Hesketh's novel, an old man successful at living long in this still-vibrant if anachronistic world, except that his fictional autobiography is complicated, dramatically, tragically, by his failure to acknowledge, to adapt, to recalibrate his imagination to match the changes around him and the old (new) neighborhood. Mr. Honig is a deeply moral and self-disciplined old guy, yet necessarily hypocritical, almost delusional–but in self-defense. Universal and ancient truths, old authors, nature, remain compelling but he cannot (will not) seem to accept or understand the changing demographic, landscape or reveal his feelings. His life's calling and vocation as a beekeeper keep him admirably plugged-in to the ages-old science and culture of that noble and elegant calling. And, of course, his work, his life and passion, is the way in for author Hesketh, who also of course teaches us in this book the basics of beekeeping in the most "user-friendly" way imaginable. With emphasis on imagination and imagining. In her invention of the singular old Mr. Honig (and his life, from an early age) Hesketh has created a stubborn and enigmatic and duplicitously withholding character whose life story is nonetheless told richly, in turns melancholy, exhilarating, sociological, with a murder mystery and a deep appreciation for the stories we all construct for ourselves and for others.
The conceit of the book is itself a challenge. How does a taciturn old-school fella (a bachelor who's lived in the same house his whole life) come clean about his own life and the life of someone close to him, now lost? What does he choose to share? His is a halting, reluctant and painful self-discovery. There is a detective to help him, and us, along, with a rewarding plot, not so much a twist as a narrative device consistent, thoroughly, with the tone and naturalistic and human rhythms of age and of bees.
Speaking of bees, the title is of course taken from the famous poem by John Greenleaf
Whittier, a poetry superstar in his day. So much so that when, yes, the mostly Quaker residents of the nearby So Cal city needed a name they chose his. It's a sad poem, and true, as is this gorgeous novel which Mr. Bib predicts will be a big hit and, if there is any justice–and we believe in justice here at OC Bookly, with an occasional hard push–it will find a place on the shelf that is the Orange County literary canon.
Telling the Bees, Peggy Hesketh, G.P. Putnam's, 320 pgs., $26.95
See Hesketh reading in and around Southern California. Her nifty website includes a Calendar page.
Andrew Tonkovich hosts the Wednesday night literary arts program Bibliocracy Radio on KPFK 90.7 FM in Southern California.