The Fire Inside

It was Oct. 25, arguably the most frightening day of the Fires of 2003, certainly the day when Orange County's air quality was at its worst, when the midday sun turned a wan but quite beautiful neon red. It seemed shrunken, and it didn't radiate at all—it just hung meekly in the carbonized wash of yellow-gray putrescence the sky had become, a quiet flat disk of color that looked like it didn't quite belong in our heavens, as if it had tumbled into Earth's orbit by mistake, a homeless star with an apology on its lips. We were walking across an expanse of soccer field, the snowing ash swirling, insinuating itself everywhere, in our eyes and nostrils, dusting the back of my front teeth, and the father of a child on my boy's soccer team looked up and said, “It's just like the sun in the Book of Revelation.” Which made it the third reference to the apocalypse I'd already heard that day. Before the weekend was out, I heard it twice more, and I began to wonder why everybody was being so quick to make End Times allusions. It's not as if I hang around people who are reading the Left Behind books, that publishing phenomenon (55 million books in print) that updates the Revelation story for the born-again crowd. Many fundamentalists, lots of them in Orange County, crave the apocalypse, I know: polls show a substantial number of them expect the world to end in their lifetimes, and they're doubtless soothed by fantasies of being taken up in God's great soul-sweep called the Rapture—and failing that, being Left Behind but getting to witness all those liberals getting sucked down into hellfire, sinners sent down to reside there one year for every grain of sand on the planet.

But you don't have to be a monthly contributor to the Trinity Broadcasting Network to have such quick-draw apocalyptic fantasies about fire: you just have to be from California. Robert Frost reinvented himself as a New Englander, but he was born and spent his first 11 years in San Francisco, and when he wasn't fantasizing about God saying, “Put out the Light” with a Pacific tsunami flooding the West Coast (“Once By the Pacific”), he was meditating on other ways for the world to end:

Some say the world will end in fire. Some say in ice. From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor fire.

He and a lot of other California writers have had their fire visions. There's Nathanael West, of course, who has a character in The Day of the Locust—the granddaddy of SoCal apocalypse novels —spend his time obsessively working and reworking a painting called The Burning of Los Angeles. F. Scott Fitzgerald sticks a great fire set-piece (he burns up a Hollywood studio) into The Last Tycoon. Then there's Joan Didion, Our Lady of the Santa Anas, who wrote in “Los Angeles Notebook” (in Slouching Toward Bethlehem) that “the city burning is Los Angeles's deepest image of itself” and that the hot desert winds that fan the periodic conflagrations affecting the Southland show us “how close to the edge we are.” Thomas Pynchon concludes Gravity's Rainbow with a freeze-frame image: the tip of a falling nuclear missile poised a millimeter above a Los Angeles theater, ready to ignite the consumingest fire of all. And Steve Erickson, second only to Pynchon for fabulist paranoia among California novelists, sets his Amnesiascope in an LA that's permanently aflame, if not from riots and wildfires, then from preventive backfires set to make sure things don't go utterly out of control, and he has a character say, “I love the ashes. I love the endless smoky twilight of Los Angeles.”

How many of us secretly love the ashes? The imagination of disaster is acute in California, and I'd say it comes from equal parts fear and desire. Fear because it's so easy for California to legitimately slip into catastrophe, and however regularly it strikes, we seem chronically unprepared for it. (This is a region, we might take note, whose freeways freak out in panicked gridlock at the first drop of autumn rains.) Fear because Southern California is nearly a desert, never meant to harbor 20 million people who live, for the most part, fabulously middle-class lives, and a part of us knows disaster must periodically make its visitations upon such an unnatural landscape.

But the fear is less interesting than the desire. How many of us secretly love the ashes? Those who gobble up each succeeding volume of the Left Behind series are surely feeding a powerful death wish, and our poets and novelists have made their testaments known well enough. But it goes beyond them. Again, it's a California thing. Everybody who has ever written perceptively about Southern California, from John Fante to Michael Ventura, note that almost everyone here is from somewhere else—usually a wasted desert or a sea away—and that to leave that place to come here is to burn up a past, to gamble that the promised golden land will make that past as dead as a charred stand of pine. Which means the fire's already in us and that every fresh eruption of flame reminds us how blazingly ready we are to turn the past into irrelevant “history” and to turn our eyes to an ever-breathtaking, liberating and rootless future.

That's the only way I can explain the ready recourse people have had to apocalyptic sentiment once the fires hit. Not that I sympathize much with it, though I certainly used to. I remember almost exactly 20 years ago, November 1983, when the Reagan rhetoric about the Evil Empire was at its height, when The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists kept its doomsday clock locked at a minute to midnight, and I watched the nuclear-war feature film Testament the same week that the TV movie The Day After, about a U.S.-Soviet nuclear exchange that ends the world, was broadcast. I was young, a love affair of mine had just blown apart, the Santa Anas were blowing, and I was getting my car fixed at a garage on Sunset and La Brea in LA (a location that I later learned, to my amazement, Joan Didion had called the “dead still center of the world” and “the quintessential intersection of nothing”). The night before, I had dreamed about a mushroom cloud that bloomed in the park next to the house in South Gate where I had grown up, and as I sat in the greasy waiting room, itching to get my junky Datsun back so I could drive home and get high, I couldn't get the cloud image out of my head. And I was scared: not so much because the image itself was scary but because my desire for it to come true was. Yes, blow this shit up, and let's start over is what I thought at the time. For minutes, I could barely move.

You can't seriously stay in that psychic space for long without testing the borders of madness, and I didn't. But, to quote Frost again, I'm acquainted enough with the night by now to know that the madness I skirted then runs rampant in many more minds than my own, that the blazes lighting our dreams these last couple of weeks come at least as much from our own haunted hearts as they do the winds, the arid brush and the beetle-addled trees.

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