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California Uncovered: Stories for the 21st Century

California Without Dreaming

California Uncovered: Stories for the 21st Century is a collection of short stories and novel chapters mixed in with essays, memoir chapters, interviews, and poems. The pieces -- which tend to be autobiographical or semi-autobiographical and by new writers -- progress in no apparent order, but the collection climaxes with a great poem by the famous Robinson Jeffers. It's about a Tassajara cave painting and it's called "Hands."

This poem turns out to be the purest essence of the book. It describes a California cave decorated long ago with nothing but hands. Jeffers imagines the vanished painters saying: Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws./All hail/You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters/in the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty./and come down/and be supplanted; for you also are human.

Or, as former poet laureate Robert Hass put it, more bluntly, in another of the book's highlights -- "Palo Alto: The Marshes" -- this book is about "the other California and its bitter absent ghosts."

Maxine Hong Kingston, in a chapter from her novel China Man, writes about a Chinese grandfather forced to go to California and dig for gold. David Mas Masumoto writes of learning how to correctly prune a difficult old grape vine from "the ghosts of many pruners" who went before him. In "The White Boy Shuffle", the amusing novelist and performance artist Paul Beatty writes of growing up black on the beaches of white-dominated Santa Monica. Luis Rodriguez, in a short story called "My Ride, My Revolution", shows us a Mexican-Indian chauffeur enjoying his shiny new white limo in the Old Los Angeles neighborhood where he grew up.

Searching for a home in California is the subject to which this book returns again and again. The collection includes new writers from Afghanistan to Vietnam, and is part of a literacy campaign funded by a consortium of foundations led by the California Council for the Humanities. Last year this campaign encouraged Californians to read and discuss The Grapes of Wrath; this year, it's this collection. "We hope it will inspire Californians to realize the value and validity of their own stories," Divakruni writes in the introduction.

An admirable goal, surely, yet in its determination to find emotional truths and avoid what the publisher calls the "reductionist symbols and stereotypes of California," the book seems to have left little room for that most spectacular of writerly powers -- imagination. Although readers of nearly all ethnicities and regions may find kinship in an outsider's struggle to fit in, one wonders: is social realism really the best way to inspire readers?

The collection includes an excerpt from John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley, for example, but those who recall the wry, amused voice throughout most of that lovely travel book will be brought up short by this piece. It's about an unhappy homecoming to Salinas. Steinbeck argues bitterly with his family over politics, nearly gets into a fight with old friends in a bar, and takes one long last look at the land on which his parents once made their "starvation ranch" -- before he leaves, perhaps forever.

One must respect him and all these writers for facing their hard truths so bravely, but the book's glumly realistic tone begins to drone. When we think of California writers from the past, we're likely to remember a humorist, such as Mark Twain; or an ecstatic nature writer, such as John Muir; or an adventure writer, such as Jack London, before a social realist such as Frank Norris. (Even though Norris was more of a native than any of the above, and wrote powerfully about San Francisco in "McTeague'). And when we think of California writers today, isn't an earthy humorist such as Annie LaMott, or a brilliant wit such as T.C. Boyle, or a half-crazed prophet such as Phillip K. Dick likely to come to mind before a realist, even a potent and award-winning realist such as James D. Houston?

It's a question deeply unfair to realists, but this is a book that claims to speak for California -- and what is California without dreaming?

April 2005
Heyday Books
Softcover $15.95
ISBN 1-890771-97-X