To die fighting: a review of Jesse's Ghost: A Novel

  • Californias' Central Valley.

    ISTOCK, Siew Yee Lee

Jesse's Ghost: A Novel
Frank Bergon
224 pages, hardcover: $20.
Heyday, 2011.

"The story of how I came to kill my best friend keeps pressing on my brain like a bad dream so I can feel it, but I can't remember it whole." So begins Jesse's Ghost, the account of a man's attempt to understand a murder he committed decades ago. Both Sonny, the narrator, and his friend, Jesse Floyd, grew up dirt-poor Okie kids in California's Central Valley. Jesse was Sonny's hero, someone who "held his own, kept his word, and ... always got the girl." Sonny's memories of their youth are rife with nostalgia -- sweltering summer days spent working on a sprawling Madera County ranch, long nights filled with fighting, dancing, drinking and chasing women. Though Sonny romanticizes their underdog past, their lives were also filled with ritualized violence, rampant alcoholism, callous sex, and broken fidelities.

Frank Bergon, author of a previous trilogy of novels about Nevada, was once a "valley boy" himself on a ranch in Madera County, though he now teaches at Vassar College in New York. Jesse's Ghost is the first of his new series about the Central Valley, a geography that Bergon knows intimately and paints, as he does his characters, with a blend of beauty and violence: "Moonlight brightened the ditch water creeping over the ground like slow-moving mercury as it twisted around the alfalfa stalks, giving the air a sweet, musty smell." Once an agricultural Eden, the Central Valley now suffers at the hands of industry -- crop-dusters fly low, sickening the farmworkers, and DDT poisons the air. Sonny and his friends take a kind of awful pleasure in killing wildlife, whether jackrabbits, rats, or bullfrogs.

Sonny and Jesse's clichéd notions about manhood are classically Western -- the belief that, in a land of seemingly limitless resources, all it takes is hard work, toughness and a little luck to succeed. But the ranch that felt like an empire to them fails, their friends flee the valley, and Sonny lives an isolated life within a struggling marriage. Memories of Jesse consume him. Telling the story of how and why he murdered his best friend helps him understand his actions, but the brutal truth -- like a wasted landscape -- cannot be softened or undone.

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