California chronicles: A review of New California Writing: 2011

  • Getty, Tom McHugh

New California Writing: 2011
Gayle Wattawa, ed.
320 pages, softcover: $20.
Heyday, 2011.

Most anthologies possess a ready-made but sometimes narrow audience. Readers come to these single-subject, multi-authored books with an already established connection and desire to know more. What, then, does a book focused on California offer to those who live outside the Golden State? Plenty, as editor Gayle Wattawa readily demonstrates through the fiction, nonfiction and poetry gathered in New California Writing: 2011.

California may boast a cultural, ecological and economic diversity unique in this country, but as Malcolm Margolin points out in his introduction, borrowing Wallace Stegner's oft-quoted observation: California is like America, only more so. And today, like the rest of the nation, California is in the midst of difficult times -- something that, according to Margolin, makes for exceptional writing. "In an era such as this," he argues, "the self-justifying clichés and smug certainties that characterize periods of prosperity ring hollow" and thought-provoking, funny and courageous literature emerges. New California Writing's authors, including both lesser-known voices and heavyweights such as Rebecca Solnit, Mike Davis, Jennifer Egan and Michael Chabon, embody this spirit of inquiry.

Because of its long-held Edenic status, California's fall appears all the more symbolic in these writings. "Bigger and better than anyplace that anybody had ever seen before," writes Fred Setterberg. "We were building houses, highways, hospitals, new universities up and down the state and the best public school systems in the country." Today, that utopia has been eclipsed by unchecked development, discrimination, dysfunctional families and a broken social covenant, exemplified, as Gray Brechin writes in "The Guttering Promise of Public Education," by decaying public schools, parks, hospitals and forests.

Yet the courageous literature Margolin describes in his introduction is best illustrated in the stories of surfers, punks, borax miners, immigrants, unconventional families, and hard-bitten and yuppie farmers alike. Here, the planting of a mulberry tree connects neighbors, and the common bluebelly lizard is nothing but astonishing. As D.J. Waldie asks in the book's last piece: "We all live on land we've wounded, land we've improved to our dissatisfaction. Yet we must be here or be nowhere and have nothing with which to make our lives together. How should one act knowing that making a home requires this?"

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