Reviewed by Justice Fisher
This modern world, where streaming television is the norm, allows many of us to avoid the capitalist interstitial known as the commercial. But I have cable and no such luxury. And so it is that sometimes I catch the “Visit California” ads on TV and watch; a woman paddle boards on Lake Tahoe, people exercise and rock climb in the great outdoors, famous faces play pickup basketball games or golf, and impossibly slender blondes come back from surfing or entice us to visit the state while walking across a motion picture backlot, their next stop an imaginary set contrived for your viewing pleasure. Intentionally, the California I see jump-cutting across my 50-inch Samsung is the tourist’s California. It is not the home I sought and found, and it bears no resemblance to the existence I eked out in the early 2000s. I found a more familiar California in the pages of Golden State 2017: The Best New Writing from California (Outpost19, June 2017).
In the editor’s note, Lisa Locascio says that “Lush diversity is the defining feature of California’s people, literature, and fantasias,” and the collected pieces make good on that promise. In 28 separate tales, Locascio’s selections cover a spectrum of races and nationalities, heroes and villains, sexes and orientations, and family relations. And while I as a person do not cover that same spectrum, still I saw my California among the stories. I recognized the struggles and strife in Olga Zilberbourg’s “Outer Sunset,” and I easily imagined myself inside the house featured in Rebecca Baumann’s “Craftsman Kid.” I used to pass Craftsmen’s-in-progress often on my way to work and always wondered about the lucky people who could afford to restore them. The tales are a mixture of fiction and nonfiction, but the reader is left to determine the ratio, to sort the sordid and the sweet into their categories, if so desired.
The collection is at its best, for me, when the authors treat California as a character rather than set dressing. William Hillyard does just that in “Wonder Valley” when he recounts the tale of Ned Bray and the end of Ricka McGuire “in this nowhere corner of the Mojave.” Part anecdote, part history lesson, Hillyard transports you so thoroughly in his descriptions that you’ll need to drink a glass of water when you finish. Patty Somlo’s “Journey Back Home” reminds the author and the reader that you can go home again, but it will never quite feel like home again. Time marches on, and so do we.
I struggled with the organization of the collection. After reading the first two pieces, neither of which bowled me over, I almost stopped reading. I’m glad I didn’t. There are memorable characters to be had in later pages, like the child of immigrant parents working for their catering business in “Speakeasy Tacos.” Michael Jaime-Becerra’s choice of second person point of view was a breath of fresh air. “Beds” was forgettable, and “Dad’s House” didn’t seem to fit in. I really liked the structure of “The Chain” and “The Day.”
Golden State 2017: The Best New Writing from California has sufficient scope to be a good read for a varied audience. You don’t have to love California to love this book, but it doesn’t hurt. For a former resident and forever admirer, it was nice to go home again.