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'West of the West' by Mark Arax
West of the West
Dreamers, Believers, Builders,
and Killers in the Golden State
PublicAffairs: 350 pp., $26.95
The title of Mark Arax's collection of reportage "West of the West" comes from Theodore Roosevelt, who famously said: "When I am in California, I am not in the West, I am west of the West." Roosevelt's remark helped create our idea of a state that is not only golden and opportunity-filled but somehow beyond everywhere else, within which experience and social experiment happen in ways that are both unto themselves and constantly surprising.
Arax explores the contemporary manifestations of this idea, showing us intimate dramas that arise from the tussles among the larger external forces of landscape, family, immigration, politics and economics. In "Legend of Zankou," an Armenian rotisserie chicken magnate dons a white silk suit he hasn't worn for 20 years, then drives across Glendale to kill his mother, his sister and then himself. In "The Agent," Arax profiles James Wedick Jr., an FBI agent turned private eye, fighting for the chance to testify on behalf of two Pakistani Muslims who stand accused in the first terrorism trial in California. The authorities think (hope) they've busted an Al Qaeda cell in Lodi, population 60,000, a farming town at the far northern edge of the San Joaquin Valley. In reality, Wedick tells Arax, they've found the neighborhood ice-cream man and his sad cherry-packer son guilty of little more than stupidity and railroaded by a dubious interrogation process.
Arax's anger and the intense subtleties of his writing thrive on this sort of incongruity. In "Highlands of Humboldt," he travels to Northern California's Lost Coast, where 80% of the economy is driven by the growing of marijuana, a ganja culture that has grown brazenly since the passing of Proposition 215 in 1996. Proposition 215 legalized cannabis for medical use, but the growers still fear a federal bust, likely to arrive in the shape of "cars, trucks, all-terrain vehicles, three-wheelers, a mobile communications center," roaring up the hillsides.
Here, Arax explores the clash between the "hippie movement with its small-scale marijuana gardens" and full-on industrial growers, who look like hippies too but may have a Ferrari stashed beside the beat-up four-wheel drive. "Weed is a spiritual experience here," says one redneck rasta, contrasting what he does with the industrial-style combines. "We grow it in a sustainable way. We grow it in backyards using the sun. To the north is hill country. They do it big, out in the middle of nowhere. They build these huge indoor houses and use diesel generators to keep the lights burning. They're grease monkeys." Later Arax describes Reggae Rising, a big outdoor festival: "So much smoke was swirling up from the little round valley in the canyon that I thought it must have appeared from high above as one big bowl lit with kush."
At the heart of this examination is the notion of culture clash. "This wasn't the California I learned as a kid," Arax writes. "No missions here, no padres with rawhide whips, no neophyte natives planting the first vineyards and wheat fields and digging the first irrigation canals." But Arax's experience of the state has been darkened for a long time now. He grew up in Fresno, where, one night in 1972, his father was shot to death. Arax's first book, "In My Father's Name," explored the event and its aftershock. When that book was published in 1996, the murder was unsolved; here, in an epilogue, Arax describes how the killers were finally found, and he confronts the woman who set the slaying in motion. It's charged and highly moving stuff, almost like a James Crumley novel in miniature -- but painfully for real.
His father's death turned Arax into a writer and defined the kind of relentless, troubled and troubling reporter he has become. The feeling of something deep and personal binds the disparate pieces in "West of the West." Much of the material here originally appeared (in a different form) in The Times, where Arax was a staff reporter for many years. Arax mourns what has happened to the paper in the digital age, reserving particular venom for the slashing of the magnificent newsroom by "carpetbaggers from Chicago." On this subject, as elsewhere, he goes at events with the fierce bulldog tenacity that is one of his trademarks as a writer.
Sometimes, as in "The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman," a more novelistic complexity is revealed. "He had a job that paid twenty cents for every tray of Thompson grapes he picked and laid out in the 105 degree sun to make raisins. In the two harvests since the family left Oaxaca in the spring of 2003, he had never made the minimum wage, never picked more than 250 trays, $50, in a ten hour day," Arax writes, describing the grueling labor Hilario Guzman put in before he flipped his car and was killed. In the end, Guzman's story becomes a frame for a panoramic portrait of the complex and contradictory relationship between immigrant workers and the Central Valley farming economy that they drive.
Arax roams across California, but his writing feels most rooted in the vast plain that stretches from Los Angeles to San Francisco. "Into the vine's thick curtain," he writes, "they dove on hands and knees, gnats flying in their faces and sulfur dust choking their lungs. Had a stranger come upon the field just then, he would have seen the vines shaking violently, but by what sustained force he wouldn't be able to tell. Not until he walked right in, bent low, and stuck his nostrils in the ferment would he know that it was a farmworker, no more than five and a half feet tall, slashing inside the green canopy. Baked earth, dried leaves, black widow webs, and mildewed berries stuck to the sugar juice splattered on his skin."
Arax is trying to put his finger on the shifting nature of the place where he grew up and to which, as an adult, he returned. Occasionally his politics can sound a little shrill, but like all good reporters, he has the knack of putting us there, fixing an era and making us reassess our relationship to an economic and geographic landscape that never stops changing.
Rayner's new book, "A Bright and Guilty Place," will be published in June.