A Heart of Gold : BIG DREAMS: Into the Heart of California, <i> By Bill Barich (Pantheon Books: $24; 560 pp.)</i>

<i> Page Stegner is the author of three "California novels" and three collections of essays on the American West. He is director of the Creative Writing Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz</i>

Books about California are not in short supply. A.H. Watkins once noted in his own opus on lotus land, “One glance at the bibliography of any general history might convince the uninformed observer that California was an elderly national power with approximately twelve centuries of history to recall, not a mere American state with hardly more than two hundred years of a recognizable past.” To this we might add, one glance at the recommended reading list provided in most literary anthologies devoted to West Coast writings will convince even the informed observer that there isn’t enough tenure in one life time to peruse all the worthy prose expanded in explication of the Golden State. So why do we need more?

Certainly one of the dreams that persists in the mind of any self respecting California writer is the fantasy that someday somebody is going to get it right, somebody is really going to explain the region in all its immensity and complexity. And it just might be . . . well, if not all those who went before, (Twain, London, Norris, Muir, Miller, Steinbeck, Jeffers, Austin, West, Chandler, Kerouac, Saroyan, Stegner, Snyder, Everson, Didion, Houston, Haslam, to name a random few), why not, perhaps, Bill Barich. “I’d probe at California to see what made it tick,” Barich says of his own motivation. “If I hoped to take stock of my life out West, I reckoned that I should also take a stock of some other lives and visions, listening to my fellow dreamers while I explored our common bonds.”

To his great credit he does what he sets out to do, and he does it with wit and style. In a way “Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California” reminds one of “Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways,” perhaps because of the engaging narrative voice and wry sense of humor, perhaps because because both authors are in flight from a disintegrating relationship and both are on a personal odyssey, taking stock of their own reality through the metaphysical investigation of other lives, other habitats.

Barich wanders from the Oregon border to the Mexican port-of-entry at San Ysidro, zigging and zagging along the way from the Pacific coast to the Sierra Nevada, down the long San Joaquin Valley, over the transverse ranges into the L.A. Basin, out into the Mojave and south into the Coachella Valley. But the route is unimportant. It’s the people he meets, “other lives and visions” that are at issue, and the ways in which the varying landscapes of California both form and inform these people.


On Barich’s journey we meet a remarkable variety of folks, all those sons and daughters of the golden west who were either born into or lured from other climes by its promise of “the great life.” Some are historical figures, like John Sutter, John Muir, Robert Louis Stevenson, William Brewer, Edwin Bryant. Some are everyday people like the cattle ranching Albaugh family in the Fall River Valley, or the Crettols, “a modern California farming family” in the San Joaquin Valley. Some are famous, like Caesar Chavez, Walt Disney, and “the Ultimate Californian,” Ronald Reagan; some are infamous, like the most celebrated tenant of the Corcoran State Prison facilities at Avenal, Charles Manson.

Sandwiched between the more extensive and reflective portraits are dozens of vignettes, such as the teen-age clerk in a Yolo County country store, “a snuffly boy who was putting in some time at work until he had to leave for school. It was early June, and he had to last through a couple more weeks of painful education before he would be free to lean on his broom all day.” Asking him what it was that was growing in the fields across the road from the store, Barich receives no information. “He didn’t know that answer and didn’t want to know the answer. Talk of farming bored him. He moped by the cash register and hung his head, as if I’d caught him out at class, and finally called to his boss. . . . ‘Customer has a question,’ he shouted.”

Piece by piece these portraits, sketches, anecdotes and vignettes add up to an extraordinary profile of the Californian and his habitat, but it is an impressionistic canvas we are observing, not a trompe l’oeil. The narrative method reflects something of the vastness of Barich’s task. The problem that anyone trying to recreate the California experience runs into is that it won’t stay still long enough to have its picture taken, and it’s too big to fit between the boards. Barich could be describing the whole state when he refers to Los Angeles as “never quite what it (appears) to be and forever staying one step ahead of interpretation.”

There are, of course, many Californias--9 by some counts; 6 according to Gary Snyder, though Snyder gives away the Mojave to Arizona, the Sonoran deserts to Mexico and the north coast to Oregon/Washington. It has a land mass of 158,693 square miles, considerably larger than Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and New Jersey all lumped together (124,020 square miles). It is urban, suburban, rural. It is rain forest at one end, desert at the other (and not one desert, but three), high mountains along its eastern margin, Pacific ocean along its western. It has large populations of Asians, Hispanics, African Americans, Native Americans. It is not an easy task to consolidate such a polymorphous society living in their redwood, rhododendron, oak, manzanita, madrone, chaparral, creosote bush, shadscale, cactus environment into a single conceit called, “the Heart of California.” But Bill Barich does it as well as it can be done.