Enduring fields of despair

David Ebershoff is the author of "Pasadena" and "The Danish Girl."

Tulare County, in California’s Central Valley, is about four hours northeast of Los Angeles and about four hours southeast of San Francisco. The nearest big city is Fresno. In Tulare County, orchards (peaches, plums, nectarines) and vineyards (mostly producing raisins) surround the small towns. Roughly 380,000 people live in Tulare County. According to one of the narrators in Manuel Munoz’s powerful debut collection of stories, “Zigzagger,” they and the inhabitants of the neighboring counties are mostly the descendants of the two monumental migrations that define California’s interior: “Here, there was only white and brown, only Mexico, only Oklahoma.”

Munoz has created a wholly authentic vision of contemporary California -- one that has little to do with coastlines, cities or silicon. His characters for the most part are Mexican immigrants and their children; nearly everyone is destined to pick and pack. In these stories, fathers ask questions in Spanish and sons answer in English. The more restless children dream of leaving the Central Valley, though many never will. Most of the stories are about the valley’s loneliest: gay boys who drive up and down the county roads to find one another; fathers broken by decades of field work; a bright young woman who has made it to 20 without getting pregnant, unlike every other girl she knows. In “Not Nevada,” a middle-aged photographer takes family portraits while secretly longing for, but never touching, the boys who pose on his studio settee. Behind his plate-glass window, he works (and will always work) alone. And that’s true of just about everyone in Munoz’s bleak but honest world.

No interstate highway runs through Tulare County. Rural kids everywhere say that a county without an interstate is on the way to nowhere: A stranger isn’t likely to pass through town and change your life; the only way to do that is to leave. Yet the few characters in “Zigzagger” who manage to leave often look back with hearts broken not by the valley but by having said goodbye to it. John Steinbeck long ago famously chronicled the Central Valley -- epically in “The Grapes of Wrath” and before that in short-story-like reportage such as “The Harvest Gypsies” and “Starvation Under the Orange Trees.” More than 60 years have passed, but, Munoz tells us, little in the valley has changed for those at the bottom of the orchard ladder except their names: Tom is now Tomas.


“Campo” is the story of a young man who keeps a camp for the abandoned children of migrant workers; they aren’t orphans but they don’t have families either, and Munoz knows their lives well. In this story, he depicts an agricultural Eden where the average worker rarely shares in the abundance:

“Just at the base of the foothills, the town levels a space for itself between the vineyards of summer raisins and the fruit orchards.... The workers, though, do not live close to downtown. Past the county courthouse, with its palm-lined lawn and arc of black gate, the main road continues and then blanches away to a crumbling, thinner passage. It travels past the gasoline tanks and the giant cooling sheds of the ice company. Past these structures, away from the sight of the rest of the town, is the workers’ neighborhood. They can walk to town and often do, past the courthouse, past the window with the primped mannequin, to get groceries, about twenty minutes each way. Mostly, it is the wives who go, followed by shirtless children, and then return again. There is a park across the road from the county courthouse ... and here, people stop if they are walking, to rest in the grass, just for a few minutes, because they carry perishables off both arms.”

Gay teenagers, often nameless and destined to work the fields like their fathers and brothers, figure in many of the stories. They are lonely, horny and hated. In some of the stories the point of view shifts to that of their mothers, fathers and sisters. “The Unimportant Lila Parr,” one of the best stories in the collection, is about a farm worker and his wife whose son is found strangled in the motel out by the highway. Their grief is complicated by the details of his final night: the young man seen with him in the motel parking lot, the needles found next to his dead body, the sight of his “blueblack” penis as the coroner pulls back the sheet in the morgue. Towns this small can’t keep secrets, except for the one that will astonish the reader at this devastating story’s end.

Munoz’s Central Valley is a part of California -- a part of America -- that has yet to see many liberations: gay, women’s or economic liberation from restrictions imposed for so long on people with brown skin. If his vision is full of despair, so is the reality that his characters must endure; he is much too truthful a writer to present false hope. “Zigzagger” is a book to read if you want to see another California, one that might be unfamiliar but is home to millions. It heralds the arrival of a gifted and sensitive writer.