THE problem of California, an especially perplexing subset of the everlasting American problem, is how to make a home here. And in California, what is called "home" is always compared to other places: the places where some Californians wish they lived or the places they regard with unease. "The San Bernardino Valley," writes Joan Didion in "Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream" -- reprinted in Gayle Wattawa's anthology "Inlandia" -- "lies only an hour east of Los Angeles by the San Bernardino Freeway but is in certain ways an alien place ... a harsher California, haunted by the Mojave just beyond the mountains, devastated by the hot dry Santa Ana wind that comes down through the passes at 100 miles an hour and whines through the eucalyptus windbreaks and works on the nerves. October is the bad month for the wind.... Every voice seems a scream. It is the season of suicide and divorce and prickly dread, wherever the wind blows."
The October wind is always blowing in that other, unfavored California. Dread is always collecting in the shadows of its barren foothills. In the coastal parts of California, the carefully trimmed landscaping will muffle your nervous scream; out there (your arm sweeping an eastern arc from Barstow to the Salton Sea), the sound will carry endlessly over mesas, arroyos, sand dunes and double-wides. In neither place -- this being our secret fear of making a home in California -- will anyone take any notice. Historian Mike Davis, born among mill workers in Fontana, offers a chemical explanation for why that feels true about his former home ground. "The San Bernardino area, with perhaps the nation's largest concentration of over-the-road truckers and outlaw bikers," he writes, "has long been the methamphetamine Medellin. It is not surprising, therefore, that some long-distance commuters have taken to starting each day with a booster-rocket of speed or crank with their cappuccino. More alarming, according to the San Bernardino Sun, their kids also consume drugs and alcohol at almost triple the national average."
But Didion and Davis are only tourists in the "empire" of inland California, with a tourist's ability to be both accurate and oblivious when they write about what it's like to actually live in San Bernardino, Riverside or the badlands beyond. The road through "Inlandia" (a somewhat awkward designation for the Southern California interior) stops at other accounts of home. M.F.K. Fisher remembers Hemet in the 1940s: "There are many pockets of comfort and healing on this planet ... but only once have I been able to stay as long and learn and be told as much as there on the southeast edge of the Hemet Valley." J. Smeaton Chase wakes to a July dawn in the Mojave, circa 1920: "To lie at dawn and watch the growing glory in the east, the pure ... light stealing up from below the horizon, the brightening to holy silver, the first flash of amber, then of rose, then a hot stain of crimson, and then the flash and glitter, the intolerable splendor...." Percival Everett in 2003 defines the "badlands" of the 909 area code: "Technically, the Badlands is chaparral. The hills are filled with sage, wild mustard, fiddleheads and live oaks. Bobcats, meadowlarks, geckos, horned lizards, red tailed hawks, kestrels, coach whip snakes, king snakes, gopher snakes. Rattlesnakes and coyotes. We don't see rain for seven months of the year and when we do we often flood. In the spring, the hills are green. They are layered and gorgeous. This is in contrast to the rest of the year when the hills are brown and ochre and layered and gorgeous."
Gorgeous, surely. Some of the pieces from "Inlandia" exhibit that characteristic Southern California strain of mingled longing, remembrance and real estate talk -- how could anyplace be home if we did not fall in love with it? But the inland is layered too with the regret that is another aspect of living there, where so much has changed or been lost in so few years. Following the path of the San Bernardino Freeway, Native Americans, Latinos, Asians and now African Americans have migrated in and out. Under the I-10's concrete, pounded by BMWs and Peterbilts, lies a 1,000-year-old trail to homes some of these writers still want to see in the brutally altered landscape. They want us to see them too -- and to understand the modest hopes for an affordable house with a yard in Temecula or Twentynine Palms.
"Inlandia" (a title straight out of Sibelius or Smetana and less aggressive than the triumphal "Inland Empire") celebrates a localism as fine-tuned to particulars as Hamlin Garland's or Willa Cather's Great Plains stories at the start of the last century. Like those works, this anthology -- which was co-published by Heyday Books and Santa Clara University as part of their "California Legacy" series, adding to the state's growing literature of place -- intends to instruct us and rally the indigenous. "Sometimes I believe we have an advantage here in our land," novelist Susan Straight writes in her exigent introduction, "because even the very words used to describe us are lovely: pomegranate and pyracantha, bougainvillea and jacaranda, granite and ghostly coyotes and eucalyptus. Even the smog makes the sunset vivid as dangerous passion." Of Straight's words, only "granite" and "coyote" are not immigrants -- terms for the comforts of a home somewhere else. And maybe (this is our other common fear) her lovely words are only passing through this hard place. "Around here," Cuban-born Dionisio D. Martinez surmises in "Hesperia," "the earth is flat by choice.... A man with nothing to lose could live here."
But despite the lurid smog, tens of thousands of blue-collar and just barely white-collar families with a lot to lose have made this California their exurban home since the early 1990s, by applying a rough egalitarianism born of their shared anxiety, long commutes and flight from gang-dominated neighborhoods.
Sadly, as some of the short fiction collected in "Inlandia" tells it, the gangsters came along for the ride. But the inhabitants -- often women -- push back, even when they're beaten down by their distance from anything better. John Steinbeck, writing of earlier hard times along Route 66 near Barstow, notes in "The Grapes of Wrath": "The people in flight from the terror behind -- strange things happen to them, some bitterly cruel and some so beautiful that the faith is refired forever."
Bitter and beautiful pretty much sum up the history of the Inland Empire (and, of course, the history of California and the West). Whether anyone should have enough faith to venture a home here is still uncertain.
Although the pieces anthologized in "Inlandia" are ardently regional, that doesn't diminish their significance. All the literatures of America are regional, pointing out that the character of a particular place intersects with the character of its people. Some of "Inlandia's" authors get it: Gordon Johnson writing about the Pala Reservation, Michael Jaime-Becerra writing about fast cars, Celeste DeBlasis writing about the end of ranch life, Aris Janigian writing about the Santa Ana winds. And some (see, for instance, the excerpts from Raymond Chandler and Norman Mailer) don't get it at all.
I'd be hard-pressed to make a home in some of the places embraced by the authors collected in "Inlandia," but there are those, Straight asserts, who shape their idea of home there with all the "love and desire and the fierceness we retain in these small places where people loved their own with ... vehemence ... and tungsten-hard loyalty.... " Living in one of these small places myself, I know what she means. I can almost hear the voices in chorus, singing, "O Inlandia, our home and native land." *