High times

Judith Freeman's most recent novel is "Red Water."

RAYMOND CHANDLER, in one of his less generous moods, once described California as "the department store state: The most of everything and the best of nothing."

When I first read the title of Martha Sherrill's new novel, "The Ruins of California," I thought of those lines. Was this another tale about the spoiled paradise, a doomsday story chronicling the long-awaited collapse of the decadent domain?

The Ruins, however, turn out not to be earthquake rubble but main characters. When a novelist decides to give a family a name like Ruin you can be certain that she has decided to signal right upfront that this is going to be a story about how things fall apart.

In that respect, Sherrill doesn't disappoint. And yet "The Ruins of California" also turns out to be a book about how relationships endure. Set in the 1970s, the novel is about a young girl growing up amid the messiness of her own fractured, somewhat potty family. Inez Garcia Ruin narrates this story in a voice filled with unflinching matter-of-factness and preternatural insight.

Inez is just 7 years old when the novel opens. Her parents are divorced, and she inhabits several distinct worlds, shuttling back and forth between her conservative mother in L.A. and her hipster father in San Francisco.

Most of the time she lives in a modest, middle-class suburb called Van Dale (a stand-in for Glendale) with Abuelita -- her Peruvian grandmother -- and her half-Peruvian, half-Mexican mother, Consuela Garcia Ruin. Unfortunately, the mother never quite comes to life, which is too bad because there's potential in an ex-flamenco dancer who becomes obsessed with est and tennis. But Consuela remains a cipher, a woman who dates men with names like Coach Weeger and Bob Lasso. As a mother, she seems barely there.

Inez's father, Paul Ruin, is a much more vivid character, an unregenerate womanizer who lives in North Beach. Inez refers to him as "my gloomy and complicated father," and it's true he's a man of contradictions -- intelligent and foolish, capable of saying inane things like "I don't mean to heavy you out" when he turns serious with his daughter. Inez must contend with an ever-changing roster of young women who float through his life, and his occasional crisis of identity.

Inez also has a rich grandmother, Marguerite, who lives in a grand house in San Benito (read: San Marino), and it is here one day that she meets her half-brother, Whitman, the child from her father's first marriage, who is only a few years older and who will become her ally in her attempts to cope with her family. Whitman's a free spirit, a cool, unflappable kid. "Maybe it was just a California thing," muses Inez, but Whitman's ability to never "make a big deal out of anything" encourages her to develop her own dispassionate views of the world.

One of Sherrill's strengths as a novelist is how she makes use of all these very disparate and racially diverse characters as metaphors for the reality of life in California. Inez exists in a world of opposites. Her best friend, for instance, is a Mormon girl whose upbeat family provides a much-needed refuge until, as a teenager, Inez meets the drug-addled and sexually promiscuous Shelley, a girl who would like nothing more than to take her to bed.

It's clear, however, that Inez's deepest connection is with her father. Sherrill, the author of two previous books, "The Buddha From Brooklyn," a nonfiction work, and the novel "My Last Movie Star," understands the obsessive and often fraught nature of father-daughter love. Her prose has none of the linguistic pyrotechnics of, say, Jonathan Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude," another coming-of-age novel set in the 1970s -- but it captivates nonetheless, due to the strength of Inez's voice, as in the following passage where she recalls her young life as she shuttled to San Francisco to visit her father:

"I was passing from mother to father, a baton of a girl flying in the distance between hands.... I felt unburdened ... of the complications of living in a household of women where my mother was lost and loud, where my grandmother worked all the time, and where I was always wishing to stay forever and, at the same time, to be somewhere else."

"The Ruins" reminds us not only of what an eclectic place California has been ("the most of everything") but also of what a different time the 1970s were, and how easy it was to buy into the decade's permissiveness. "Are you up for a little dope?" Paul asks his 14-year-old daughter, passing her a joint. He does drugs with his kids and discusses sex with them as if they were peers, but in the end the lifestyle backfires on him. He ends up a spent and sad figure, padding around his designer house in his monogrammed slippers, too enervated to sustain an affair.

The novel opens with the 1968 assassination of Robert Kennedy, and it concludes with Reagan being elected president in 1980 and 19-year-old Inez and Whitman both living in Hawaii, steeped in drugs. Yet Inez longs to shed the decadent lifestyle that has engulfed her. In the final scene, she dials up her old Mormon friend, now a student at Brigham Young University. It's hard to say whether this is meant to be ironic or simply the sly means by which Sherrill signals that not only are Inez's wild days over but that the entire country is about to lurch to the right. *

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