Authors & Ideas: Katie Arnoldi on ‘Point Dume’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Katie Arnoldi has lived in Malibu all her life, yet she still buzzes like a schoolgirl over its many-splendored beauty. “Just look at that break,” Arnoldi exclaims as a clutch of surfers rides a long, glassy wave just a few feet away from her house.

The novelist, who first appeared on the literary scene with 2001’s “Chemical Pink,” a novel about female bodybuilding (drawing on Arnoldi’s own experience as a Southern California bodybuilder), shares a brief anecdote about her days as a competitive surfer. She describes how she learned the sport as a young girl on this very beach. Then, a cloud moves over the sun, and Arnoldi’s mood darkens a bit.

“Look at that,” she says, pointing to longboard surfers crashing their way though the waves. “These guys don’t care about anybody else on the water. It’s like yoga—everyone’s doing it now. That’s why I stopped surfing. It was making me grumpy.”

Arnoldi and her husband, the renowned artist Chuck Arnoldi, live on the same parcel of land that her father purchased for $37,000 in 1959 (the year of her birth), so you can forgive her for feeling somewhat proprietary about what transpires on the beach below her house. Arnoldi decries the creeping movement in Malibu away from its small-town roots and toward the part-time surfers, moneyed exiles from “town” and greedy developers intent on turning the coastal city into “Beverly Hills on the Beach.” That subtext runs through her latest novel, “Point Dume,” published by the Overlook Press, like a fault-line.

“There was etiquette,” Arnoldi writes of the neo-surfer dudes in “Point Dume.” “You had to work your way up through the ranks. Groms on the inside or over on a lesser break. Kooks didn’t even surf our beach. But that system has completely collapsed now that surfing is the answer to everyone’s need for adventure and identity.”

Part comedy of manners and part cautionary tale, “Point Dume” (named after the stunning coastal promontory in Malibu) tells the interlocking stories of disparate characters all bound by their connection to the land by the sea. There’s Frank Bain, the nouveau-riche surfer with a giant vineyard that’s blighting the landscape and an unhealthy attachment to his mistress, Ellis, the old-line Malibu free spirit who’s caught between Frank and a drifter named Pablo Schwartz. “Ellis came from the service side of the counter,” Arnoldi writes, “and Frank expected to be waited on.”

A small-time drug dealer, Pablo is poaching pot from a giant grow-farm located in the hills above the city, where a Mexican immigrant named Felix unwittingly finds himself tending to the crops for a dangerous cartel.

“Point Dume’s” lost souls share a “sense of belonging and yet not belonging” that Arnoldi believes is a central tenet of present-day Malibu. “I’ve been circling around the idea for a long time, as I’ve observed the changes that have taken place here,” she says. “When I was growing up, this was a blue-collar community—electricians, construction workers. Then the rich folk moved in, and who can blame them, really? But the people I grew up with have been displaced.”

Unlike T.C. Boyle’s novel “Budding Prospects"—the preeminent modern pot novel—"Point Dume” isn’t a picaresque romp that uses weed dealing as a backdrop. Arnoldi fears that the cartels are permanently decimating the state’s native landscape with “pesticides that are polluting our waterways, and the animals that are eating their plants,” she says.

The growers are also exploiting immigrants like “Point Dume’s” Felix, who has dreams of earning enough to bring his family over the border, but instead finds himself toiling as an indentured slave for the cartel that brought him into California.

Arnoldi was well into the book when the idea of adding Felix and the drug cartels came along. She was on her usual morning hike along the Zuma mountain trail when she ran into a park ranger she knew. “We were just making small talk about the mountain lions he’s spotted and the wildlife,” Arnoldi says. “And then he says, ‘Of course, there’s the cartel.’ It was like a gift from heaven.”

An aggressively immersive researcher, Arnoldi decided to check out the weed farms for herself, which can be tougher than sniffing out truffles in Périgord. “They cover up their operations with a canopy, so it’s not visible from the air,” she says. “They’re really, really smart.”

Rather than go it alone, Arnoldi embedded herself with the DEA’s Operation LOCUST, a drug eradication effort in Sequoia National Park (Malibu law enforcement was “less than forthcoming,” according to Arnoldi). Arnoldi helped break down the plants and the water systems and catalogued the pesticides the growers were using. “One site had 10,000 plants, another had 100,000,” she said. “These are huge operations. And dangerous as hell too.”

The Malibu pot farm in “Point Dume” serves as metaphor and red flag; the Anglo characters would rather drag on their bongs than examine the consequences of the illicit operations in their own backyards. The wages of this blissful ignorance are felt in the book’s finale, but until then, everyone lives within their own individual ecosystems, wandering hazily through a serene landscape that never gives up its secrets.

As in the novel, there are strong dividing lines in Malibu between old-line residents and new money. For her part, Arnoldi would like her fellow Malibu residents to all just get along, but she doesn’t cast aspersions on anyone who has settled here. She just wants to make sure they don’t try to change a good thing.

“Long-term planning has never been in place here, but that’s what I like about it,” she says. “Everyone in Malibu was kind of doing their own thing, now they want to put sidewalks in Point Dume to make it safer for kids? Why did you move out to this rural environment if you want to urbanize it? Just leave it alone, please.”

Weingarten is the author of “The Gang That Wouldn’t Write Straight: Wolfe, Thompson, Didion, and the New Journalism Revolution” and is writing a book about water in Los Angeles.