Saturday, May 16, 2009

A Sense of Place

I decided to read some books set in California, and have started with Dashiell Hammet's The Maltese Falcon, T.C.Boyle's Riven Rock, and some short stories by Steinbeck, The Long Valley (written up here).

Hammet's place is San Francisco, and I was lucky to happen on an edition illustrated with photos -- mostly from the late 20s when Hammet wrote -- showing the exact places where private detective Sam Spade lived and detected. I've seen the film The Maltese Falcon a number of times, so I was also very amused to find how completely Hammet's dialog created the character that Humphrey Bogart made famous, as well as to discover how much the real San Francisco plays a role in the story.

Riven Rock is a historical novel about Stanley McCormick, a man who was enormously rich and dramatically insane.

The action takes place from around 1906 until around 1930, mainly in Santa Barbara and adjacent Montecito. My own response to the book is very much tied up with my experiences there -- I've put in a photo of Lotus Land, a tourist attraction in present-day Montecito. Lotus Land was home of Gunna Walska, wife of another of Cyrus McCormick's sons, as Boyle notes in the book.

The real central character is not Stanley McCormick, heir to the fortune amassed by his father Cyrus, but Eddie O'Kane, the nurse who worked for him, restraining his violent tendencies and cooperating with a series of ineffective doctors and psychoanalysts. At the beginning of the book, Eddie longs to go from his home in Boston to California, "real or illusionary -- California -- hanging in his head in all its exotic glory." (p. 13) When he arrives, he has the same response as I think anyone does to the mild climate, the orange groves, the beaches, the islands in the channel, and the ubiquitous flowers. He also longs to get rich -- but never does, he just keeps working for the increasingly bizarre McCormick family.

Boyle (even more than Hammet) uses the device of naming specific streets and locations in his California town to create the early-20th-century atmosphere. Eddie lives in a boarding house in downtown Santa Barbara, drinks in the bars and (later) speakeasies. He womanizes and prowls around these streets. Boyle describes the buildings, their destruction in the earthquake, and the reconstruction. A court procedure (Stanley McCormick's wife against his family) takes place in the courthouse with its dramatic architecture, tile work, and murals -- again shown in my photo.

Reading fiction about California is too easy, since so many authors were born here or came here to continue their careers once they have a financially rewarding start. I'm thinking Jack London, Mark Twain, William Saroyan, Nathanael West, Jack Kerouac, Amy Tan, and so many more. Even British ex-pats -- Aldous Huxley, Evelyn Waugh -- have written a bit about their California. And Hollywood brought F.Scott Fitzgerald. This could be fun.

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