New California Writing
Gayle Wattawa,
Kirk Glaser, Editors

(Heyday/Santa Clara University)
There are over forty essays, poems, and works of fiction in New California Writing (2013). We liked Leslie Tenorio's "La Amour, CA," "Stanzas in the Form of a Dove" by Linda Norton, and Poe Ballentine's "Free Rent at the Totalitarian Hotel." Ballentine manages to remind us of us when we were in our tawdry twenties, back when we didn't know where to go, nor why, nor when, or even if we had to do anything but exist. Disasters abounded: the Twin Towers have just fallen and we are living in this drab town, in a drab hotel, and we wonder if anything is connected: our lives, terrorism, a fascistic hotel owner, the beautiful woman next door, moths in the bedroom, twenty-five pounds of albacore in the freezer. After he gets a job as reviewer for the local throw-away newspaper, The North Coast View, the stock market crashes. "Are we still in business?" he asks.

    Until further notice was the editor's complacent reply.

    "You're not worried about the market crash?"

    "We're not listed on the Dow Jones Industrial last time I checked."

Ballentine manages to bring together the easy amiability of a muzzy author and the basic question of what to do with our lives in the midst of financial and social and personal upheaval.

§   §   §

There are thirteen poems in this volume, most not very good, except for one by our old favorite, Joseph Millar. Millar specializes in existential urban despair, the ever-present what-next?, and old cars --- a 1965 Triumph Bonneville,

    which was stolen in Golden Gate Park
    while I made love to the rhododendrons
    with a girl from chicago named Vivian

who left him "for a Chinese surfer with an earring."

There are a few of the famous here, the best of whom --- Robert Haas --- tells of a night with Occupy facing the Alameda County police, who were trying to disperse them, get rid of their tents. Haas knows that writing on violence should always be be understated. After getting whacked across the ribs with a billy club, he can write, "I wasn't so badly off."

    One of my colleagues, also a poet, Geoffrey O'Brien, had a broken rib. Another colleague, Celeste Langan, a Wordsworth scholar, got dragged across the grass by her hair when she presented herself for arrest.

It is rare to think of poets as actually doing something besides teaching or going on the lecture circuit or getting drunk: to read of the three of them in a street demonstration is curious enough to grab our attention, and Haas proves that old axiom, that a good poet should also be a good reporter.

Ismet Prcic tells the story of the war between Bosnia and Serbia that gets magically transported to the Valley in California. Somehow he ends up at a party with the very soldiers he was battling years ago, finds on the wall of the house the letters Samo sloga Srbina soasava. It was "your enemy's creed from the war you fought in and survived." The party is a drunken and noisy affair, and the patriarch Jovan tells him of the battles back home and too many memories boil up suddenly in our intruder's memory:

    You're ripping apart. You see your mother climbing though an open window in Tulza, and your arms grab for her in the Valley. Your muscles remember how they had to hold on to her when she bucked and shrieked that day, trying to end it.

Michael Lewis' professional piece on the bankruptcy of Vallejo, California is a perfectly balanced report, as is Julie Otsuka's exquisite story of Japanese girls being shipped across the Pacific to San Francisco to their new husbands:

    On the boat we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were twenty years old. That the letters we had been written had been written to us by people other than our husbands, professional people with beautiful handwriting whose job it was to tell lies and win hearts. That when we first heard our names being called out across the water one of us would cover her eyes and turn away --- I want to go home --- but the rest of us would lower our heads and smooth down the skirts of our kimonos and walk down the gangplank and step out into the still warm day. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.

§   §   §

This collection feels all at sixes and sevens, jumbled, as if the editors and writers and sponsors couldn't agree on structure, content, or form. Joan Didion is here, but the chapter from Blue Nights has been cut, feels mutilated, doesn't make much sense. Susan Straight is given four pages (and two photographs --- the only ones in the book) to wax lyric about the Coachella Valley. Of all the writings here, we would hand out two stars for the very good, one for the good:

** --- 5 (Julie Otsuka, Michael Lewis, Ismet Prcic, Leslie Tenorio, Robert Haas)

* --- 4 (Natalie Diaz, Joseph Millar, Poe Ballentine, Linda Norton)

Anthologies should follow form, and not be too fat nor feckless. They should be shaped, but there is no evidence here of any unity besides "California" (whatever that may be). New Writing weighs in at 350 pages, and easily could have been cut to a dozen poems and an equal number of prose pieces. Still, the editors might have known what they were doing. The volume begins with a bang --- Totalitarian hotels in Eureka, Victorian homes in Vallejo, and the very first story, Buddha's Eye in the form of a whale. But all begins to droop midway through, and, at the end, dies wilted in a bag of Doritos.

--- Richard Saturday
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