Theodore Roosevelt once said, “When I am in California, I am not in the West, I am west of the West.” The Rough Rider’s koan has been widely viewed as a celebration of the limitless California adventure, but it’s also a reminder of the dizzying, vertiginous rootlessness of a state whose populace simultaneously draws on history and seeks its repudiation.
“The Golden State,” San Francisco novelist Lydia Kiesling’s dazzling debut, takes on the legacy of distinguished Western predecessors — including Joan Didion’s “Where I Was From” and Mona Simpson’s “Anywhere But Here” — with a deep dive into the often forsaken areas of rural California, ignored by those who think the diverse, complicated region is defined by San Francisco and Los Angeles with only freeway pit stops in between.
Kiesling’s story slyly subverts the traditionally male road novel, from Twain to Kerouac. Her characters’ struggles embrace everything from the challenges of breast pumping to on-the-go diaper changing. As poet Muriel Rukeyser observed, the world would split open if one woman told the truth about her life.
At the outset of the tale, Kiesling’s protagonist and narrator, Daphne Nilson, suddenly leaves her job at the Institute for the Center for Islamic Civilization after a series of mishaps: Her Turkish husband, Engin, is trapped overseas through a series of Kafkaesque close encounters with Homeland Security bureaucracy about his green card, and she’s left alone to raise their infant daughter, Honey.
What’s a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown to do?
In true Western tradition, she bugs out, hitting the road to her grandparents’ trailer in the fictional town of Altavista, deep in dusty Paiute County. But she quickly finds out you can’t go home again, as she meets up with local Tea Party/latter-day Trumpites who are urging county supervisors to get Paiute to secede from California and establish the “51st State of Jefferson.”
As one of her new neighbors puts it: “The main thing … is that the people in Sacramento and Los Angeles don’t know damn anything about North State, not to mention the feds. They take our water for down south and tax the hell out of us, and then they keep us from using our own timber and land and tie us up in regulations.”
At a town meeting, another resident echoes the sentiment: “We’re just having a terrible time up here. Our economy is hurting. My husband and I were looking at property recently and the number of foreclosures — we just couldn’t believe it. … We’ve lived here all our lives, and this was just a paradise. We had all the industries we needed and we were providing food to the whole nation. Something has to change. … I just hope we can do this in time.” The author mordantly notes: “In time for what?”
Political alienation is the least of Daphne’s problems, however. Isolated and overwhelmed, she keeps sneaking out onto the deck for forbidden cigarettes chased with screwdrivers, while Honey sleeps and ends up taking a tumble on the concrete carport.
Worried about a concussion, Daphne recruits an elderly neighbor, Alice — whom she befriended after learning she, too, is running away from her past — to check up on her in the morning.
After realizing that life in the outback is untenable, the two women (and Honey) hit the road for Oregon so that Alice can reconnect with worried friends who have become de facto caregivers after the death of her husband.
On the road, the two unlikely adventurers pause for a picnic. “I gesture at the valley and say, ‘This could be apocryphal but I think the reason this was called Surprise Pass is that this is where one of the emigrant trails came through and I guess at some point a group of settlers hunkered down to celebrate their successful passage west, and they were surprised by Indians and massacred,” Daphne tells Alice. “I think that was the Surprise.”
Things go wrong — very wrong — for Daphne and Alice out in the physical and geopolitical wilderness. There’s a shootout. And a death. And all the messiness of experience.
You can run, but you can’t hide, even when you light out for the Territory. That’s a Western story, with a modern moral. n
Paul Wilner is a Northern California writer. His last piece for Alta was about Eve Babitz.
“The Golden State”
- By Lydia Kiesling
- 306 pages, MCD, $26
‘The Golden State’: An Excerpt
The drive is supposed to take six and a half hours but somehow we have been on the road for eight when we come to the wooden sign sunk into grass that signifies the entrance to Deakins Park, and although Honey is still caterwauling, passing the sign feels like entering protected land, something apart from the ravages of the town. It sounds like hair-splitting to parse the varieties of mobile home, like something only a person obsessed about imperceptible class minutia would do, but there are mobile homes and mobile homes and despite how mortified Mom and I used to be by the fact that her parents lived in a mobile home now I happen to think Deakins Park is just as nice if not nicer than many a suburban cul-de-sac of for example the Nut Tree-adjacent variety. It’s a circle of nicely appointed and discreetly mobile homes of different styles and patterns built on either side of a large circular street, each with a good-size yard. The outer ring of houses is bounded by a split-rail fence, and beyond this the town gives over to the high desert, with low, prickly sagebrush and rafts of tumbleweed through which jackrabbits and antelopes poke delicately in the cool mornings. Everyone has plenty of space and a view of the low-lying mountains ringing the basin. The houses look pretty good. It’s a little neighborhood on the frontier. Home on the range, if you will. n
New Books by Western Women Writers
- “America Is Not The Heart,” by Elaine Castillo (2018): Castillo’s debut novel portrays Filipino life in ’90s California with wit, insight and anger. Castillo’s voice is one to be reckoned with.
- “A River of Stars,” by Vanessa Hua (2018): The San Francisco Chronicle columnist follows up the success of her short story collection “Deceit and Other Possibilities” with her first novel. Hua depicts Scarlett Chen, an unmarried Chinese factory clerk who becomes pregnant by her boss, providing readers an undaunted look at a little-known aspect of the immigrant experience.
- “The Secret Habit of Sorrow,” by Victoria Patterson (2018): Los Angeles-based Patterson’s new short story collection paints picture-perfect portraits of pain, suffering, addiction and the complexities of parenthood in a style that calls to mind Raymond Carver and Denis Johnson but remains uniquely her own.