(Full disclosure: Jim is my editor at City Works. But if I didn’t genuinely like his book, I would just pull a Thumper and not say nuthin at all.)
I was immediately engaged by the intellectual exercise of the novel—riffing on the concept of the derive (in which Situationist Guy Debord and friends lost themselves in Paris and documented their observations in order to find themselves on a deeper level; insert Frenchy accent over that word), protagonist Joe Blake wanders around a dystopian San Diego logging its visual details, from booster remnants to down-and-out dives to gentrified hot spots that make him long for down-and-out dives. Juxtaposed with Joe’s semi-narrative are vignettes of other San Diegans’ lives and italicized accounts of SD’s more sordid history.
Revealing the dark underbelly of a sun-drenched utopia is nothing new, but man that belly is dark. Quotes like this one from an early Union-Tribune account of a “Historical Pageant” depicting the conquering of the Aztecs and, later, of the Mexicans are hard to dismiss:
“The weaker was absorbed by the stronger; but with the passing of the weaker they left a legacy of their art and culture, which the survivor has gladly possessed to beautify and decorate his own.”
That’ll make a white girl look at her Dia de los Muertos pumpkin a little differently.
While the novel is interesting from the start, I was about halfway through when I began to engage on a more deeply emotional level with Joe and his new girlfriend Theresa, his former student, a single mother who quotes Neruda poems a bit romantically and worries about the hear-and-now very pragmatically.
At one point they visit the Anza Borrego desert and the Salton Sea, where the white-hot heat and the apocalyptic beauty work a sort of deadly magic on them. Ultimately, Drift and much of Southern California are like this desert—you have to look hard, sometimes through fear and bones, before the beauty translates itself to you. To see it is to accept a strange, romantic dare.