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Tucson Weekly Golden State of Mind

"Big Dreams" is an entertaining portrait of California's physical and social landscapes.

By Gregory McNamee

FEBRUARY 16, 1998: 

Big Dreams: Into the Heart of California, by Bill Barich (Vintage Books). Paper, $14.

TO LIVE IN California--as one in every 10 Americans does--is, as Aldous Huxley observed, to be forever part of a separate reality. California is, he continued, a state of mind as much as a state in political fact. And woe to you if your own state of mind doesn't jibe with it.

Bill Barich offers an entertaining portrait of California in his aptly titled (if metaphorically overworked) book Big Dreams. His narrative hangs on a beeline ramble through the state, starting in the high desert east of Mount Shasta and wandering leisurely through places like the Klamath River Valley, Crescent City and Hoopa, the Tuscan landscapes of the Anderson Valley and the Monterey Peninsula, down to Death Valley, the Southland, and the dusty shores of the Salton Sea.

Barich has a solid command of California history, seeing continuities that other writers have sometimes overlooked. Orange County Republican country-clubbers may curl in revulsion at the mention of libertine San Francisco, a split out of which Ronald Reagan made much hay. But then, California conservatives have always disdained the place they call Babylon by the Bay; for San Francisco, Barich writes, has historically been "willing to take in every misfit Californian, as well as misfits from elsewhere--the wounded, the defrocked, the intellectually adventurous, and the sexually prurient." He adds that San Francisco "bound them together into a community that managed to work. That was its genius and its salvation."

It remains so today, and Barich does a good job of explaining the long-standing rivalry between north and south, which comes up whenever northerners talk, as they often do, of creating a separate state just to divorce themselves from, well, Orange County.

Barich has a gift for painting large word-pictures, conjuring descriptions of place that linger in the mind, as when he limns Los Angeles as "the world's first postapocalyptic, postmodern, postliterate city, a place without absolute boundaries that floated freely beyond the grasp of history, parody, and any concerns other than the momentary."

Exactly.

Barich also delights in ferreting out oddments and ironies that alternately reinforce and destroy California stereotypes. The official corporate biographers of both men, for instance, will not be pleased by his discovery that Walt Disney and Ray Kroc (the founder of the McDonald's hamburger empire) served together in an ambulance unit in World War I, where Kroc spent his leisure time in French restaurants and brothels while Disney carefully manufactured fake German helmets, complete with bullet holes and chicken blood. Disney's arts of deception would soon alter the very landscape of California, though Kroc seems to have left his knowledge of haute cuisine somewhere on the Western front.

With an eye to recent controversies, Barich wryly notes that despite a half-century of anti-Chinese (and later anti-Japanese) activism on the part of its Anglo overseers, California has long benefited in every way from its Asian ties and its Asian-American citizens. He takes little joy in pointing out that, just as in Arizona, one of the state's few current growth industries is the construction of new prisons. (For all that, if California were to secede from the United States and establish itself--as its first Anglo settlers once intended--as an independent republic, it would instantly emerge as one of the world's richest nations.)

Barich closes Big Dreams on an optimistic note: Strange, given his repeated insistence that the population of California can grow only at the expense of already scarce natural resources, and that the state's social-service network and infrastructure are already stretched to their limits. (Perhaps he hasn't heard, too, that Charles Manson's followers are more numerous today than they were in 1969.) He imagines a happy, even prosperous future for the overcrowded, smoggy Golden State. That may be fond speculation, but it's not the first time someone has dreamed of California as a terrestrial paradise, the place where Americans go to test their fantasies--and the weirder, the bigger, the better.


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