Lost in paradise – and so very ill at ease
The Middle East and Haiti she could handle. But California keeps this journalist on edge.
Amy Wilentz makes an almost passionate case for herself as the un-Californian. She is "dark, bespectacled, bookish, and both physically and mentally not tan," she tells us. "I did not belong in L.A."
From childhood, she implies, she was programmed for East Coast-ness. "I read English novels and imagined being in love with dark characters like Mr. Rochester and Heathcliff. At age ten, I wore tortoiseshell glasses and had a headband.... I was from the Old World entirely."
Yet sometime after 9/11 she looked at her beloved New York and realized that "the whole place reeked of the aftermath of September 11." So when a chance arose to transplant to Los Angeles, she agreed.
The California she arrived in, however, was neither as safe nor as sunny as she might have hoped. The state was $27 billion in debt, just emerging from an energy crisis, and on the eve of a recall election.
And of course there was the everpresent fear of earthquakes. At her sons' school (built on a fault line) she was asked to provide "comfort bags" for her children – including favorite stuffed animals, a change of clothes, perhaps a family photograph. It was an unsettling beginning.
But as an author and a former foreign correspondent (Wilentz was The New Yorker's Jerusalem correspondent and wrote "The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier" based on her reporting there), she wasn't content to simply complain.
Instead, she got busy infiltrating her new territory and setting up interviews. The result is I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger.
Although Wilentz dangles before us the prospect of an interview with Schwarzenegger, it never happens. Instead, as she moves from amusement at his candidacy to horror at his election he becomes a metaphor for the things that trouble her.
A movie star facade with something rotten at its core: that is her deep suspicion about her new state. ("All places where humans live are pits of sin, of course, but not all of them look – or at least looked – like Eden," she writes as she probes her discomfort.)
Throughout the narrative, Wilentz zips about the state, deploying energy and intelligence on what seems to be a quest for an answer to the riddle that is California.
She drives to California City through the Mojave Desert. She attends a barbecue at Arianna Huffington's house. She meets with people at the State Water Project. She takes a yoga class along with Nicole Kidman. She visits the Salton Sea. She dines with Warren Beatty.
Yet in some ways, all she ever uncovers are fresh versions of her own discomfort. She interviews one of the 135 candidates from the recall campaign and finds that the woman is a willowy blonde. "I could imagine her with a surfboard, a real California girl," she writes. "She was probably imagining me in the stacks of a public library somewhere, someplace musty."
At the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, (famously associated with the human potential movement), Wilentz assures readers, "I am the very essence of the untouchy, the unfeely."
Wilentz obsesses about getting her house used for a film shoot, worries her way through a lawsuit threatened by a pedestrian who claims she hit him and ran, and feels like a "hobbit" at Carrie Fisher's birthday party.
But what she never quite manages to do (along with scoring that interview with Schwarzenegger) is to explain the paradox of the state that looks like the Garden of Eden yet somehow makes her so profoundly uneasy.
Most East Coasters will probably find nothing to marvel at in Wilentz's theory that "California has a dark heart." (After all, can you name a famous piece of Raymond Chandler noir set in New York?)
But what Wilentz does succeed in delivering is a skilled and witty collage of her California experiences. Among other gifts, she's good at serving up, as asides, snippets of conversation that encapsulate aspects of California-ness (whether it's the couple announcing, "Oh, Michael and I have been homeopathic for thirty years now" as they leave an exhibit on Einstein, or the retired city planner at Esalen who brushes against her leg and then assures her, "That was an accident.... But it felt sensual to me, and totally natural.")
If some of these seem like cheap and obvious shots at the Golden State, they are balanced throughout the book by the perspective that Wilentz brings from her life as a foreign correspondent. (Who else would compare L.A.'s leafblower-bedecked gardeners with machine gun-toting Middle Eastern soldiers? Or note that the main difference between Bel Air in L.A. and Bel Air in Port-au-Prince is that the Haitian slum bustles with life while the pristine California neighborhood does not?)
And for those who worry that the book is more a series of skilled but disparate snapshots of California than a successful penetration of the state's aura, I'd offer the same advice that Wilentz says she hears from her California friends: "Get over it."
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.