California Forum

Viewpoints: New voices capture the ‘rural noir’ of the San Joaquin Valley

In the 1960s, Leonard Gardner’s tough novel “Fat City” and Sherley Anne Williams’ poem “The Iconography of Childhood” revealed the dark recesses of life in California’s supposedly bucolic San Joaquin Valley. These stark works described communities where economic elites lived like sultans while the seasonal workers endured squalor and hopelessness. This was a California Dream via negativa.

The San Joaquin Valley is known for its rich soil, abundant sunshine and – last but by no means least – cheap labor. Agribusiness here has often treated the human beings it hires as no more than chattel. Perhaps as a result, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties make up the world’s richest agricultural realm, and they are also the sites of seven to eight of the state’s 10 poorest communities (it varies from year-to-year), populated largely by Hispanic farm laborers. That situation has improved little in the half century since Gardner and Williams published their works. Now, as then, other people’s poverty or poor health seems to be an acceptable price to pay for one’s own comfort.

The literary successors of Gardner and Williams have now emerged, and they are digging more deeply and candidly into heartland lives. These new writers seem to have freed their imaginations from old obligations, so that reality dictates their work with a decidedly hard edge. These authors have also largely ignored the (sometimes veiled) nostalgia in many earlier memoirs, stories and novels of the Valley; the best recent work is characterized by innovative form.

“What You See in the Dark,” a recent novel by Bakersfield’s Manuel Munoz, is an exemplar of rural noir, a dark passage that presents a view of a community’s grim dynamics from the inside out. Set in Bakersfield in the late 1950s, “What You See in the Dark” plays upon that balkanized town’s shadowy areas and subcultures: the Latinos who await the chance of day labor, the waitresses who pour watery coffee and lead watery lives, the aspiring musicians who perform at local dead-end clubs. As the narrator says: “Bakersfield was nothing to sing about.”

With the inexorability of Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” Munoz weaves the lives of his characters into a texture of despair common in the Valley. Hovering beneath the surface is their consciousness of race (a Mexican and a white openly dating); awareness of economic aspiration (“... the dollar bills in your hand can pay for things you want instead of need ...”); and parochialism (“The only time she’s ever been out of Bakersfield was for her honeymoon drive to the coast ... ”).

Munoz’s characters carry on because tough people do, and his multiple points-of-view approach is successful in giving readers an inside glimpse at living on the hardscrabble edge in the hardscrabble heart of California.

Another example of rural noir is the fiction of Tim Z. Hernandez, who is usually listed as being from Fresno but who grew up on the agricultural-migrant trail in Cutler, Reedly, Dinuba and Visalia. California has rarely appeared less golden than in his “Breathing, In Dust,” a collection of loosely-related stories. Hernandez employs gritty naturalism to introduce readers to the mythical (and dismal) Catela, its residents, their dreams (or lack of dreams) and, of course, its setting.

Little is romanticized in “Breathing, In Dust.” He writes, “The curtain sagged like an old pair of testicles.” Early in the book, a character named Tlaloc says of a pig: “That son of a bitch will eat anything you put in front of him. Even its own children.” By the time a reader finishes this collection of stories, it seems clear that the valley will do the same thing.

Frank Begon’s recent novel “Jesse’s Ghost” is another variation of rural noir. Set in the Madera area at a time when the children of the Dust Bowl were coming of age and literally fighting each other and anyone else to establish their place in the society, the novel is narrated by a blue-collar white guy named Sonny. In the book’s opening line, he presents readers with a fait accompli: “The story of how I came to kill my best friend keeps pressing on my brain like a dream so bad I can feel it, but I can’t remember it whole.” In the 200 pages that follow, Sonny bares his soul.

This story’s despairing characters do farm labor, operate crushers at wineries, and clean honey wagons. They missed the economic leap forward that characterized their generation in the Valley. Bergon’s portrayal of characters who are trapped is never condescending, but for Sonny and his friends, satisfaction seems always just out of reach: a new woman, a new car, a fight won… but there are no big dreams in this first-rate novel.

Fresno has a rich heritage of Armenian American authors since William Saroyan published his stories and novels, most famously “The Human Comedy,” in the ’30s and ’40s. In recent years, the award-winning non-fiction books of Mark Arax – “The King of California” and “West of the West” – have established him as a major interpreter of inland California. His cousin, the novelist Aris Janigian, tells San Joaquin Valley stories in “Bloodvine and Riverbig” that manage to be at once robust, complex and mysterious. Meanwhile, Marta Maretich, who is from Bakersfield and is now based in London, remains linked to her home valley in stories like “The Possibility of Lions.” So does Porterville native Anthony Barcellos, whose novel “Land of Milk and Money” centers on a Portuguese family and life on a dairy farm in the valley.

In 1934, the literary critic William Rose Benet wrote of the young William Saroyan of Fresno: “There is nothing either blatant or meretricious about young Mr. Saroyan’s writing. There is simply his intense curiosity about life. ... ” The same can be said of his literary descendants – but this generation of writers is not as interested in charming readers as Saroyan was. And they go far beyond Gardner and Williams’ 1960s works in exposing the Valley’s vast underbelly, where despair dominates due to a social and economic system that can tolerate only so many winners. At last, rural noir is revealing what San Joaquin Valley life is like for those without swimming pools.