Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
What is it that drives someone to write a strange book? Not a bad book necessarily, mind you, a choose-your-own-Harlequin-Romance where you have to decide how quickly Fabio removes his shirt (although a book where all that happened would probably make it pretty strange) or the childhood favorite that you later realize maybe just wasn’t as good as you thought it was when you were eight. No, I mean the kind of story where the completely inexplicable occurs without clear narrative reasons. Like a history of California where, in the last 75 pages, the state disappears beneath the waves of the Pacific, or a book telling the tale of anthropomorphic dragons from the zeroth dimension, or Adolf Hitler’s greatest novel.
But, then, all of these books have reasons why they were written, or else their authors wouldn’t have gone through the trouble. These aren’t pieces of long-running series whose fans will pick them up no matter what, they’re books people felt passionately needed to be written and the results, well, things just go weird. Really odd. Strange. And kind of terrible, too, while they’re at it. I hope it isn’t too presumptuous of me to call them that, since I wasn’t the one who wrote them, and I like these personal flights of authorial fancy, but I feel I need to explain them to you. Call me an advocate for these books, they have something going for them that makes them compelling and laughable at the same time.
But back to this book about California, which I think can illustrate the phenomenon pretty well. Curt Gentry’s The Last Days of the Late, Great State of California was published in 1968, two years after its main action is set. This action is not the apocalypse implied in the catchy title, just the 1966 California gubernatorial election. This was a showdown between future Republican darling Ronald Reagan and the incumbent Democrat Pat Brown (whose son Jerry would go on to succeed Reagan as governor and be immortalized as a hippie dictator in a Dead Kennedys song).
Our author was a journalist covering the election, and this shows throughout his tale. The whole thing reads more like an assembly of newspaper articles about minor characters in the campaign including, memorably, the Knott family, benefactors of the John Birch Society and inventors of the boysenberry. There are exciting folks here and there, but in the end it’s the history of a gubernatorial election. An important one in an important state, but as a story it’s less than electrifying.
You could try to claim the climax is just as dull for the same reasons, but I would suspect I have something else to blame. Namely, the lack of actual event to base it on. The finale itself takes the form of snippets of radio broadcast, as if someone were rapidly turning through the dial in an attempt to avoid any extended human drama or the anguish of newscasters being faced with the destruction of their world.
But right on schedule, once the book reaches the present day with the defeat of candidate Reagan in the 1968 Republican presidential primaries, California does what generations of doomsayers had predicted and settles several hundred feet beneath the Pacific.
(Speaking of the primary, hindsight makes everything funnier, but the description of Reagan’s defeat –
That he failed to make the Presidency on his first try was not too surprising. It always took awhile for California fads to catch on elsewhere.
Not all California Democrats were pleased that their acting governor had failed to win nomination for the nation’s highest office. As one wistfully daydreamed: “It would have been nice if we could have shared him with the rest of the country.”
takes on a different sort of tone than I think Gentry intended in 1968 with The Last Days’ staunch skepticism of Governor Reagan and both his campaigns.)
The fall of California begins with a long list of her idylls, both real and those less pleasant ones lovingly unglossed.
Governor Reagan had “just entered the executive men’s room” in the state capitol, the cable cars of San Francisco “began its laborious climb up hilly Powell Street.” Meanwhile, “in the Yankee Doodle Bar, a businessman who had not returned to his office counted the eight olives in front of him and tried to remember what it was he had been trying to forget. It came back: last night’s argument with his wife and her use of ‘that word.’ He ordered another. Ridiculous. He was no ‘alcoholic.’ Never would be. He could stop anytime he wanted to.”
Gentry’s prose moves south along the coast: a “long-hunted Nazi henchman” celebrates 24 years of evading capture, the signs on the Charge-A-Tithe call out, and in Los Angeles “a homosexual made the mistake of winking at a member of the LAPD vice squad.”
Then, like a small child, Gentry knocks down every bit of his created California, spreading chaos to each corner of the Golden State. As reading, it’s downright morbid now, but there were hardly any domestic disasters to compare it to in 1968, at least within living memory. City blocks instantly dissolved and metropolises washed away just weren’t something that happened to Gentry’s audience.
So by the time he sinks the LA Basin in an improbable capstone of overnight destruction, the novel’s disaster tourism-inducing stupor has set in and the result is, frankly, underwhelming. (And it probably doesn’t help that his understanding of How Earthquakes Work seems woefully outdated even to not-natural-science major me.)
“But, Jeff,” I can hear my mind clamoring, “what does this all have to do with why this book was written?” The first, I think, has to do with the shock of setting up so familiar a world and then just completely wrecking it, knocking it down brick by brick and then stomping on what’s left of it.
In 1968 the disaster fiction boom was in its birth throes – The Andromeda Strain would come out within a year, and the not-dissimilarly named Biblical prophecy disaster The Late Great Planet Earth would come out in two. So, if you could get people to read your history of a gubernatorial election by tacking on a conclusion where, hey, everything blows up, wouldn’t you?
The second, I think, has something more to do with Gentry’s feelings towards California. Throughout the book, he extols its one-of-a-kind virtues, but ultimately he seems to worry that Californians are “not exactly unique, maybe just unusual,” as he has a professor from Berkley say. Perhaps California is not the exaggerated state, “America in excess, in extremis, carried to the nth degree.” So what better way to show California’s unique position in the Union than by removing it?
Just two days after the earthquake that destroys California, the author begins a fifteen-page list of things, from produce to gas to aircraft to art, that Americans no longer had because the state was no more. But even without these material goods California gave the world, he believes the ideal of California as the American extreme lives on. “Berkeley lives!” becomes the slogan of university students across the country while America tearfully watches as the final Academy Awards ceremony is telecast, award after award posthumous. Population begins to trickle back as a new gold rush begins and a new standard is set for the American extreme – even if the old Californian dream seems dead, it rises like a phoenix to keep America ridiculous.
So Gentry, by the end, has laboriously made his point: America needs California to show it the way and be on its cutting edge. A few insecurities about where he’s from, sure. But, really, after going through all that, I have to ask: did he really have to destroy the state to show us he loves it? Couldn’t he have just drawn a big heart around the map in the endpages like whoever owned this book before me did? It would have saved me some anguish, at least, and a lot of learning about agricultural efficiency. Did you know the Golden State produced all but 5.3% of America’s avocadoes in 1968? Or that it was home to over 91% of Brussels sprouts? I’ll bet you didn’t, but now I do. And it’s all thanks to California and my new friend Curt Gentry.