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A deftly satirical first novel chronicling thirty-two years in the life of a spectacularly dysfunctional California family.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Vietnam, and the Kennedy assassination, Andrew Kelbow's idyllic life in the San Fernando Valley — all swimming pools and tennis lessons, Technicolor and Formica, Stingray bikes and Mexican cleaning ladies — is disrupted one day when his entertainment-lawyer father leaves his mother...
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A deftly satirical first novel chronicling thirty-two years in the life of a spectacularly dysfunctional California family.
Set against the backdrop of the Cold War, Vietnam, and the Kennedy assassination, Andrew Kelbow's idyllic life in the San Fernando Valley — all swimming pools and tennis lessons, Technicolor and Formica, Stingray bikes and Mexican cleaning ladies — is disrupted one day when his entertainment-lawyer father leaves his mother under a cherry tree in the Mojave desert.
How do the Kelbows handle such upheaval in the years that follow? In denial, mostly: they're pathologically happy-go-lucky, chronically unengaged. Gastronomic, nuptial, seismic, musical, and cinematic diversions, along with a healthy dose of illicit drug use, gambling, truancy, and political activism, keep the family functioning — but barely.
As the Kelbow family pushes the fine line between the Eastern notion of living in the moment and the California hedonism of instant gratification, can simultaneously over-and underachieving Andrew focus enough to imagine his way out of this lunatic paradise?
Leslie Brenner, author of the award-winning American Appetite: The Coming of Age of a Cuisine, received an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia University. Her book reviews and features have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Harper's, and other publications. Greetings from the Golden State is her first novel.
"...Everything is both recognizable and estranged in this lopsided fairy tale of the pursuit of happiness and culinary satisfaction..." (Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body)
"[Brenner has] a keen eye for social trends and the changing landscape of West Hollywood . . . A baby boomer . . . will probably delight in Greetings from the Golden State's numerous period citations and satirical family setting."—Ronald Totten, The Washington Post
"Both laugh-out-loud funny and genuinely touching . . . this is a winning debut, full of snappy insights."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Leslie Brenner is an original, with a true comic vision: she has the knack of transforming the most ordinary details of modern life, with hilarious deadpan poignancy. Everything is recognizable and estranged in this lopsided fairy tale of the pursuit of happiness and culinary satisfaction. The prose is good enough to eat."—Phillip Lopate, author of Portrait of My Body
"Funny, inventive . . . a delight. Brenner has a sharp eye, a dead aim and a lovely light touch that make this book a sure winner for Californians, sometime visitors, and anybody who's ever wanted to come here."—Kit Reed, San Jose Mercury News
"A fun ride . . . Brenner has conjured a fast-paced, quirky novel about a town that rarely gets such smart literary treatment. It feels like a novel that Woody Allen would write if he suddenly decided to give the Golden State a break . . . A knife-sharp comic vision."—Sara Scribner, The Hartford Courant
"Brenner's characters are complex and intriguing."—Booklist
"Puts a new spin on cul-de-sacs and strip malls."—Portland Oregonian
A Baby Boy, Is Born
On Tuesday, November 8, 1960, two important things happened: John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States of America, and to Fanny and Don Kelbow of Los Angeles, California, a baby boy was born. He was a beautiful baby: Andrew William Kelbow, weight seven pounds, three ounces, twenty-two inches long, with a fine smattering of soft brown hair already on his head. He was born at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital, overlooking the Hollywood Freeway to the west and Chavez Ravine, future site of Dodger Stadium and Elysian Park, to the east; he was delivered by Dr. Nathan Kruller, the esteemed OB-GYN who delivered all respectable middle-class to affluent Jewish babies in Los Angeles in that era. And though Fanny was in labor on Election Day and didn't have the privilege of casting a ballot for Kennedy and against the dread Richard Milhous Nixon, Don voted with all his heart, and then went home and sterilized their West Hollywood duplex apartment in preparation for the arrival of their new son. So that when Andrew was all cleaned up, the ink removed from his tiny foot and his cheeks aglow, and Fanny had returned from her anesthetic stupor and rejoined the land of the feeling, the Kelbows were exceedingly proud and happy and they had great hope for the future of the country.
Fanny's mother Rose came west from New York City to participate in the joyous homecoming of her first grandchild. She was singularly impressed with Don's fervency in the almost ritualistic cleaning of the apartment: he wouldn't even let Rosehelp. When Fanny came home, Rose kept saying, "That man certainly must love his wife and baby," and the expression on her face when she said it, the tightly pinched lips, the barely perceptible shake of the head, all this added up to imply some vague kind of warning to Fanny. "That man scrubbed the walls for you," said Rose.
Andrew was a beautiful boy with long toes and a well-shaped head; he was a good baby too. He rarely cried. Fanny, a blushing youthful twenty-four, stayed home with her angel at the duplex apartment on Willoughby Street and fed him strained peas and applesauce, she played with him as he grew, she dressed him in plaid shorts and cap, she told him nothing of the world. She clipped a little red grosgrain bow tie to his Peter Pan collar and took him in the stroller on walks around the neighborhood, telling him about the trees and the flowers and houses, withholding from him essential information about the Cold War. She showed him Bozo's Big Top on La Brea, and Pink's Hot Dogs, and the KCOP television studio at the end of Detroit Street, and she took him to Plummer Park, where old Jewish ladies gossiped on benches. She lifted her dapper, diapered little boy out of the stroller, secured him into a baby swing, and swung him, he gleeful, she ecstatic, into the crisp, ever-blue West Hollywood sky.
Don, the energetic young lawyer, worked blindly in his office building, worked hard, courted Jerry Lewis as a client, negotiated record deals for Bobby Darin, flew to Vegas with contracts for a young kid named Wayne Newton, and kissed his baby in the dark of night.
When Dodger Stadium was completed and Andrew was eighteen months old, Don took him to see Sandy Koufax pitch, and it was glorious there in the new ballpark with the palm trees swaying behind the scoreboard, even if it was true that Walter O'Malley had displaced hundreds of Mexican-American families when he bought up and destroyed their houses in Chavez Ravine in order to build the stadium. O'Malley had also alienated an entirely different segment of the population besides, the generation of Jews who likened his tactics to those of Adolf Hitler; Echo Park became occupied France and Chavez Ravine Nazi Germany, and so these older Jews swore, painful as it was, that they would never attend a game at Dodger Stadium. While Don was aware of all this, he couldn't think of his beloved Dodgers as Nazis, nor could he deprive his firstborn son of the joys of baseball afternoons, especially when the Dodgers were involved in the most exciting pennant race that Don could remember, against the Giants of San Francisco, who, from that season on, became for Don despicable.
Andrew wanted to grow up fast, and so he did. He could never stand baby food—the little jars of strained peas or mashed bananas—and it seemed to Fanny that he moved almost directly from breast milk to lamb chops. Fanny, along with everyone else in those days, was so reliant on packaged food that it never occurred to her to mash up freshly cooked carrots or pears and call it homemade baby food; no, Gerber's in the little glass jars with the googly-eyed baby picture of Humphrey Bogart was what any modern mother was supposed to feed her baby. And you gave them zwieback cookies, which came in pale pink and baby blue cardboard boxes, also with the baby Bogart, when they were teething. But Andrew didn't like baby food; he spat it out. He preferred to sit in his high chair and eat scrambled eggs like any grown man, or tuna, straight from the can; of this he would remain fond into adulthood.
Rose hadn't been back to visit since she came for Andrew's birth, though Fanny sent her plenty of snapshots of the darling boy, and wrote her long letters about his progress—eating solid food, walking, talking, singing, clapping his hands. Fanny preferred to talk to her mother on the phone, which she did occasionally, but every time she did, Rose spent half the conversation complaining about how much the call must be costing (all the way across the country) and how Fanny and Don weren't made of money. Soon all of this became unsatisfying to Rose, who therefore decided to visit Fanny for Andrew's imminent birthday, despite the fact that she was mortally afraid of flying. And when Fanny telephoned her the next Sunday, Rose didn't waste any time in telling her that the Bolshoi Ballet would be in Los Angeles at the time of her visit, and perhaps, if Don would agree to baby-sit, Fanny might get tickets for the two of them to attend.
Rose flew into LAX around noon on a Monday, two weeks before Andrew's second birthday, and though Fanny wanted to take her out to dinner, Rose couldn't stand the thought of paying all that money when the food at home was just as delicious. So Fanny gave in, ran over to Bishop's to pick up some whole cut-up chicken (wasn't that oxymoronic?) to broil, Birds Eye peas frozen in butter sauce, Uncle Ben's Converted Rice, iceberg lettuce, and a package of Good Seasons Italian, for which she had a special cruet ("Pour in vinegar to vinegar line, add water to water line ..."), though she was always misplacing its slimy green cap.
As Fanny was driving home, Andrew had awakened from his nap, and he was sitting in Rose's lap on the black vinyl easy chair as she read him his favorite book: Go, Dog, Go! "Do you like my party hat?" she was saying in her long, drawn-out, serious baby-reading tone, actually the same tone she would have used for quoting from War and Peace, which she had read nine times and could recite entire passages from by heart. "No, I don't like your party hat," she said in a lower, male-dog voice. Andrew liked the pictures of the trees with tops that looked like blue or red bananas, and the dogs standing on top of them wearing hats with fruit or flowers on them, but he was even more interested in the underside of Rose's arm as she held the book. Though it was October, it was warm, and Rose was wearing a sleeveless cotton shell; she was only fifty-two, but Andrew knew nothing of this; to him she was an old lady, his grandma, and the skin on the underside of her arm was loose and dry and infinitely soft.
Fanny came running up the stairs, one grocery bag under her arm and the other ripping through her clenched fist, and burst through the rattling screen door, dropping everything on the floor, ginger snaps, iceberg lettuce, cans of corn, and she turned on the TV, which took maddeningly long to warm up, telling Rose breathlessly that the president was addressing the nation about Cuba. President Kennedy was talking as the TV warmed up, speaking tensely about a clandestine, reckless, and provocative threat to world peace, and weapons of sudden mass destruction. It turned out that photographs taken by reconnaissance planes over Cuba had been confirmed to show missiles that were determined to be offensive in nature, pointing right at the United States of America, despite the several stern warnings the president had made last month regarding the Cuban Question. Fanny was afraid to look at Rose; they were both frozen, watching the screen. The president said, in the confident and well-bred Bostonian accent that Fanny normally found supremely reassuring, "We will not prematurely or unnecessarily risk the course of worldwide nuclear war in which even the fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth, but neither will we shrink from that risk at any time it must be faced." After that, Fanny pretty much blanked out, and soon the speech was over, and Fanny started doing things sort of mechanically—picking up lettuce, cookies, corn, picking up Andrew, who had started to cry.
Then Fanny turned to Rose, who it must be admitted had lived a marvelous life, but now felt sad for the world. Fanny said slowly, and a little quizzically, "The fruits of victory would be ashes in our mouth." When she closed her eyes, bananas and oranges turned into smoldering Cuban cigars. (The whole problem made her want to smoke, so she lit up a cigarette, and in fact proceeded to chain-smoke for the entire week, much to Rose's dismay.)
When Don came home, he sat in front of the TV and watched Walter Cronkite, who was predictably solemn about the whole thing.
Later, Rose kissed Don and Andrew good night, and when she kissed Fanny, she said, "I'm worried that I won't see you in the morning."
The week of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the world divided itself into two camps: the alarmists and the chronic deniers.
Rose fell into the alarmist camp. To her, the fact that the crisis could have happened at all meant that things had spiraled out of control, things that human beings had no business mucking around with in the first place: smashing atoms, creating such unthinkable things as weapons of mass destruction. And once we created a monster like this, there was no telling what we would do with it because the human race was not intrinsically wise about matters of its own survival, and war was war. Didn't Napoleon, after all, let Moscow burn even though he knew it would destroy art and culture, not to mention his country's own biggest fans, the Russians? The Russians, or as she constantly had to remind herself, the Soviets (which she always pronounced "Sovi-ettes," and she thought of a chorus line of leggy, redheaded Communists at Radio City Music Hall) were near to her heart—her mother had come to America from a beautiful farm near Odessa-by-the-Sea. And though of course she and her late husband, Sydney, had been bitterly, bitterly disillusioned by Stalin, they had been, as good leftists who were active in the labor movement, sympathetic. Khrushchev, she didn't know about.
Rose was, however, a pragmatic alarmist. "Thank God for the Bolshoi," she said.
"What do you mean?" said Fanny.
"As long as the Bolshoi is in Los Angeles, we're safe. You don't think the Russians would bomb California with their own Bolshoi in it?"
Fanny had to admit she had a point.
For her part, Fanny was a chronic denier, but one who used the language of the alarmist. "We're ashes in Kennedy's mouth," she said. "We don't have a prayer." Although she didn't really believe this was true (if she did, then why did she keep putting off buying all the bottled water and canned goods that Rose wanted her to stock in the pantry?), she deeply feared that it was. "What good is bottled water if we're fried to a crisp?" she kept saying.
Of course there were political considerations, and Fanny was no dummy in recognizing this. With the elections coming up in just two weeks, and the Republicans doing their usual huffing and puffing about the Red scare, Fanny knew that Kennedy had to do something tough. What terrified her almost as much as the threat of nuclear extinction was the idea that Richard Nixon might be elected governor of California—for his race against Pat Brown was perilously dose. "If Richard Nixon beats Governor Brown," she said, "I'm leaving California."
Fanny made dinner that night, and all the nights that followed, but she couldn't eat, which was unusual for her. "I'm nervous," she said. "I think I've lost my appetite." She divided her peas into three neat little piles. "But maybe that isn't so bad," she said, "because I could stand to lose some weight." The thought of this made her hungry again, and she had two chocolate puddings for dessert.
The Kelbow household moved about that week in a state of suspended animation. The Manchurian Candidate had just opened in Hollywood, but everyone forgot to see it because they had more important things to worry about. Don came home early every night, unheard of in normal times in the firm, and they alternated between the Huntley-Brinkley news on Channel 4 and Walter Cronkite on Channel 2. And at the office no one could concentrate; all talk was of the crisis. Who cared about a clause in Frank Sinatra's Reprise contract when the world might end this week?
After a couple of days, Fanny gave in and bought up quantities of canned food at Bishop's, which it turned out wasn't so easy because she wasn't the first one to think of it. They were totally sold out of Bumble Bee tuna, which upset Fanny as much as the rest, and not knowing what else to do, she bought, among other things, twelve cans of Geisha brand, chunk white, packed in oil ("Twelve?" said her mother later. "What good is twelve?") and four big jars of Best Foods mayonnaise (Hellmann's, east of the Rockies), although she couldn't imagine where she would get enough celery for that amount of tuna salad in the event of civil emergency.
On Sunday afternoon Don baby-sat while Fanny drove her mother across town to the majestically shabby Shrine Auditorium to see the Bolshoi perform. As the dancers floated across the stage in Swan Lake in their graceful diaphanous skirts, Rose marveled at how humans could create something so beautiful and so universal, and then contemplate weapons of mass destruction. Fanny wondered if the intermission would be soon so she could pee.
As it turned out, the crisis was resolved a week after it began—Khrushchev backed down, agreeing to dismantle the missiles. He even managed to do it sort of gracefully. All in all, Kennedy looked pretty damn good, and the next week, Richard Milhous Nixon lost the race for governor.
Fanny, Don, and Rose watched his concession speech on TV with a great measure of glee. They wouldn't have Richard Milhous Nixon to kick around anymore! Everyone agreed, including the Los Angeles Times, that this meant the end of his political career. While they watched, Andrew systematically pulled all Fanny's books out from the bottom shelf of the bookcase, and applied magenta and yellow Play-Doh to the covers.
Fanny threw Andrew a birthday party, complete with paper hats and M&M's and noisemakers, and Fanny's several girlfriends came with their kids, and Don invited a couple of the guys from the office, who brought their wives and kids, and Rose was thrilled, and Andrew triumphant, and by the time Fanny took Rose to the airport two days later, life was once again looking pretty swell.
One Thursday afternoon the following year, Fanny brought Andrew home from the park, put him down for a nap, turned on the TV in the dining room because she liked the noise, and unpacked the groceries. When she found the Oscar Mayer baloney in one of the bags, she opened up the plastic package and laid two slices of her favorite lunchmeat directly on the ceramic tiles of the kitchen counter. The idea was intended to bring them up to room temperature. She opened the Wonder bread, in its plastic package decorated with the festive red, yellow, and blue balloons, and took out two moist and tender slices. Then she opened the refrigerator and found the Best Foods mayonnaise and applied a thin layer to each slice of Wonder bread. If it seems as though Fanny had an obsession with brand names, it's because she did. She personified brand-name loyalty: the brands were her friends. In fact, it had almost broken her heart when she had to buy the Geisha tuna instead of Bumble Bee, and the decision to do so was completely out of character, even in the face of nuclear annihilation. But since the missile crisis was resolved without disaster, the missiles packed in crates and sent back to Russia, she was superstitiously afraid to switch back to Bumble Bee, believing that if she did so, something terrible might happen again. In the meantime, she cheered herself up with her favorite baloney sandwich for lunch.
When Andrew woke up, she scrambled him an egg, and kept one eye on the soap opera on TV as she helped him eat it. After that he was still hungry, so she went in the kitchen to open a can of the Geisha tuna. When she released the can from the electric can opener, she was shocked by what she saw: the tuna was covered with broken glass. It had been packed that way! She shrieked and threw it away, and then threw away all the other cans of Geisha tuna. Her scream made Andrew cry, so she picked him up off his booster seat and held him in her arms. And then she started crying too—because what if she hadn't noticed the broken glass and Andrew had accidentally eaten it? She would have had to rush him to the hospital, and oh, it would have been horrible—maybe it would have permanently damaged him, or even killed him! She couldn't bear the thought. After that she stuck to Bumble Bee, though thirty years later when Bumble Bee was accused of trapping dolphins in their tuna nets, she would find herself in a real moral bind, the way out of which it would be difficult to rationalize. And she kicked herself a thousand times in the intervening years because she hadn't thought of suing Geisha for the broken-glass episode.
But what happened with the tuna that Thursday afternoon in November of 1963 was really nothing compared with what the entire country suffered the following day, for on that dark day, President Kennedy was shot. After that, nothing was the same.
By early 1964 Don had settled into his career as an attorney, showing particular skill in the area of contract negotiation. He had saved enough money to buy a second car, and then a house for his small family in the San Fernando Valley. A house. The Kelbows bought a ranch-style house in Van Nuys, reddish-brown with white trim, with a swimming pool and bougainvillea in the backyard and a lovely black walnut in front, with Sylvan Park Elementary School nearby and Van Nuys High School, alma mater of Marilyn Monroe and Robert Redford (although no one knew who Robert Redford was yet) just around the corner. The Kelbows, it seemed, were hunkering down.
On moving day, Stan, a first-year associate at Don's office, and his wife, Priscilla, offered to take Andrew to the movies to get him out of the movers' way; Don and Fanny gladly accepted.
Stan and Priscilla picked up Andrew at the West Hollywood apartment and took him to Hollywood, to Grauman's Chinese Theater, to see Mary Poppins. This was Andrew's first movie experience. Stan paid for the tickets at the box office, and then took one of Andrew's hands in his big hand, and Priscilla took the other, and together they walked up the long red carpet toward the majestic entrance to the theater; it looked like a sparkling red-and-gold Chinese palace! They were sort of outside, underneath an elaborate canopy, and Priscilla pointed out that all over the ground were the footprints of the movie stars: here was Cary Grant, here was Ava Gardner. Of course Andrew had no idea who these names represented, but they sounded so magical, and the big footprints of the men looked so impressive, and the tiny marks from the spiked heels of Lana Turner and the triangular front of the shoe so mysterious, that Andrew was transported. Priscilla said, "You know, Andrew, it's not every little boy who gets to see his first movie at Grauman's Chinese. You must be a very special little boy indeed."
The three of them sat down in the elegant seats in the middle of the theater, and Stan explained to Andrew that it's important to count the seats and sit exactly in the middle of your row in order to enjoy the movie properly. Soon, the theater filled up, and Andrew had never seen so many children in one place in his life! The heavy red curtain parted, and on the huge luminous screen appeared the spellbinding spectacle of Mary Poppins.
When Andrew emerged from the dark theater into the dazzling light of day on Hollywood Boulevard, he knew, even at the tender age of three, that his life was irrevocably changed.