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After two decades bulldozing -- metaphorically and literally - over the past, Silicon Valley residents may now be ready to look for roots. Maybe, as the region and its frenetic residents age, they are ready to celebrate their own sons and daughters.
Jeff Goodell must hope so. A freelance writer and the author of The Cyberthief and the Samurai, Goodell grew up in Sunnyvale, Calif., which sits smack-dab in dot-com land. In his new book, Sunnyvale: The Rise and Fall of a Silicon Valley Family, Goodell tells about watching his hometown transform from middle-class suburbia to a center of wealth creation.
The question is, will any one care about what Goodell witnessed from the late 1970s on? As far as Silicon Valley's rise is concerned, he wasn't much more than a bystander. He played a bit part as an administrative assistant at Apple for a few months in 1980, then abandoned the then-unknown company for gambling and girls in Lake Tahoe.
But Sunnyvale isn't about Sunnyvale, really. It's about the deterioration of the Goodell family. Divorce, drug abuse, teenage rebellion, poverty, death - it's all there, and in graphic, often depressing detail.
Here, though, setting is everything. In the literary sense, the growing influence of the Valley's new rich makes the family's fall that much more poignant. In the commercial sense, the Valley is "hot" and the book's publisher is clearly targeting an audience it deems hungry for information about it. Even as Goodell's younger brother descends into drug addiction, his younger sister drops out of high school, and his father is diagnosed with cancer, Goodell doesn't let us forget that this is happening in Silicon Valley.
At times, this feels frustratingly artificial. Families are families, after all, even if they're living on the moon. Sunnyvale is far more compelling for its vivid descriptions of four generations of dysfunction than it is for the computers that sprout up around them. Even the most tech-oriented character - Goodell's grandfather, Leonard - is interesting more for his mysterious alienation from his family and inability to communicate with people than for his lifetime of tinkering with machines.
Goodell describes the evolution of the streets, the progress of the boom, even the layout of Apple's offices as if he could divine the meaning of his own troubled past from the city where it took place. The reader is left with a bare-bones history of the Valley lashed to a reasonably engaging memoir that could have taken place almost anywhere.
This is a failure of writing, though, not of concept. The very notion that the Valley has a history beyond that of Steve Jobs and the gang is an important one. While Goodell believes that growing up in Silicon Valley deeply affected his family, in an odd way he proves the opposite: People's lives are distinct, shaped more by those around them than by the city in which they live.
“Mesmerizing and deeply authentic.... Compelling.”–San Jose Mercury News
“Reflects the seismic social changes that still shake American society.”–USA Today
From the Trade Paperback edition.
He gave me a small smile--more of a nod, really--that said, "I'm here with you, my brother, I did not let you down." And he didn't. He presented the ring on cue, and I was conscious of his eyes upon me as I said, "I do" and then leaned over to kiss Michele with enough happiness to rip her dress. We turned around and walked down the aisle, flashing past four generations of family faces, the great warmth beaming from my father, my mother's tears, my sister with a bouquet of flowers in her hand, Pop in his white jacket and a western string tie, Nan snapping pictures, Michele's mother and father and relatives from Germany, uncles and aunts and nephews and second cousins, many of them strangers to me, but all of us linked by blood and history.
The reception was held on a basketball court in a nearby community center. The mariachi band tuned up as we poured champagne and filled our plates with red snapper. When the moment for the toast came, I glanced at my father, whose eyes were fixed with concern on Jerry--he seemed poised to jump up and tackle him if he said a wrong word. I knew Jerry had been working on his speech for months. He had called me a half-dozen times in the middle of the night and said, "What do you want me to say?" And I had always told him the same thing: "Whatever you want." I knew that he had looked at books of wedding toasts and quizzed our mother, our father, our sister, my closest friends. I was prepared for anything.
Jerry rapped his spoon against his champagne glass. The room quieted. All heads turned toward him. He rose unsteadily, his glass in hand. He looked around the room. He started to say something, then caught himself. He seemed confused, not sure what to do. Finally he said--no, blurted--"To Jeff and Michele. I love them both to death." He looked like he wanted to say more, but tears began to flow, and he sat down quickly.
After the wedding, I thought things were calming down in my family. It'd been eight years since my parents' divorce; the hurt and anger of the split was dissipating. Jerry seemed to be finding his balance; Jill was holding down a good job; my mother and father were both in love again. And I was as happily married as a man could be.
As time passed, I began to see that what had happened to my family was by no means unusual, nor was it particularly nasty, as far as divorces went. And frankly, I was sick of thinking about it. Okay, so my parents split up. Get over it. Whenever I was asked what happened to my parents' marriage--as I often was at parties in Manhattan, where expatriate suburbanites of my generation swapped tales of our parents' divorces as if they were baseball cards--I simply said: "My mother and father got married too young. They didn't know what love was." And that was true enough. But mostly, I was tired of looking backward. I was married now, living on a different coast. It was time to build my own life.
Work was a big problem for me. Once my teaching gig at Columbia was over, my job prospects looked dim. I had no novel to sell, no screenplay, no collection of short stories. I could either continue teaching, probably at some third-rate state college, or apply for a job in corporate PR. Either one was its own kind of hell. Then one afternoon, at a going-away party for one of my professors, I happened to meet Pat Towers, the wife of Robert Towers, who was then the chairman of the writing department at Columbia. Pat mentioned that she was involved with a new weekly magazine in Manhattan and that her husband had suggested that I might be interested in trying my hand at journalism. Where Professor Towers had gotten that idea, I don't know--I'd never so much as covered a high-school soccer game. Nevertheless, I told Pat I'd give it a try.
A few weeks later, I visited her at the offices of the magazine in a loft in the East Village. She introduced me to the city editor, a tall, witty southerner named Eric Etheridge. Pat had given him a couple of my short stories to read--what he thought of them, he didn't say. But he did point to a headline in the New York Post. "A twenty-two-year-old cop had his head blown off last night by a drug dealer in Queens," Eric said. "Why don't you go out there and see what you can come up with? Play Jimmy Breslin for an afternoon." Given my total inexperience as a journalist, that was like telling a Little Leaguer to go play Mark McGwire for an afternoon. But I took the subway out to Queens anyway and looked at the shattered glass in the street where Officer Eddie Byrne had been sitting in his squad car, reading the sports pages of the Post, when a twenty-three-year-old crack dealer walked up and blasted him in the head. Officer Byrne probably never knew what hit him. I wandered around with a notebook, chatting with the patrolmen guarding the scene, slipping under the yellow crime-scene tape that marked off the house where the shooter had been arrested. I stayed up all night writing 750 words, then turned it in to Eric the next morning. He ran it as the lead story in the city section and paid me $125--my first fee as a writer. That night, Michele and I celebrated by spending an extravagant sum--seven dollars--on a bottle of wine.
I immediately gave up writing fiction, which suddenly felt like an adolescent indulgence, and threw myself into journalism. I loved hanging out with taxi drivers, drug dealers, disgruntled bureaucrats, tenants'-rights activists. Unlike the 7-Eleven world I'd grown up in, the characters I met in New York seemed vivid, alive, wonderfully and poetically tormented, and corrupt.
Less than a year after Michele and I were married, my mother and Dwight exchanged vows in a small ceremony in my aunt Carole's backyard in California. Jerry and Olga were there, as were Jill and her boyfriend, Ed. I was beginning to see what a good man Dwight was, kind and bighearted, and tried my best to be happy for him and my mother. It wasn't easy. Nothing feels quite so unnatural and strange as watching your mother take vows with a man who is not your father. And it's your new stepfather, of course, who carries the burden of those unsettled feelings. I know Dwight certainly did. He wore them like a crown of thorns.
My mother's wedding could have been a devastating moment for my father, but a few days before the ceremony he announced, in what I thought was a sad and deliberate way, that he and Bev were going to get married, too. Despite the awkward timing of the announcement and my mixed feelings about Bev, I was glad for my father. It was weird thinking about him remarried, too, but I knew that he would never find peace as a single man. If Bev was the woman he chose, that was okay with me.
At my mother's wedding, Jerry seemed happy. I still wasn't sure about the dynamic of his relationship with Olga, but she seemed to steady him, to give him comfort. I'd always heard that alcoholics needed to hit bottom before they straightened up. I wasn't sure where Jerry's bottom had been, but it seemed to me that he'd bumped into something. The most important news was that, for the first time in his life, Jerry had found a job that he was good at. He had talked his way into a job as a salesman at one of the largest motorcycle dealerships in the Valley and was making--or so he told me on the phone--three grand a month in sales commissions. This didn't surprise me. When Jerry wanted to turn it on, he had more charm than a giggling baby. "God, it's nice to be making money for once!" he crowed to me on the phone one night. "I actually bought myself a hundred-dollar pair of tennis shoes yesterday. Do you know how bizarre that felt?"
Jill seemed to be hitting her stride, too. Ed, whom I'd met briefly at my wedding, was a little slick, but he seemed harmless enough. He was a hard-drive engineer and said the words hard drive as if they referred to a part of his anatomy. He was a few years older than Jill, and he always wore tight shirts and seemed to be romantically involved with his own biceps, even though they weren't all that spectacular. At my mother's wedding, he treated Jill with an excess of civility, pulling chairs out for her, opening doors, refilling her wineglass. Jill enjoyed being fussed over like this and smiled like a princess.
It was a very huggy time. We were all in the mood for reconciliation and forgiveness--even my grandfather Leonard, who was pushing eighty now and was considered an irredeemable shit by pretty much everyone who had ever loved him, with the exception of Elaine.
Divorce hadn't slowed Leonard down a bit. A year or so after he dumped Edie and his three sons, he and Elaine ran off to Carson City and got married and started a family of their own. They had two sons: the older was two years older than me, the younger was my age. It was as if Leonard had decided that there was a flaw in the manufacturing of his first family, so he cast them aside and started from scratch.
I'd never had much feeling for the old man. When I was a kid, he and Elaine and their kids often dropped by during the holidays for perfunctory gift swapping. By that time, Leonard and my father had worked things out so that they had a functioning if superficial relationship. I don't think they ever talked about much but the weather and the 49ers' latest draft pick, but they did speak to each other.
To me, Leonard was a cold and scary guy. He was clearly one of those men who had zero rapport with children and saw them as mewling midgets who shit and eat and breed chaos. Still, I was fascinated by him; he was cool, yet so precise, so brainy. I could see it was hard for him to be around regular people, whose clock speeds were not as fast as his. I was also interested in the fact that my grandfather had two kids about my age. It took me a while to figure that one out, and when I did I understood why my father tensed up whenever Leonard was around.
There was no question where my father got his love of building things, though he preferred to work in wood, brick, and mortar, while Leonard's projects were 100 percent electronic. Leonard often claimed to have built the first Walkman, back in 1924, when he was fifteen years old, using a pencil, a crystal, a piece of wire, and an earplug. He'd built it, he claimed, because he was bored on his long walks to school. By twisting the crystal on top of the pencil, he could tune in WBZ out of Springfield, Massachusetts. "My walks became a lot more enjoyable after that," he once told me.
Leonard always had some bizarre project going on in the garage of his Los Altos home. For a while, he was fashioning clocks out of old PC boards, using circles of red and green LEDs as the hour and minute hands. But his real pride and joy was an electric car he built out of an old Ford Pinto. In the late 1970s, an electric car was still a dreamy sci-fi idea. But Leonard, tight old Yankee that he was, got tired of paying high prices for gasoline and decided there had to be a better way. So he stripped the internal-combustion engine out of this old Pinto and installed an aircraft generator under the hood. Then he mounted five car batteries in the trunk, another four where the radiator used to be, and another seven in the area that had formerly been the backseat. Presto, his own homemade electric car. It'd go sixty-five miles without recharging, with a top speed of about 35 MPH--the ideal commuter car. He'd come gliding by our house in Sunnyvale once in a while, the car moving down the street like a silent ghost, the old man peering out the window with big, proud smile on his face.
I was not impressed. By the time I was in high school, I'd pretty much decided that Leonard preferred machines to human beings. That was fine with me. Between the ages of seventeen and twenty-seven, I don't think I exchanged ten words with the guy. Not surprisingly, Leonard was the only family member who had not come to my wedding, even though he was in fine health and lived an hour away from the church. My father said it was because he didn't want to run into Edie. That figured. Forty years after he'd dumped her, he still couldn't bear to look her in the eye.
Not long after Michele and I were married--maybe it was the winter of 1987-1988--an odd thing happened. Jill told me that Leonard had stopped by our house in Sunnyvale three times in the last month to visit. "He just knocks on the door, and when I answer it he just stands there in his hat and his raggy sweater and says he just wants to say hello," my sister told me. "I invite him in, but he never accepts. He asks me about Dad, about you, about Jerry. Then he leaves. It's really weird."
Michele, who had never met Leonard, urged me to call him.
"I don't have anything to say to him," I told her.
"Maybe he has something to say to you."
I doubted it. Leonard meant nothing to me, and I doubted I meant anything to him.
A few months later, Michele and I planned a trip to California. Before we left, I found myself asking my father for Leonard's phone number. I was, I admit, curious about what was on the old man's mind. I wondered if he had some confession to make or perhaps some family secret to reveal.
I dialed the number my father gave me. "Leonard Goodell," a voice answered, gruff and impatient.
"Hi, it's Jeff."
"Your grandson," I added.
" Oh. Yes. Jeff. How are you?"
I told him I'd like to stop by when I was in California and introduce him to my wife.
"Great," he said, sounding genuinely surprised. "Why don't you come by and pet the robots?"