The California Book of the Dead

The California Book of the Dead

by Tim Farrington

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No one could take the place of the recently departed Jackson, but artist Marlowe Stewart and her lover Daa (formerly Sheila Swenson of Minnesota) need someone to occupy his space - and share their house rental in the heart of San Francisco's Mission district. Their housemate Jack, a masseur, is delighted when Marlowe's long lost cousin Sheba McKenzie arrives by bus… See more details below


No one could take the place of the recently departed Jackson, but artist Marlowe Stewart and her lover Daa (formerly Sheila Swenson of Minnesota) need someone to occupy his space - and share their house rental in the heart of San Francisco's Mission district. Their housemate Jack, a masseur, is delighted when Marlowe's long lost cousin Sheba McKenzie arrives by bus from Indigo Falls, Virginia, seeking room, board, and enlightenment. Soon Jack is leading Sheba up the two flights of stairs to his attic room for a full-body massage. Then comes her introduction to Immortality Thinking and banana smoothies. That's when Vic Morris arrives in his Chevy pickup, stuffed panda in hand, to bring his high school girlfriend, Sheba, home to marriage and motherhood back East. They've burned off their pasts to reinvent themselves in California: Marlowe, a political lesbian ready for a life change; Daa, her devoted lover; Jack, whose brilliant hands belie his head; Sheba, the innocent in Paradise; Dante, the gentle troubadour who specializes in unrequited romance; and Vic, primed for lessons in love, San Francisco style. Here in a land of Buddhist rituals and midsummer nights, full-moon parties laced with magic mushroom tea, they play out their destinies as the realities of life and death intervene.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City meets the hopes and harsh realities of the 1990s in Farrington's amiable and well-written, if derivative, debut novel. Set in San Francisco, this episodic tale of a loosely connected set of characters centers around Marlowe, a bright but disillusioned painter who is mourning the death from AIDS of her best friend and former housemate. Marlowe's other housemates include her lesbian lover, Daa (formerly Sheila Swenson), a body worker named Jack, the embodiment of sensitive New Age masculinity, and Marlowe's young Southern cousin, Sheba. Sheba has come to San Francisco seeking enlightenment, only to be followed by her former fianc, Victor, who wants to lure her back East to marriage and motherhood. While Marlowe grapples with her friend's death, she also finds herself losing her commitment to her lover of the past decade and feeling tempted back to the heterosexuality she apparently abandoned for political reasons. True to the spirit of the times, death and disaster shadow the characters' search for spiritual and romantic fulfillment. Farrington offers, for example, a fictionalized version of a real-life tragedy that rocked the Buddhist community a few years back, presenting a revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher, "Dak Dzin," who knowingly infects male and female followers with H.I.V. While Farrington manages a good-natured satire of contemporary California dreaming and spiritual questing, many scenes and descriptions are obvious and clichd. The conclusion is especially disappointing and emotionally off-key, as Marlowe switches back to heterosexuality and the rest of the cast slip back into the well-detailed yet familiar types from which they never quite emerge. (May)
Library Journal - Library Journal
In this humorous debut, Farrington draws on his experience of living in ashrams and communes in California in the 1980s to bring readers a 1990s take on hippie life. His authentic dialog and lucid style perfectly suit the idiosyncratic characters, an intimate group of friends and housemates in a rambling San Francisco house, where "crystals dangled everywhere from dental floss." Immersed in their reality of Buddhist rituals, pagan praise to the Goddess, sandlewood candles, beads, and a variety of sexual partnering, they hurt and heal one another in search of spiritual enlightenment yet never take themselves too seriously. Lesbian Marlowe struggles with her art, patient lover Daa, and grief for her friend Jackson, "who slipped away on a wave of peace" surrounded by chanting Buddhist monks. Farrington's fresh use of language lifts this romantic comedy above stereotypical retrohip. Recommended.Molly Gorman, San Marino, Cal.
Karla Stange
This excellent first novel is like Tales of the City grown up, and it was worth waiting a decade or two for this kind of literary enlightenment.
Contra Costa Times (CA)
Kirkus Reviews
A joyful, wry, reflective exploration of San Francisco New Age life, circa the present.

Akin to Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, an eclectic collection of characters are rounded up to illustrate the prevailing zeitgeist of the city, centering on the rather indomitable figure of Marlowe. She and her lover Daa (Sheila Swenson before her transformation into a goddess worshipper) rent out rooms in their home to spiritual seekers—among them Jack Soft Hands, a massage therapist and member of the Institute of Health and Immortality, who has the candle-and-crystalfilled attic bedroom; and Marlowe's naive Virginian cousin Sheba, who rents the room that recently belonged to the much beloved Jackson, whose spirit has haunted Marlowe since his death from AIDS. The four housemates, and their large circle of friends, endure the tragedies of the physical world and thank their karmic good luck for life's little triumphs. First-novelist Farrington takes just the right tone here, being witty and honest about much of the silliness but never with a trace of condescension or malice. The buoyant plot takes a year to play out, following Marlowe's inexplicable indiscretion with Jack and her ensuing pregnancy. Sheba's esoteric journey is traced from her early, gullible interest in the immortality movement to the more sophisticated paths revealed by her guide Shakti, who reads everything from palms to tarot to past lives. When Sheba's boyfriend Victor arrives at the house to haul Sheba back home, everyone is surprised when the macho, beer- guzzling construction worker falls in love with Shakti, who in turn reciprocates. Though redemption and rejuvenation are always at hand, Farrington's blissful California is no happily-ever-after land: An honored guru knowingly spreads AIDS to his disciples, a gentle musician is killed, and true love splinters in a surprisingly unpredictable ending.

A promising debut that offers a thoroughly enjoyable view of the idiosyncrasies of West Coast living.

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Gallery Books
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0.79(w) x 5.50(h) x 8.50(d)

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