West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders, and Killers in the Golden State

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Overview

Teddy Roosevelt once exclaimed, “When I am in California, I am not in the West. I am west of the West,” and in this book, Mark Arax spends four years travelling up and down the Golden State to explore its singular place in the world. This is California beyond the clichés. This is California as only a native son, deep in the dust, could draw it.

Compelling, lyrical, and ominous, his new collection finds a different drama rising out of each confounding landscape. “The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman” has been praised as a “stunningly intimate” portrait of one immigrant family from Oaxaca, through harrowing border crossings and brutal raisin harvests. Down the road in the “Home Front,” right-wing Christians and Jews form a strange pact that tries to silence debate on the War on Terror, and a conflicted father loses not one but two sons in Iraq. “The Last Okie in Lamont,” the inspiration for the town in the Grapes of Wrath, has but one Okie left, who tells Arax his life story as he drives to a funeral to bury one more Dust Bowl migrant. “The Highlands of Humboldt” is a journey to marijuana growing capital of the U.S., where the old hippies are battling the new hippies over “pollution pot” and the local bank collects a mountain of cash each day, much of it redolent of cannabis. Arax pieces together the murder-suicide at the heart of a rotisserie chicken empire in “The Legend of Zankou,” a story included in the Best American Crime Reporting 2009. And, in the end, he provides a moving epilogue to the murder of his own father, a crime in the California heartland finally solved after thirty years.

In the finest tradition of Joan Didion, Arax combines journalism, essay, and memoir to capture social upheaval as well as the sense of being rooted in a community. Piece by piece, the stories become a whole, a stunning panorama of California, and America, in a new century.
 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

This book borrows its title from Theodore Roosevelt, who once opined, "When I am in California, I am not in the West; I am west of the West." Award-winning author and journalist Mark Arax (The King of California) validates that statement with an extraordinary collection of essays about a singular locale. In West of the West, he taps the opinions of Dust Bowl migrants and pot-smoking purists; illegal immigrants, far-right extremists and far-left conspiracy theorists; angry environmentalists and the surviving parents of lost soldiers. Arax sometimes approaches his subjects with skepticism, but never with disdain or open mockery. An engaging, powerful essay collection.

From the Publisher
Publishers Weekly, starred review, February 25, 2009
These swift, penetrating essays from former Los Angeles Times writer Arax (In My Father’s Name) take the measure of contemporary California with a sure and supple hand, consciously but deservedly taking its place alongside Didion’s and Saroyan’s great social portraits. Expect the unexpected from Arax’s reports up and down the state: on the last of the Okies, the latest migrants from Mexico, the tree-sitters of Berkeley, Bay Area conspiracy theorists, an Armenian chicken giant’s infamous fall or the mammoth marijuana economy of Humboldt County, among much else. For Arax, a third-generation Californian of Armenian heritage who spent years covering the Central Valley as an investigative reporter, the state’s outré reputation and self-representation are a complex dance of myth and memory that includes his own family lore and personal history. It’s partly this personal connection, running subtly but consistently throughout, that pushes the collection past mere reportage to a high literary enterprise that beautifully integrates the private and idiosyncratic with the sweep of great historical forces.

Carolyn See, Making a Literary Life
“Mark Arax has achieved something truly wonderful. He shows us a California we don't know or haven't yet heard about: Post 9/11 racism and craziness in the Central Valley; dunderhead FBI agents prowling the land; the plight of immigrants as it really pans out; marijuana moguls dealing in stacks of cash that stinks of weed; the disgraceful decline of the once-great LA Times—all of it set in the larger frame of a generation of Armenian immigrants tied to the old country, in love with the new country, struggling to discover the meaning of life with all their might.”

Kirkus
“A lucid, warts-and-all portrait of California by a native son….[W]orthy of a place alongside the works of … Carey McWilliams and even Joan Didion.”

James Ellroy, author of The Black Dahlia and the forthcoming Blood’s a Rover
West of the West is a dreamscape as much as a landscape—and heart-stirring in its style and acute perception. It could be titled ‘Why We Live Here Anyway’—I exhort you to read this book.”

Jack Miles, author of God: A Biography
“I intended to spend half an hour and spent half a day. This is that kind of book. You think you know California? Think again, and settle in.”
 

San Diego Union Tribune article, 4/17
“Arax dug deep into the dirt of California, and he didn't come away with his hands clean.”
 

Los Angeles Times
Arax gives us "intimate dramas" shaped by the "intense subtleties of his writing... He goes at events with the fierce bulldog tenacity that is one of his trademarks as a writer.... charged and highly moving stuff."
 

Las Vegas Review Journal
“The many strengths of “West of the West” include solid reporting, taut writing and an author who has a firm grasp on his subject. Arax’s California isn’t about beaches or Hollywood or Disneyland. It’s about a mix of real people who live there, mostly not in the limelight. You can trust that when Arax writes about this subject, he knows what he’s talking about."
 

San Francisco Chronicle
"Arax is the perfect cicerone through the heavenly and hellish landscapes and historical evolutions he has chosen to chronicle... He knows how to write colorfully.... The tales are never hurried but unfolded in a measured, controlled manner for maximum context and texture. And he has come up with some doozies!... Haunting."
 

Sacramento Bee
“Native son Mark Arax travels the state side-to-side, end-to-end to gather its stories, writing about the ‘real’ California lost in the gloss of tourism teasers.”

Washington Post
"Mark Arax is a great reporter. He knows where the action is, and the remarkable level of detail he captures tells us he's as tenacious and unrelenting as the most hard-boiled noir detective... Arax successfully evades the tropes about California being the land of either dreams or nightmares. Instead, his essays paint an impressionistic landscape of a land of frustration.”

Contra Costa Times
"In West of the West, Arax demonstrates the same uncanny ability to get closer to his subjects than you would ever think possible. These are compelling, sometimes heart-rendering, eminently readable stories."

Minneapolis Star Tribune
"West of the West: Dreamers, Believers, Builders and Killers in the Golden State is a book by a writer "bound to this place" even as that place changes every day. It is immediate in the best ways, sometimes intemperate, but always interesting.”

The Atlantic
“By turns lucid, harrowing, and comical, this collection of dispatches paints a darkly impressionistic portrait of modern California. A journalist and native son, Arax puts paid to vestigial West Coast clichés and replaces them with ominous realities and discontents encountered during four years of intrastate travel. Migrants, exiles, dreams, schemers, murderers, hippies, fundamentalists, conspiracists, environmentalists—all share space in these pages and in that vast Golden State. The possibility of crazy-quilt discursion looms high, but Arax calmly sews the diverse stories and dramatic studies into coherence and poignancy. The effortless mix here—memoir and reportage, psychography and geography—cooly achieves the author’s aim: ‘to find the truth and the lie of the California myth’.”

Gregory Rodriguez
Mark Arax is a great reporter. He has an ear for a good story. He knows where the action is, and the remarkable level of detail he captures tells us he's as tenacious and unrelenting as the most hard-boiled noir detective.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

These swift, penetrating essays from former Los Angeles Times writer Arax (In My Father's Name) take the measure of contemporary California with a sure and supple hand, consciously but deservedly taking its place alongside Didion's and Saroyan's great social portraits. Expect the unexpected from Arax's reports up and down the state: on the last of the Okies, the latest migrants from Mexico, the tree-sitters of Berkeley, Bay Area conspiracy theorists, an Armenian chicken giant's infamous fall or the mammoth marijuana economy of Humboldt County, among much else. For Arax, a third-generation Californian of Armenian heritage who spent years covering the Central Valley as an investigative reporter, the state's outré reputation and self-representation are a complex dance of myth and memory that includes his own family lore and personal history. It's partly this personal connection, running subtly but consistently throughout, that pushes the collection past mere reportage to a high literary enterprise that beautifully integrates the private and idiosyncratic with the sweep of great historical forces. (May)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Kirkus Reviews
A lucid, warts-and-all portrait of California by a native son..Arax (Nonfiction Writing/Claremont McKenna Coll.; The King of California: J.G. Boswell and the Making of a Secret American Empire, 2003, etc.) embarks on a sometimes ominous tour that, he warns, is on a "road trenched by 9/11 and the War on Terror and the anomie of the digital age and the greatest financial collapse since the Great Depression." He finds stories to tell about all those things, beginning with his grandfather, who was "a migrant fruit picker, a farmer, a grocer, a communist, a capitalist, an atheist, a believer—in other words, a consummate Californian." Arax is less admiring of another agriculturist, the classicist and neoconservative Victor Davis Hanson, "a raisin farmer whose family had worked the same piece of dirt since 1872 [and who] had become the hawk of the month for the Bush administration." Another character whom Arax mentions in passing drove his tractor into the Pacific Ocean by way of protesting tax policies—and who had five wives, white, black and Latina. The author explores the Okie migration and its latter-day reflection in the influx of fieldworkers from Mexico, such as one Oaxacan who worked hard for nine years and had accumulated a couple of beat-up vehicles to park "in the dirt path that led from the vineyard to the three-room shack that cost him $400 a month to rent." That shack is within sight of gleaming palaces, to say nothing of INS databases—yet more parts of the California story..In the library of Californiana, worthy of a place alongside the works of Bill Barich, Carey McWilliams and even Joan Didion.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586483906
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs
  • Publication date: 4/13/2009
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Award-winning author and journalist Mark Arax is a co-author of The King of California and author of In My Father’s Name. He is a contributing writer at Los Angeles magazine and a former senior writer at the Los Angeles Times. He teaches nonfiction writing at Claremont McKenna College and lives in Fresno.

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Table of Contents

Ch. 1 The Last Valley 1

Ch. 2 The Agent 45

Ch. 3 Eyre of the Storm 81

Ch. 4 Legend of Zankou 111

Ch. 5 The Summer of the Death of Hilario Guzman 143

Ch. 6 Highlands of Humboldt 177

Ch. 7 Last Okie of Lamont 215

Ch. 8 The Great Microbe Hunt 229

Ch. 9 Home Front 261

Ch. 10 Confessions of an Armenian Moonshiner 297

Ch. 11 An Epilogue 315

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 3 of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Posted June 6, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Mark Arax's California travelogue

    I have been a great fan of Mark Arax since reading his wonderful book "In My Father's Name", a non-fiction account of the murder of his father in Fresno. He also co-wrote a biography of J. G. Boswell, a rich, powerful and extremely low profile cotton grower in the San Jouquin. This book is a series of loosely connected episodes and fascinating portraits of everyone from Mendo dope growers to surviving Oakies to farmworkers. Mark understands California and the Central Valley profoundly. He operates in the same territory as Gerald Haslam, an undeservedly obscure writer. I will buy extra copies and give some away, just as I did with his book about his father's murder. (This book brings that story to something of a conclusion, but you really should read the full length book first to put the story in context.) This is highly recommended.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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