In the 1960s, Leonard Gardner's novel, "Fat City," and Sherley Anne Williams's poem, "The Iconography of Childhood," revealed the dark recesses of life in California's supposedly bucolic San Joaquin Valley. These stark works described communities where economic elites lived like sultans while the seasonal workers endured squalor and hopelessness. This was a California Dream via negativa.
The San Joaquin Valley has been characterized by rich soil, abundant sunshine, adequate water and — last but by no means least — cheap labor. Agribusiness here has often treated the human beings it hires as no more than chattel. Perhaps as a result, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties make up the world's richest agricultural realm — and the sites of seven to eight of the state's 10 poorest communities (it varies from year-to-year), populated largely by Hispanic farm laborers. That situation has improved little since Gardner and Williams published their works. Now, as then, other people's poverty seems to be an acceptable price to pay for one's own comfort.
The literary successors of Gardner and Williams have now emerged, and they are digging more deeply and candidly into heartland lives. These new writers seem to have freed their imaginations, so that reality dictates their work with a decidedly hard edge. These authors have also largely ignored the (sometimes veiled) nostalgia in earlier memoirs, stories and novels of the Valley; the best recent work is characterized by innovative form.
"What You See in the Dark," a recent novel by Bakersfield's Manuel Munoz, is an exemplar of rural noir, a dark passage that presents a view of a community's grim dynamics from the inside out. Set in Bakersfield in the late 1950s, the novel plays upon that balkanized town's shadowy areas and subcultures: the Latinos who await the chance of day labor, the waitresses who pour watery coffee and lead watery lives, the aspiring musicians who perform at dead-end clubs. As the narrator says: "Bakersfield was nothing to sing about."
With the inexorability of Theodore Dreiser's "An American Tragedy," Munoz weaves the lives of his characters into a texture of despair common in the Valley. Munoz's characters carry on because tough people do, and his multiple points-of-view approach gives readers an inside glimpse at living on the hardscrabble edge in the hardscrabble heart of California.
Another example of rural noir is the fiction of Tim Z. Hernandez, who grew up on the agricultural-migrant trail in Cutler, Reedley, Dinuba and Visalia. California has rarely appeared less golden than in his "Breathing, In Dust," a collection of loosely related stories. Early in the book, it is said of a pig: "That son of a bitch will eat anything you put in front of him. Even its own children." By the time a reader finishes this collection, it seems clear that the Valley will do the same thing.
Frank Begon's recent novel, "Jesse's Ghost," is another variation of rural noir. Set in the Madera area as the children of the Dust Bowl were coming of age and literally fighting each other and anyone else to establish their places in society, the novel is narrated by a blue-collar white guy named Sonny. Bergon's portrayal of characters who are trapped is never condescending, but for Sonny and his friends, satisfaction seems always just out of reach: a new woman, a new car, a fight won. But there are no big dreams in this first-rate novel.
Fresno has a rich heritage of Armenian-American authors since William Saroyan published his stories and novels in the '30s and '40s. In recent years, the non-fiction books of Mark Arax — "The King of California" and "West of the West" — have established him as a major interpreter of inland California. His cousin, novelist Aris Janigian, tells Valley stories in "Bloodvine" and "Riverbig" that are robust, complex and mysterious. Meanwhile, Marta Maretich, who is from Bakersfield and is now based in London, remains linked to her home in stories like "The Possibility of Lions." So does Porterville native Anthony Barcellos, whose novel "Land of Milk and Money" centers on a Portuguese family and life on a dairy farm in the Valley.
In 1934, literary critic William Rose Benet wrote of William Saroyan of Fresno: "There is nothing either blatant or meretricious about young Mr. Saroyan's writing. There is simply his intense curiosity about life." The same can be said of his literary descendants — but this generation is not as interested in charming readers as Saroyan was. At last, rural noir is revealing what Valley life is like for those without swimming pools.
Gerald Haslam's most recent book is "In Thought and Action: The Enigmatic Life of S.I. Hayakawa" (U. of Nebraska Press, 2011). He wrote this commentary for Zocalo Public Square.