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Book Review : A 3-Ring Harvest of Human Interest

September 17, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The Left Coast of Paradise: California and the American Heart by Judith Moore (Soho: $17.95; 224 pages)

Among the writings of Hemingway, I have a special fondness for "By-Line: Ernest Hemingway," an odd but endearing anthology of the Nobel laureate's early work as a cub reporter with literary promise. As I read "The Left Coast of Paradise," Judith Moore's equally endearing anthology of what used to be "human interest" features, I was reminded again and again of the Hemingway book--here, I thought, is the auspicious and intriguing work of a gifted writer whose very best books are yet to come.

Let me hasten to say that most of the pieces in "The Left Coast" are entirely worthy of the reader's money, time and attention. Moore is a superb stylist and a sharp but also sentimental observer of the eccentricities and frailties of humankind. Armed with a tape recorder and the skill of an artful editor, she is capable of turning the ordinary newspaper interview into a monologue with the intensity and impact of a Shakespearean soliloquy. And Moore's bittersweet reminiscence of her grandmother, "Blue Plate Blues," is literally worth the price of admission.

From San Diego Reader

Most of the stories in "The Left Coast," we are told, appeared in the San Diego Reader and the East Bay Express, and a few of these pieces--"Adaptation," a profile of author and professor Leonard Michaels, for example, and "Don't Feed the Mammals," a feature about elephant-keeping in West Coast zoos--are not really memorable enough for a hardcover anthology. More often, though, Moore brings a novelist's sensibilities to her newspaper reportage, offering us the telling detail, the haunting image, the unforgettable remark.

And she always seems to be in the right place at the right time--and always seems to ask the right question.

"Tinsel and Stardust," for instance, appears to be one of those inevitable circus-is-coming-to-town features that herald the seasonal arrival of Circus Vargas or Barnum & Bailey. But Moore gives us a novel look at the circus: She finds her way to the three nuns of the Little Sisters of Jesus who travel with the circus in a Chevy 310 van outfitted as a portable chapel; and she's there when the trapeze artists put a Jane Fonda exercise tape on the VCR to warm up for their aerial derring-do.

Element of Terror

And, characteristically, Moore reminds us of the element of unspoken terror that accounts for much of the fascination of circuses: "When I was child I went to the circus every spring. I looked forward to it. I also dreaded it," Moore observes. "I was scared that a tight-rope walker would plunge down onto the ground and explode like an overripe plum. . . . As I walked on the grounds of Circus Vargas, all that came back: the excitement, the longing, the fear."

Moore displays an unapologetic fascination with the bizarre, the mysterious, the horrific, the titillating. She introduces us to a gay woman who explains, tastefully but explicitly, the tools and techniques of sadomasochistic sexual practice ("It's very powerful," the woman says. "In S&M I get to know a woman better in 10 hours than in 10 months under other circumstances"). An undertaker explains the enduring relationship between the black community, the black family and the black mortician--and explains, too, the process of embalming: washing, disinfecting, draining, transfusion, aspiration, dressing of the corpse. And then we meet an articulate pimp who debunks much of the mythology of street pandering: "Write that California pimpin' is soft pimpin'," he tells Moore.

Grandmother's Farm

But the glory of Moore's book is her extended account of the childhood years spent on her grandmother's hardscrabble farm in Arkansas in the 1940s. Ostensibly, the piece is about old-fashioned home cooking back on the farm, but "Blue Plate Blues" is spun out of "the centrifuge of my memory," as Moore remarks in her introduction to the book, and the story is nothing less than a song of love and pain, comfort and despair, dream and nightmare. "I called her Grammy. This little squat tub of a woman," Moore writes. "She is brutal, powerful and repulsive. She never feeds me a bad meal."

Moore is brilliant at evoking the rhythms of life and work on a family farm; indeed, her narrative rescues a whole way of life--its folkways, its vocabulary, its social rituals and its very consciousness--from the oblivion of progress. She paints an unforgettable portrait of Grammy--an adventurer, a scrapper, "a Nazi of the barnyard"--as a woman who is both scarifying and nurturing, both grotesque and sublime. And "Blue Plate Blues" turns out to be a novella of gritty realism, exquisite beauty and transcendent love.

For all its delights, "The Left Coast of Paradise" is more often tantalizing than satisfying: Grammy is waiting for Judith Moore's novel, and so am I.

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