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ORANGE COUNTY STYLE : Plotting the O.C. novel

October 04, 1987|JACK MILES | Miles is The Times' book editor. and

You can't write a Southern novel without a mansion. A Western novel without a sheriff. A spy novel without a spy. OK, here's a riddle: What can't you write an Orange County novel without?

Wait a minute! you say. Orange County novel? Is there such a thing?

Yes, I say. Or almost. Or, to be mercilessly unbrief, there is beginning to be such a thing because there is beginning to be such a place. Many writers have lived here, but only recently has there been, to borrow from Gertrude Stein's famous quip about Oakland, enough of a there here for a writer to work with.

The late Jessamyn West, probably the finest writer Orange County has so far produced, caught something essential about the predicament of the Orange County writer of a generation ago when she entitled her most ambitious work, a long novel about Orange County during World War I, "South of the Angels." As late as 1960, when that novel was published, many East Coast reviewers understood neither California geography nor the Spanish language well enough to hear "South of Los Angeles" in the title.

The silent presence of Los Angeles in West's Orange County novel--more about it later--is like the silent presence of the city in the names of today's freeways. The San Diego, Santa Ana, San Bernardino, Ventura freeways are all named for the places you reach when you set out from the tacit starting point: Los Angeles.

Similarly, the overwhelming influence of the city complicates the work of any writer who would write from one of the provinces. Of course, if the province is remote enough, the writer may be in luck. Geographic isolation, when complete, forces people together and produces the creative friction that a writer requires.

But if the isolation is moderate, the "provincials" may be like family members who are gathered around the dinner table but looking out the window: no talk, no sparks struck, nothing for the writer to build on. Until recently, Orange County has been just such a place. Now, it is becoming another kind of place.

When there ws less congestion on the country roads, there was also, usually, too little density in the creative forces. Now, both traffic and literature are about to "go critical," as nuclear engineers say.

But let us return to the question: What can't you write an Orange County novel without? My list is short and perhaps strange, but, as I hope to show, quite defensible. You can't write an Orange County novel without one or (preferably) more of the following six ingredients.

1. Religion. God may be dead on Sunset Strip. He is alive on Garden Grove Boulevard. Call this the Crystal Cathedral ingredient.

2. Real estate. I didn't say land , I said real estate . Think of A.B. Guthrie's Big Sky Country or Edna Ferber's Mississippi Valley. A little nature mysticism of that sort goes a long way in a place like Newport Beach. By and large, land here always carries a price tag. Call this the Irvine Ranch ingredient.

3. Immigration . There are old-timers in Orange County just as there are old-timey spots such as downtown Orange or Mission San Juan Capistrano. But more, much more, of the Orange County story is that of newcomers and of what the newcomers are pursuing and/or fleeing. Call this the Green Card ingredient.

4. Paranoia. I didn't say violence or danger or even fear . These occur in Orange County novels as they do in others, but paranoia in the Orange County novel is something different--exaggerated, out-of-control fear become a danger in itself. Call this the Ku Klux Klan ingredient.

5. Escapism . Escapism is paranoia's ever-smiling flip side. In the Orange County novel, escapism is the dream of perfect happiness, cleanliness, universal friendliness and total security. Call this the Disneyland ingredient.

6. Family. Orange County is not singles country. It is not even couples country. It is family country. Family can be the supreme fantasy, but hte best Orange County novels make family the key to and the salvation of all the rest. Call this the Cosby ingredient.

Are there Orange County novels actually cooked up to this recipe? I have a checklist, now at about a dozen entries, but rather than talk of these, I prefer to talk of two forthcoming novels. Without officially reviewing them before publication date, I may nonetheless say that each of these books makes ambitious and colorful use of local settings and culture and is, in the sense just sketched, an Orange County novel.

Next spring, St. Martin's Press will publish T. Jefferson Parker's novel "Little Saigon." Parker's first novel was the well-received mystery "Laguna Heat," now also a made-for-television movie. His new novel opens with a crime that becomes his lens on a variety of highly charged human relationships in the county.

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