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Hugging an Imaginary Coast EAST COAST/WEST COAST by Patrick Douglas (Donald I. Fine: $18.95; 418 pp.; 1-55611-098-7)

December 10, 1989|David Rieff | Rieff is a free-lance writer based in New York.

In "Eureka," his jubilant essay on living in Los Angeles, John Gregory Dunne pointed out, not without a certain handsome relish, that people in Los Angeles no longer cared all that much about what was going on back East. Not only had their inferiority complex vanished entirely, but so, becomingly, had their hostility. Whatever people in New York might choose to suppose, no one in Los Angeles took seriously the idea, which, in any case, might as well have come straight out of a B-Western, that America wasn't big enough for both cities to coexist in, much less that California's own success required as its vindictive corollary the economic or cultural collapse of the Boston-to-Washington corridor. "There it was," Dunne wrote, "the canker, the painful sore of reciprocity: Los Angeles was indifferent to New York."

Dunne was writing in 1978, when it already seemed safe to assume, in California any way, that all that tired oppositional thinking would soon be put to rest. The East Coast and the West Coast had never been two states of consciousness in the first place, but rather, as if that weren't enough, two very different areas of the country with all the distinctions as well, of course, as the commonalities, that places 3,000 miles apart with different histories and different economic interests can be expected to have. Unfortunately, it seems that old cliches, like old resentments, die hard.

In "East Coast/West Coast," Patrick Douglas, a free-lance writer from South Carolina, now transplanted to San Francisco, has given them their fullest and most tendentious airing since Woody Allen indulged his New York prejudices on the subject in all their venomous ignorance in his fim, "Annie Hall." Douglas, of course, comes down firmly on the side of California in this pointless contest, but in his vulgarity and simple-mindedness he very much resembles Allen or any of the countless New York pseudo-wits who have had so much fun trashing California.

In Douglas' recapitulation, the East Coast is home of rationality, elitism, and old-fashioned Eurocentrism. "Being older," Douglas writes in his breathy, portentious way, "the East Coast shares Europe's sense of history, of human frailty and human folly." In contrast, Californians are--predictably, since the stereotype hasn't changed since at least the nineteen-twenties--imbued with a receptiveness to the new, a belief in the boundlessness of possibility and the inherent benignity of change, and an affinity for the intuitive and for the mystical. It is surely no accident that Douglas locates the center of this new way of thinking in the northern rather than the southern part of the state, for his is a view of California that might conceivably make sense at an Esalen weekend but has little to do with a morning on the floor of the Pacific Stock Exchange, let alone on any sweatshop floor along Los Angeles Street in the garment center.

Even Douglas' description of life in California is peculiar in the extreme. At one point, he contrasts life on the East and West Coasts and observes that West Coast residents are "like a leisure class that, free from the business of earning a living, is inclined to wonder what it all means." Elsewhere, Douglas asserts that on the East Coast, "a person's life is often largely predetermined--by social class, education, custom and so on. On the West Coast, there are few such constraints. How should a person spend his life? is a question that inevitably arises." Tell that to a high school kid in Compton, or, for that matter, a clerical worker in the Valley. Douglas is so infatuated with his generalizations that he never pauses to ask himself whether they apply or not to real Californians as well as to the idea of California that he entertains so mechanically.

The problem with an essentially metaphoric description of reality of the type that Douglas offers is that it so easily drives thinking into abstraction and pointless speculation. Had Douglas been content to look at the degree to which California's coming of age is changing American politics and American culture, he might have written a useful if scarcely an original book. After all, that theme has been treated well by a number of recent books, notably Joel Kotkin and Yoriko Kishimoto's "The Third Century," as well as regularly in such important magazines as the Los Angeles-based New Perspectives Quarterly.

Douglas is after bigger game. He genuinely believes that California represents a new stage of human consciousness, and, imprisoned in his metaphor, he goes so far as to argue that the difference between the East and West Coasts is analogous to the right brain/left brain dichotomy in neurology. Here, "East Coast/West Coast" goes off the rails entirely, but even before Douglas has run his book aground on the shoals of parapsychology, it is clear that he is more interested in what might be true, or what he would like to be true, than in what he can describe.

California deserves better. There is a real transformation of American culture going on all around us; and if Los Angeles has not necessarily supplanted New York, it has become one of the great capital cities of our increasingly polycentric world. Those are the questions that are worth pondering. That is the California that needs to be confronted by writers and thinkers. What we do not need is the kind of potted history and mystical gobbledygook so perfectly exemplified by "East Coast/West Coast."

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